10 September 2015

Ghannouchi: Improbable Trajectory

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One of the leading ideologues of the modern Muslim world has a vision of a state where respect for Islam and other faiths exists within a secular system - and he points to the UK as a model. But can his words be taken at face value? One of the leading ideologues of the modern Muslim world has a vision of a state where respect for Islam and other faiths exists within a secular system - and he points to the UK as a model. But can his words be taken at face value? http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-16932923

How does the youngest of ten in a poor, remote Tunisian village, became at age 70 his nation’s most influential politician and thinker in the wake of the revolution that had just toppled its dictator of 24 years? Rached (or Rachid) Ghannouchi’s islamist party Ennahda (or al-Nahda, with the article, “Renaissance”) won the most votes in 2011, ruled in a coalition with a secular party, then in 2013, stepped down so it could play a constructive role in drawing up Tunisia’s Constitution promulgated in 2014 – plainly the most progressive and pluralist constitution in the MENA region (North Africa and the Middle East). Without Ghannouchi, the one success story of the Arab Spring would not have happened (see this March 2015 article for a balanced perspective).

Ghannouchi’s picture at the top is taken from a BBC article taking a little pride in Ghannouchi’s 20-year exile residing on a leafy street in West London. This was a year after he had returned triumphant to his home country and the author celebrates his stay in London:


The green lawns of suburban London appear to have been more than just a base for Mr Ghannouchi. He once famously declared that Britain embodied the values of his ideal Islamic state more than most Muslim-majority nations - a shocking statement at a time when many Muslim ideologues saw the West as a mortal enemy.

"We consider that a state is more Muslim, more Islamic, the more it has justice in it," he says.

"When people asked me why I came to Britain, I explained that I was going to a country ruled by a queen where people are not oppressed and where justice prevails."


Actually, that statement is also in the book of his I’m translating, and this is the second blog out of three I’ll be writing on him. In the first one, I set the stage by giving a brief history of Egyptian and North African Islamic thought in the last century, with a little primer on political Islam (“islamism”). Here I’m answering a question I posed in the first blog relative to the Algerian philosopher, Malek Bennabi, Ghannouchi’s mentor:

How does a secular-leaning Muslim anti-colonial activist become an inspiration to a nascent islamist movement in neighboring Tunisia?


An improbable web of influences

I’ll list them in chronological order with a minimum of commentary:


1. A strong traditional Islamic upbringing: his father was the village imam. He had memorized the Qur’an and expected his boys to do so as well. The extended family cultivated their land and Rached had to quit school for four years till he was 15 to help his ailing father. At 18 he followed his brothers and from 1959-62 attended the oldest Islamic college in the Maghreb (built in 732), al-Zaytuna, in the capital, Tunis. But by then this traditionalist Islam only convinced him it had nothing to contribute to the modern world and he stopped practicing and even believing.


2. An admiration for Nasser’s Arabism: this started during the many evenings he spent with others at his uncle Bashir’s house, an influential man who had fought for independence with Bourguiba (Tunisia’s first president and dictator, 1975-87) and still involved in his ruling party. They would listen to broadcasts from Egypt and talk with great enthusiasm about President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policies. This love for the Arab East (Mashreq, as opposed to Maghreb) is what sent him later to Egypt and then to Syria.


3. A disillusionment with Nasser’s ideology: this happened, starting with his three months in Egypt. He had begun to study agriculture, but an accord was signed between Nasser and Bourguiba and all the “fugitive” (read “anti-Bourguiba”) students were to be repatriated by force. Rached managed to escape to Syria, where he stayed 7 years (1961-68), obtaining a BA in philosophy, among other things. He also spent 7 months in 1965 traveling and working odd jobs in Europe. But he came back mostly shocked at how decadent the youth were there. He was starting to shed his socialist and Arab nationalist ideology and was moving closer to the islamist groups that were springing up at the time (especially after the 1967 humiliating Arab defeat at the hands of Israel). The ringleader of a small group of students like himself, Rached directed them to enter into dialog with several islamist groups. It was with the Muslim Brotherhood, especially, that he realized that their Islam was more authentic (it was “comprehensive,” encompassing all of life including politics) than the Islam he had grown up with.


4. A conversion experience: that gradual attraction to Islam in his mid-twenties culminated with a profound experience in the night of June 15, 1966:


“That night I shed two things off me: secular nationalism and traditional Islam . . . That was the night I was overwhelmed by an immense surge of faith, love, and admiration for this religion to which I pledged my life. On that night I was reborn, my heart was filled with the light of God, and my mind with the determination to review and reflect on all that which I had previously conceived” (in Azzam S. Tamimi’s Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism, p. 22).


5. His Salafi stage: this should be qualified – not technical salafism as we know it today (the ultraconservatives with women completely covered in black and men in white robes half way down from the knees), but as he came to France in 1968 to work on a doctorate in the philosophy of education, he ended up joining a Tabligh community, a very conservative apolitical group started in India in the 1920s, whose members go door to door to get Muslims to practice their faith and follow their particular teachings. For the next few years (remember, his conversion experience was still fresh), he felt pulled in the direction of a very literalistic, ritualistic spirituality. In fact, when word got to his family that he was going door to door in Paris with a long beard, a long white robe and cap, they thought he had gone mad and sent the older brother to Paris to bring him home, under the pretext that his mother was very sick and needed to see him. That was the end of his stay in France, just over a year.


Bennabi’s influence on Ghannouchi

You’re probably wondering, how did Rached Ghannouchi move from this very conservative, apolitical religious practice to an intellectual and politically active one?

First, there was this serendipitous encounter he made at the al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunis on his way back to France. He spotted an unusual sight: a shaykh with a large circle of students around him, mostly children and old people. But there was one young man. Intrigued, he spoke to him and the latter led him to a small Tabligh circle, recently started by a Pakistani man. There he met a law student who would become a life-long friend and collaborator, Abdel Fattah Moro. Then and there Ghannouchi decided to stay in Tunisia.

Second, Ghannouchi soon founded a clandestine organization that grew out of that cell, but with a mission much wider than Tabligh ideas and practice. These were Muslim intellectuals with a bent for political activism and because of the books he had read by Bennabi, he took some of these to Algeria to attend Bennabi’s yearly Annual Islamic Thought Seminars. They attended three years in a row (1970-72), just a years before Bennabi died.

This is what Bennabi loved to do at this stage – inspire and train young leaders. He took these Tunisians under his wing and gave them a vision for what could happen in Tunisia through their concerted efforts. They would sow the seeds of an enlightened Islam that would bring out the best of their heritage from the past, speak out against tyranny, and find solutions to the cultural, economic and political morass now plaguing their nation.

The fruit of that mentorship would be seen in Ghannouchi’s and Moro’s co-founding of the Movement for the Islamic Tendency (MTI) in 1981.

What Bennabi taught them, above all, is the dynamic interchange between faith and reason. Yes, you start with the sacred texts (Qur’an and Sunna) and then you look at your particular context and study the specific cultural, historical, economic and political elements that make up the personality of your nation. Islam is a comprehensive system, but not a cookie-cutter model you impose everywhere willy-nilly. No, God created human beings to build civilizations, inhabiting the earth and shaping human societies in creative and just ways.

I leave you now with two excepts from the book he mostly wrote from prison, which was then reviewed and enlarged after arriving in London, The Public Freedoms of the Islamic State. Just remember this translation is still a draft. My editor, Andrew March, a Political Science professor at Yale, told me that Ghannouchi himself wants to be involved, and possibly his daughter, who is finishing a PhD at the prestigious Sciences Politiques university in Paris.

This is from Chapter 3, “Basic Democratic Principles.” This is a very Bennabian way of dealing with history and civilization. Islamic civilization, though it is superior (because as a Muslim you see it inspired by the last and most authoritative revelation), builds on previous ones, learning from them, developing that knowledge and research, and thereby enriching human collective civilization. That touches on the idea of creation and human trusteeship, a topic I take up next time. But here, a discussion about the historical appearance of the democratic system of governance:


“It wasn’t theoreticians, legal specialists, or political scientists who came up with the democratic system; rather, it evolved out of far-reaching historical developments. Many of its laws derive from political systems that prevailed in the Middle Ages or simply from the common legacy of human civilization, and gradually evolved to become the foundation for the new system that incorporated old elements that agreed with its logic. The development of science had its impact on the growth of production and the advancement of the means of transportation, while Europeans in the course of their pilgrimages to the Holy Land and Crusades came into contact with Muslims, something which upended their social structure and values. A fruit of all of this was the free democratic political system. In fact, the European contact with the Islamic world caused a psychological shock that awakened it from the slumber of feudalism, the stupor of the church’s religion, and the dictatorship of the aristocratic kings” (al-Hurriyat al-‘amma fi-l-dawla al-islamiyya, Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, 1993, pp. 73-4).


You may not agree with the last sentence, because if anything, the Islamic contributions to Western civilizations up till now have been seriously downplayed in our Western educational systems. That’s changing, and it’s at least plausible that because of the Crusades, but especially the commercial and intellectual exchanges with Umayyad Spain from the 8th to the 11th centuries, a good deal more than just mathematics, science and philosophy were passed on from Muslims to Europeans.

Then the same chapter ends with this interesting paragraph. Note that democracy for him is a neutral set of institutional and political mechanisms applicable in a variety of settings and therefore infinitely adaptable:


If the said democratic apparatus had functioned within the framework of Christian values, it would have produced Christian democratic characteristics; if in the framework of a socialist philosophy, it would have produced socialist democratic characteristics; if in the framework of Jewish values, it would have produced a Jewish democracy. So is it impossible for it to function within the framework of Islamic values and produce an Islamic democracy? We support that perspective and see in it a great good, not just for Islam’s umma and those oppressed by tyranny, but for all of humanity. Even an Islamic regime that excludes the democratic apparatus offers no sufficient guarantees. This does not make the Islamic alternative a break with the heritage of contemporary civilization, but rather an extension of it that preserves the best of that heritage and transcends its destructive flaws, since this is the path of development, as it was the work of the Prophet (PBUH) as he fulfilled the work of the prophets before him, may God’s prayers be upon all of them!” (al-Hurriyat al-‘amma, p. 88).