Tunisian Leader Comes to Washington, Preaches Moderate Political Islam
Tunisia’s Ennhada Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi (left) during a visit to Algeria on Nov. 20. Photo by Farouk Batiche/AFP/Getty Images.
Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Tunisian Ennhada Party which captured the majority of that country’s parliamentary seats in a recent election, wants to convince Westerners that the Tunisian brand of political Islam is as non-threatening as kittens frolicking with balls of yarn.
“Tunisian Islam is very moderate Islam,” he told a small group of Mideast analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Thursday.
Ghannouchi is in Washington, D.C., this week making the rounds with U.S. foreign policy wonks (he also spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center Friday morning and was at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Wednesday), spreading a message of Tunisian liberalism based on the spirit, if not the letter, of Islamic teachings.
“People think that Islam is (only about) how we punish people,” he said. “The problem is not how we punish people, but how we avoid crime. … In our program you don’t find verses of the Koran, Hadith or (quotes from) the Prophet, but you find the goals of Islam.”
Ghannouchi also said that he hopes to partner with secular-liberal parties in the coming weeks to form a governing coalition and “prove that Islam can work with moderate secularism.”
Indeed, Ghannouchi has been preaching this message of pluralistic, democratic Islam for some time (more than three decades according to Anthony Shadid in this New York Times piece from October). But comments attributed to Ghannouchi regarding Israel show that Tunis and Tel Aviv won’t soon become sister cities if he has anything to say about it.
Earlier this year, Ghannouchi told this Arabic-language publication that the elimination of Israel could come as soon as the year 2027 or even before that time. This seems to also be of-a-piece with Ghannouchi’s long-held views.
According to this Middle East Media Research Institute translation, Ghannouchi blessed the mothers of Palestinian suicide bombers back in 2001, telling Al Jazeera that “The Palestinian woman, mother of the Shahids [martyrs], is a martyr herself, and she has created a new model of woman.”
“We will focus our efforts on Tunisia,” Ghannouchi said when asked about his Israel comments.
The new Tunisian government has more than enough problems at home to keep it busy, like its 1 million unemployed citizens, according to the Ennhada leader.
The victories of Islamist parties from Morocco to Egypt in the past few weeks have officials and analysts scrambling to figure out what kind of leadership is emerging after the Arab Spring.
Ghannouchi, for his part, wants to reassure Americans and Europeans, saying that power will have a moderating influence on Islamists. He said that Salafists, an even more fundamentalist group, should be encouraged to engage in politics, because they will have to deal with “reality not the ideals” that they aspire to.
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