Special Reports

Rashid Ghannoushi: The Islamic Face of Tunisia


By  Mir Haseeb Abdullah      
Born in 1941 at El Hamma in southern Tunisia, Rashid Ghannoushi is now one of the world’s leading Islamic thinkers and leaders with a global influence.

 Acknowledging his influence, the TIME magazine described him as one of 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2012 and Foreign Policy magazine named him among top 100 Global Thinkers.

John L. Esposito, the author of The Makers of Contemporary Islam calls Ghannoushii “a major activist-intellectual, a creative reformer who has contributed to issues of Islamic renewal and reform from the relationship of Islam to secularism, democracy, civil society and women’s rights”.

 In a farmer’s house, mother of Ghannoushi was pivotal to his education as she wanted her children to be a part of modern, educated professional community. Ghannoushi studied at the University of Al-Zaituna and went to Egypt to study agriculture. It was after the Tunisian government forced its students to leave Egypt that Ghannoushi joined University of Damascus to study Western philosophy.

 It was here in Syria that Ghannoushi got an opportunity to visit Europe, which to his utter dimay failed to impress him as he observed disillusion everywhere and prosperity and peace nowhere. He started questioning the Western ideologies and was convinced that West was not an alternative.

 Ghannoushi, with a lot of questions in his mind encountered the prominent Islamic reformers and activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, including Allama Muhammed Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, Muhammad Qutb’s Man Between Materialism and Islam and the books of Hasan al-Banna, Maulana Maududi, Sayyid Outb, and Sa’id al-Hawwa, and was convinced about a reasonable alternative to the problems of the Islamic world. Hence, Ghannoushi turned an Islamic activist.

 It was after the humiliating Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 that many, including Ghannoushi, called it a failure of Arab nationalism and socialism as an ideological force and called for the revival of Islamic ideological foundations of the Arab world. Ghannoushi returned to Tunisia and joined the Qur’anic Preservation Society in 1970. He started preaching at secondary schools and mosques, organised conferences and meetings and engaged youth in Islamic discourse.

 It was the time, Ghannoushi would say, “it was difficult to find a young man praying, especially if he was from the so-called educated people…The system had taken the precaution of indoctrinating the youth-the materialistic tendency rendered them useless and servile”. However, he was successful in creating a movement of an apolitical nature meant to associate youth with the Quran. He caused an awakening in the youth through public lectures and mostly through pamphlets critical of West like, What Is the West and those calling to Islam like, Our Path to Civilization.

In 1981, he engaged himself in Islamic Tendency Movement (Hrakat al-Ittijah al-Islami) and later founded the al Nahah Party, so as to play a bigger role in socio-political change in Tunisia and liberate people from the pains and prejudices of the existing system. The movement influenced students and young, middle-class professionals– professors, teachers, engineers, lawyers, scientists, and doctors– and spread through the length and breadth of the country. He established a strong network on the ground through pro-people efforts and social service.  However, the call of Ghannoushi for reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis and the end to the single-party politics and his demand to restore Tunisia’s Arab/Islamic identity brought ripples in Ben Ali’s camp. That led the government to use force to intimidate Ghannoushi’s associates followed by their arrest, torture and harassments. Ghannoushi was imprisoned from 1981 to 1984 and again from 1987 to 1988.

After mass rigging in legislative body elections by the Zine al-Abdine Bin Ali regime, Ghannoushi lived in political exile for two decades, until his return home on 30 January, 2011, after the Tunisian revolution. His party was legalised in February 2011 paving the way for its candidates to enter electoral fray. The Nahdah Party emerged as the clear victor in an election held on October 23, 2011 and won 90 seats in the assembly of 217.

Islamically, the Tunisian al-Nahda finds itself closer to Turkey’s AK Party than to the Afghan Taliban and Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and wants to tread a moderate path to achieve its goals.

Ghannoushi believes in liberty and democracy, and says that justice, public consultation and human rights are both Western and Quranic values and governing principles for all. He calls for no interference in the private affairs of the citizens and propagates that Islam can not be imposed on people by force. Instead, the humanitarian values need to be focused on and people should be free to practise their faith. He would say, “We are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam and we are against the banning of the headscarf in the name of secularism or modernity”.

 Unlike the ideologues in Muslim Brotherhood, he argues that there is no need to use the name of Islam and do things using a particular terminology. Instead, he calls for use of globally accepted language and leave people to the make their own choice on following or not following Islam. He would argue that if Islam is not in the hearts and minds of people and people by choice do not agree to imposition of Sharia law, then drafting constitution in the Islamic terminology can only be counterproductive.

He calls upon Islamic movements to take lessons form the Algerian and Egyptian coup and broaden their minds so as to accommodate the secular, liberal groups and form national unity governments that include all political parties as well as civil society institutions. He dislikes ideological polarisation, religious-secular clash and violence and calls for inclusiveness and partnership between diverse intellectual and political components of society. He believes that the Arab Spring would succeed only if there is a successful transition towards democracy. Instead of a theocratic state, he promotes the idea of a civic state, based on equality between all citizens, regardless of faith, gender or race with guaranteed right to political and social association. He thinks this is an essential strategy to escape an Egypt-like coup in Tunisia.

Ghannoushi believes that everything in the modern West and secular countries elsewhere like India is not evil. There are a lot of values which Muslims need to cultivate, especially in the Arab world. Democracy and freedom are the foremost of them. He wants Tunisia to set an example for the Muslim world in this regard. He trusts the Muslim youth as future of Islam and wants them to deliver on various fronts to bring peace and prosperity filled with freedom and empowerment of people at large.

            He would say: “If God wishes me to become a martyr of the mosques, then let it be. But I tell you that my death will not be in vain, and that from my blood, Islamic flowers will grow.”

The writer is a student of history at the University of Kashmir

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 July 2015 on page no. 13

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