Islamic Perspectives

Islam & Democracy Can Support Each Other

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Here is the text of the full keynote address delivered by Sheikh Rashid Ghannoushi of Tunisia at the 14th Annual Conference of the Center for The Study of Islam And Democracy in Washington DC on 29 May, 2013. Shaikh Ghannoushi is the founder and president of the Harkat al-Ittijah al-Islami (Islamic Tendendency Movement) in the 1970s which is now renamed as Al-Nahda Party. He is the most important living Islamic ideologue today. He and his colleagues were persecuted, jailed and hanged under the Ben Ali regime. He himself escaped a death sentence under Ben Ali by spending around three decades in exile and returned only after the success of the revolution in Tunisia. His party won majority seats in the elections but he allowed the leader of another party to be elected as president and formed a coalition government although his party could have ruled on its own. Here also he did not accept the post of the prime minister. He is leading from behind, taking all along. This offers an example of how Islamic movements should behave when in power. (Zafarul-Islam Khan)

By Rashid Ghannoushi
Founder and President of the Nahdha Party in Tunisia

In the name of God. Prayers and peace be upon all His Messengers. Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, may God’s peace and blessings be upon you.

I thank the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy for giving me the opportunity to speak to this distinguished elite group of American scholars, experts and policy-makers, as well as those coming from other countries to participate in this important conference.

I would like to briefly address the issue of the democratic transition in Tunisia and the challenges that we are facing. The success of the democratic transition in Tunisia is not important for Tunisia only but for the whole region because it will establish the first country in the region which is both democratic and Muslim. That is why in Tunisia we feel the burden of this responsibility and try our best to make it succeed. Our revolution is not for export, but we hope that a successful model can influence the rest of the region.

Since before the elections, we announced that we will choose to govern through a coalition with other secular parties. We could have formed our government by getting the support of independents but we chose to form a coalition that had the widest degree of support across the political spectrum. We believe that in transitional periods simple majority government isn’t enough. Instead, we need a wide coalition to send a message that the country is for all and not just the majority. We believe that moderate Islamists and moderate secularists can and should work together and that they both should find compromises to build consensus across the spectrum. We have tried hard to avoid ideological polarization because this is recipe for chaos and failure, that is why we have made many concessions whether in government or in the constitution so as to avoid this danger.

We believe in the need for coexistence between secularists and Islamists, in the framework of the Troika with the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties (Attakattul) on the basis of a number of convictions including: First: There is no contradiction between Democracy and Islam. Democracy does not mean that governance should be particularly granted to secularists while considering the Islamists as enemies of the State who should be either imprisoned or exiled. It does not also mean excluding secularists from power and marginalizing their role in authority and in drafting the Constitution simply because they did not get a majority in the elections.

Second: Islamists’ ascent to power does not mean that they will dominate the State, the society, and the revolution because they are the most popular party, as practiced by tyrannical systems. The State’s role is not to impose a certain way of life on the people but it’s role is to provide security and services to its people then let them make their own choices with regards to their way of life.

Third: The conflict between secularists and Islamists, which has continued for decades, wasted enormous energies and helped dictatorships in their control of our countries. Therefore, the alliance between Islamists and secularists is important for the establishment of a democratic and free society able to handle its differences through deep and sincere dialogue.

On the Question of the Constitution: The Constitution is an important document as it limits the government’s and the rulers’ authorities and forces them to abide by law. We have a precedent in Islamic history in the form of what is known as ‘al-Sahifa’ which came at the time of the establishment of the first Islamic state by the Prophet (peace be upon him) in Madinah. This constitution established a pluralistic state that brought together different ethnicities and religions and established citizenship as the basis of rights and responsibilities.

We are happy that over the last few days in Tunisia, the committees of the constituent assembly have finally managed to finish working on the final draft of the constitution. This will hopefully be presented to the  assembly over the next few weeks. The guiding principle for us in this constitution is that it should not just be the constitution of the simple majority but that it should be the constitution of all Tunisians, that all Tunisians can see themselves in this constitution and that they feel that it represents them all, whether in the majority or in the minority. In order to achieve this, we have organized wide consultations with the different political players and with civil society organizations. Through this process, we try to develop a wide consensus around the constitution. However, when we faced serious differences around issues like Sharia, the political system whether presidential or parliamentary, around the freedom of conscience, the universality of human rights, we had to organize a national dialogue between the main parties to reach a consensus, and this lasted for nearly five weeks and ended up in reaching compromises around these different issues, hence we accepted to leave any mention of Shariah in the constitution because this notion wasn’t clear to the Tunisian people. With regards to the political system, although we chose the parliamentary system initially, we ended up in a compromise where we have a mixed system where the executive power is divided between the President and the Prime Minister, We also made compromises by accepting the universality of human rights and the freedom of conscience. Some people within our party accuse the leadership that we have become the party of compromise, but we say that as the largest party we have a greater responsibility to make the necessary compromises to help our country move forward.

We believe that we have now a draft constitution that brings together the values of Islam and combines them with the values of modernity and democracy. This had been the dream of the great reformers since the 19th century and we hope that through ratifying the constitution that we would have realized this dream. The new constitution incorporates all the values of equality, the different freedoms and rights, and the separation of powers.

We hope that once the constitution is approved, the whole country will start preparing for its second elections which we hope will be free and fair and we hope that many of our friends across the world will come to observe and monitor the elections to vouch for its veracity. We hope that all the different parties will be participating. One flower does not make a spring -- that is why this election is very important to prove that the democratic process cannot be reversed.

Now I would like to speak quickly about the challenges that we face. The first challenge is the economic/social one. We all know that this factor was one of the main elements behind the revolution.

We are faced with many problems, the first is that people’s expectations are very high and their patience is very low. Also the economic situation in our main trading partners in Europe is affecting our exports and affecting tourism. Despite these problems the government has managed to reduce unemployment by 2% from 18 to 16%. Also growth went up from -2% when we took over to 3.5% for 2012. The number of tourists had also gone up and we received six million tourists last year.
However, the young people who made the revolution in Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine have not seen any improvement in their lives and this is a challenge that will need many years to tackle.

The second challenge is the security challenge. The revolution has weakened the State and it’s authority. This has given an opportunity to different groups to try to push the boundaries and cross the law. Extremists on both sides, whether on the religious right or on the extreme left, have tried to impose their views with no respect to the law. We tell these groups: do not think for one moment that democracies are weak. Slowly, we are rebuilding the State’s authority but not on the basis of fear as it used to be under the dictatorship, but it will be based on the rule of law.

With regards to the Salafi issue, I would like to stress that this phenomenon is, first, the fruit of the Ben Ali regime and not the fruit of democracy. Secondly, the phenomenon is a complex one, therefore, it needs a complex solution. We see, for example, that this phenomenon exists in the poor areas. Therefore, development needs to be part of the solution. Also we need to know that this phenomenon is diverse and that it’s not all violent. Therefore, we need to push as many of the Salafis away from violence in order to isolate the violent ones and make them a minority. This can be achieved through dialogue and through convincing them that their understanding of Islam is wrong and that they need to work within the law if they want their full rights as citizens.

The third element in the solution is  security. Those who want or try to break the law or to impose their views on others using violence have to be dealt with severely. This is what the government has done over the last year by imprisoning hundreds of those who tried to break the law and regrettably in some instances also killing some of them in violent confrontations.

This security solution, however, needs to be governed with respect for human rights and rule of law and not as in the times of the dictatorship when all rights were disregarded.

The fall of the dictatorial regime in Tunisia was the spark that launched the Arab Spring. There is no doubt that the success of the Tunisian experience will lead to the promotion of this peaceful and democratic path. Tunisia has shown that the Arab Spring is not turning into a Fundamentalist Winter. Today, we can assure you that it will not turn into a fundamentalist “religious” or “secular” winter but into a democratic spring where all have a place.

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2013 on page no. 20

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