Keeping the Onus on Ennahda

Tunisia was the first Arab state to oust an entrenched autocrat, and the first to democratically usher in an Islamic party in his place. The October 2011 vote for the country’s Constituent Assembly gave a 40-percent plurality to the Islamists of Ennahda, with secularist parties far behind with less than 10 percent apiece.

Still, Tunisia is a small, homogeneous state with a relatively stable economy, and a tradition of secularism and women’s rights. It is therefore no surprise then that the country has quickly become the testing ground for those eager to prove the term “moderate Islamists” need not be an oxymoron.

Western media routinely use the term to describe Ennahda and its ideological leader, Rachid al-Ghannouchi. They point to Ghannouchi’s writings—over two decades of exile in Britain—and to the conciliatory positions he has taken since his triumphant return to Tunisia last year. Still, before exalting Ghannouchi with the coveted “moderate” crown, Western media and policymakers ought to take a more careful look at the long, troubling paper trail left by the Ennahda leader and his party cohorts.

In “Moderates or Manipulators?”—a strategic briefing released this week by the Henry Jackson Society, a British think tank—I argue for Western decisionmakers to maintain a healthy skepticism in their dealings with Ennahda. It’s not that the West need dismiss the group’s every word as mere dissimulation—rather, prudent policymaking means keeping the onus squarely on the party to prove it has moved past its extremist origins, and that its newfound “moderation” is more than cosmetic repackaging aimed at winning over skeptics at home and abroad.

Ennahda’s origins lie among the Islamist groups that sprung up on university campuses across the Muslim world in the wake of Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Ghannouchi and his Ennahda cofounders supported that year’s takeover of the US Embassy in Tehran, and in subsequent years its members were blamed for the bombings of four tourist hotels in Tunisia. When President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator of 23 years who was ousted in 2010, banned the movement in 1989, its members attacked the ruling party headquarters, killing one person and throwing acid in the face of a number of others.

Ben Ali jailed or deported the bulk of Ennahda’s leadership, and Ghannouchi subsequently set up shop in London. There he wrote prolifically about “social justice,” women’s rights, and democracy—all of which, he insisted, could be achieved within an Islamic framework—and about implementing Islam in accordance with modern circumstances. In later years he even entertained the possibility of non-Muslim heads of state running Muslim-majority countries, and opposed the forceful revival of the caliphate.

And yet a closer reading of Ghannouchi’s decades-long dossier reveals a worldview often barely distinguishable from that of hard-line Islamists whose dogmatism he supposedly rejects.

In an essay in the 1998 anthology Liberal Islam (published by Oxford University Press), Ghannouchi wrote that the Islamic faith requires its adherents to implement God’s law, and to disavow any man-made legal code. And yet, he warned, abandoning earthly law too quickly could provoke hostility from less-devout Muslims or from non-Muslim countries. “Is there any reason why such groups cannot agree or coordinate with secular groups in ordeal [sic] to isolate the existing oppressive power and establish a secular democracy,” he wrote, “postponing the long-term objective of establishing an Islamic government until circumstances permit? Certainly.”

His objective—Islamic law—is the same as that of Tunisia’s hard-line Salafists; the difference is merely tactical.

Ghannouchi’s oeuvre is also rife with anti-Western rhetoric. “We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam,” he said in 1990 while being hosted by the Islamist government of Sudan, “or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.” The same year, at a conference in Iran, he assured an audience including the leaders of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad that “the greatest danger to civilization, religion, and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.”

Ghannouchi’s writing on Israel is by any measure anti-Semitic. Zionism, he wrote, “spreads octopus-like over the whole planet, embracing and transforming every aspect of existence by means of its economics, communication, arts, and literature … Any attempt to liberate Palestine must, therefore, seek to operate on the same global and all-encompassing level.”

The Ennahda ideologue has explicitly rejected the possibility of Middle East peace, denouncing the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization as “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economic and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.” In the years since, he has steadfastly championed Hamas and expressed confidence the Muslim nation will one day eliminate the Zionist “cancer.”


Since returning to Tunisia early last year, Ghannouchi has deliberately tempered his rhetoric. He disavowed any political ambitions (he remains Ennahda’s ideological leader, but he declined to run for office himself), promised to promote a civil, tolerant society, and opposed propositions to base the country’s new constitution on Islamic sharia law.

But Ennahda has also been keen to workwith Tunisia’s resurgent Salafists, and this delicate two-step—with Salafists on one arm and secularists on the other—is starting to look clumsy.

In May, a court fined a private television station for broadcasting the award-winning animated film Persepolis, determining that it violated Islamic codes in its frank depiction of sex and its portrayal of a white-bearded God. When protesters threatened violence outside the channel’s office (its owner’s house was later firebombed), the head of Ennahda’s political bureau denounced the threats, but also the “provocation” of having aired the film, which he likened to “prostitution.”

In June the Ennahda-led government legalized the Salafist “Islah Front” party, and in July did the same for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a pan-Islamic movement whose express goal is the restoration of the caliphate. In August, Ennahda filed a draft bill to the Constituent Assembly that would criminalize “blasphemy” by two years in prison, and four for repeat offenders.

Early in his term, US President Barack Obama made improving ties with the Muslim world one of his signature foreign policy objectives, a goal exemplified by his landmark Cairo address. A search for “moderate Islamists”—whether in the form of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan or Tunisia’s Ghannouchi—appears a central pillar of that policy.

“I found in Washington a great optimism about the Arab Spring, especially in Tunisia,” Ghannouchi told Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch last year. “The official positions by President Obama, by Secretary of State Clinton, and the ambassadors in the region in general are positive.”

In March, the Obama administration announced a $100-million grant for Tunisia, and $400 million in loan guarantees to help see through its democratic transition. The funds were provided no-strings-attached. In my report, I argue they should have been conditioned on the Ennahda-led government upholding basic democratic principles like a free press, independent judiciary, and the protection of women’s rights.

As Islamists take the wheel of what was long the most liberal Arab state, Western decisionmakers must retain their common sense. Their advice to Ennahda should be like that of a writing teacher: Show, don’t tell. Ultimately it’s what Ennahda does, and not what it promises to do, that matters.

The burden of proof must be kept on Ennahda to demonstrate it differs from Tunisia’s most dogmatic zealots on more than tactics. Judicious policymaking requires that Ennahda’s efforts to seize the “moderate” mantle be met with circumspection and caution.

Oren Kessler is a Tel Aviv–based journalist and nonresident associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. He was previously the Middle East affairs correspondent for the Jerusalem Post.


Photo Credit: Ennahda

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