Monday, April 09, 2012

Tunisia: 'We Fought for Freedom, Not Sharia Law'

'We fought for freedom, not Sharia law'

Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's ruling Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, speaks to Al-Asaad Ben Ahmad about Salafis, Sharia and the creation of a new society

Al Ahram Weekly

Tunisia's next parliamentary elections should be held before June 2013, the country's prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, said in an interview published on Wednesday in the Tunisian newspaper La Presse. While head of the constituent assembly Mustafa bin Jaafar, stated that the new Tunisian constitution will be ready before the end of the year and elections should be held by 20 March 2013.

Last week also marked something of a new departure for the country when the Islamist Al-Nahda Movement, to which Jebali belongs, announced that Article 1 of the existing 1959 constitution should be kept unchanged.

The article states that Tunisia's language is Arabic and its religion is Islam, and it does not state that Muslim Sharia law is the source of the country's legal code. As a result, Al-Nahda has put paid to an increasingly acrimonious debate between proponents and opponents of Sharia law in Tunisia, saving the country from further polarisation.

Both announcements, elections timing and reinstating Article I of the constitution as it is, have been positively received by Tunisians, who have been becoming increasingly sceptical about the country's current government and constituent assembly.

It was against this background that Al-Nahda's leader, Rached Ghannouchi, spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the decision.

How would you characterise the present situation of Tunisia, more than one year after the departure of former president Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali and the collapse of his regime?

Despite the obstacles and problems facing the government, I am convinced that the Revolution is pushing ahead and that the country is heading in the right direction. The elections we held last year were recognised by everyone because they were fair and free. Now, for the first time in its history, Tunisia has an elected constituent assembly and an elected government that has been in office for three months. The country is heading in the right direction and is moving towards development.

The revolution had two goals: freedom and development. Freedom has been achieved: the Tunisians have never felt as free in all their history as they do now. Our prisons are no longer full of political prisoners, though there are a handful of people accused of committing acts of violence in the name of Salafism. The media is even working overtime, to the extent that the government itself is beginning to feel persecuted. But no newspaper has been confiscated, and no party or company has been closed down.

Tunisians are exercising their freedom in a way that makes the regime feel threatened at times. It is as if the Tunisians, to use the words of commentator Hicham Jayet, want to prove to themselves that they are really not afraid of power and are now truly free. This is their reaction to the repression of the past 50 years. Things will calm down eventually, and we will see a new equilibrium between the principles of freedom and the requisites of order be established.

We haven't seen any tangible programmes or clear plans put in place by the government, however.

It is true that the economy is depressed and that there is a high level of unemployment. However, this is not the doing of the current government, but is the outcome of problems that have been allowed to accumulate and that got worse in the year following the revolution. Unemployment has grown because of all the strikes and sit-ins. We have experienced an earthquake, and the system has been thrown out of balance. But as things begin to calm down, the wheels of the economy will begin to turn once more.

The government has put together a programme that will be submitted to the constituent assembly next week. This focuses on employment creation and aims to develop vulnerable areas and to encourage tourism, investment, and exports. The country is already witnessing the beginnings of a revival in these fields. The signs regarding investment, and we believe that hundreds of millions will be invested, are good. Both tourism and exports have been improving.

The Al-Nahda Movement won a majority of the vote in the elections, and one of its leading figures, Hamadi Jebali, is now prime minister. How far does Al-Nahda determine the work of the government?

The government is a coalition of three parties, the largest of which is Al-Nahda. Its policy is to hold dialogue and build consensus among the three parties. The economic programme, for example, was submitted to each party separately, and then discussed and amended. Only then was it submitted to the cabinet, which will now present it to the constituent assembly.

The Salafis have embarrassed the government and Al-Nahda lately, causing uncertainty at a critical moment in the country's history. How do you view the situation?

The Tunisian cauldron is still simmering. That is the nature of revolutions. The French Revolution took 100 years to settle down. A revolution is an earthquake, and earthquakes change the topography of the land, meaning that a new map will take time to form. One cannot expect the Tunisian earthquake to reshape the country in a year, two years, or even three years. It may take many years before Tunisia takes on its final shape.

Salafism is part of the melting pot. There is the far right in the country, and there is the far left. There are also elements of the former regime that are trying to hold us back. These people, those whom the revolution sought to unseat, in many cases still hold positions of power in the administration and the media. They have not recognised that times have changed and that they are now part of history. Some of them have not recognised the outcome of the elections, and they would be only too thrilled if the government failed.

The Salafis are part of this scene of confusion in the country. But at the end of the day, the turbulent areas in Tunisia are few. The most vocal elements on the political scene are the Salafi youths and their opposite numbers in the secularist camp. The country as a whole, however, is calm, except perhaps for the five percent who are experiencing some 'seasonal turbulence.' When viewed from abroad, Tunisia presents an appealing image, and we have gained the admiration of the entire world. Tunisia is once again attracting investors, and tourism is coming back. Compare this with the 'stability' of a police state, which is utterly untenable. What we had before was just the stability of prisons and barracks.

Today, Tunisia is no longer a country of prisons or barracks, though we need time and patience to reach a reasonable balance between freedom and the need for calm and order. There are people today who would like to see Al-Nahda lock horns with the Salafis, and there are people who would love to see Al-Nahda fall out with both the Salafis and the secularists. But the Salafis are also the sons of Tunisia, and they should be treated like everyone else. They are entitled to their opinions and they have the right to speak their minds.

Likewise, those who don't share the same ideas have the right to discuss matters with them. Only when someone attempts to impose their opinions by force does the state have to intervene, not because of the ideas, but because of the violence used to promote them. The state reacted severely to those who tried to bring weapons into the country, for example [in the clashes in Bir Ali bin Khalifa].

But these are isolated incidents, and the Salafi scene is mostly one of ideas. Al-Nahda doesn't agree on many counts with the Salafis, but it continues to talk to them. We understand that their ideas are a reaction to the secularist extremism that prevailed in Tunisia under former presidents Bourguiba and Bin Ali. When we launched our own activities in the early 1970s in reaction to Bourguiba's secularist extremism, we were also radicals. But time and the maturity that comes with it have steered us closer to the centre.

We should give the Salafis more time, and it is conceivable that maturity will move them towards the centre, too, as it did us. There were once many far-left groups in Europe that took up arms in the name of Marxism-Leninism and embraced revolutionary violence. But western democracy was able to tame them, and now they sit in the European Parliament as a minority group. This is the role of democracy, which is not just a system of government, but also a form of education. Democracy tames its adversaries. In Egypt, Salafis who engaged in violence in the 1960s and 70s now have their own party and run for office.

All this is a good thing, since participation in the political process forces people to think in relative terms, not in black and white, and not in terms of sin and virtue. Those who seek power have to form alliances and make concessions, all of which is good for the country. It is not a bad thing that the Salafis have entered politics, even if they split the Islamist vote. What matters is that democracy wins, and that the political process attracts all the political players regardless of their beliefs.

Why did you wait so long to decide on the matter of Sharia law and to maintain Article 1 of the 1959 constitution?

We didn't wait. Our programme, for which we sought public endorsement, contains 365 points on the kind of society and the kind of country we wish to create. The first point states that Al-Nahda believes that Tunisia is a free and independent country whose language is Arabic, whose religion is Islam, and whose priority is to achieve the goals of the revolution. This is our stated position.

Our programme did not call for the implementation of Sharia law. We did this on purpose -- not because we don't believe in Sharia, since, like all Islamists, we believe in the whole of Islam, but because the concept of Sharia law is still unclear in the minds of many Tunisians. There are many women and a large part of the elite for whom the meaning of Sharia is ambiguous. However, all Tunisians, and all the political parties, including parties with Marxist background, accept article one of the 1959 constitution, which describes the Tunisian state as one whose religion is Islam.

We are talking about a country that has a religion. Is Sharia something that is extraneous to Islam, or is it a part of it? People were agreed about Islam, but were in two minds about Sharia. Like our brothers in Egypt, we say 'let's stick to what we agree on and forgive each other for our differences.'

If we agree on Islam, then Islam is what we want. But what is the scope of the implementation of Islam? This is something that is debatable and is up to society to decide. What we will implement of the rulings of Islam in different situations, times, and places depends on the manner of interpreting Islam and Sharia in today's world. Certainly, the interpretation of Islam in Tunisia will differ from the interpretation of Islam and Sharia law in Egypt or Afghanistan or Yemen, or in the fourth and fifth centuries of the hijra.

Islam is always the same, but its interpretation is subject to the rule that says 'obey God as much as you can.' Our obligations depend on our abilities, and our abilities are to be determined by those in charge in each country. We talk to our compatriots who agree on the need for Islam, and we hold a dialogue with them. At the end of the day, the democratic institutions will decide on the interpretation of Islam and the scope of its implementation. What we seek is national consensus, since constitutions are built on consensus.

If we hold a referendum on Islam, the entire nation will vote yes, for all Tunisian people are Muslims. But if we have a referendum on Sharia law, we may find that because of the misguided implementation of Sharia in Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, a large section of the population is afraid of Sharia. It would be a terrible thing to ask Tunisians to vote on Sharia, as this would surely divide the country into those for and those against Sharia.

How would we then treat those opposed to Sharia? Would we treat them as infidels even though they say they are Muslims? It is best to hold back until we reach interpretations that are consensual and not based on a majority vote of 51 percent or more. A constitution based on 51 percent of the population alone, or one that gives voice to the majority and ignores the minority, is not going to be respected or cherished.

The Quran states that societies should be ruled through the revelation provided by God. What is your view?

There are many Quranic verses that speak of living by the rulings of God's revelation and the sayings of the Prophet. When someone asks me what Sharia is, I answer that our electoral programme is based on our understanding of Sharia. We need to live by the revelation of God within the realm of possibility.

We believe that the issue of freedom is a basic issue. Al-Nahda ventured into politics not to campaign for Sharia law, but to campaign for freedom. Freedom is part of Sharia to begin with -- as Sheikh Al-Taher bin Ashour has said, freedom is an ideal of Sharia, along with other ideals such as justice. Our entire struggle is in this vein.

We see Islam as a humanistic creed, and we believe that Islam, if presented correctly to people such that they can see its humanity, will be embraced by them. We are a Muslim people, and if we can reveal the truth of Islam, the people will embrace it. The obstacle facing Islam is dictatorship and tyranny, which is why our entire struggle has been one for freedom, since we believe that opening the door to freedom is the same as opening the door to Islam. However, we are not in a hurry. We had to struggle to get a licence as a political party and then to give religious lessons in mosques. Now the mosques are all open to us, and so is society and politics.

Therefore we say to our Salafi brothers, the whole country is open before you. The mosques are open, and the media is open, and you can have schools and invite preachers to your heart's content. So why are you in such a hurry? Why do you want to scare people by saying that you wish to apply Sharia at a time when they may not have fully understood it? 'There is no coercion in religion.' Any implementation and any Islamic practice that is not based on freedom and on personal conviction on the part of the individual is an act of hypocrisy.

God said, 'and we saw the work that they have done and we turned it into scattered dust,' because the work was not based on freedom and the conviction of those engaged in it. We don't want to turn one section of the population from being sinners to being hypocrites. The ousted regime used to ban Islamic dress for women, just as some Arab regimes force Islamic dress on women. We do neither: we support freedom.

Tunisians seem to be busying themselves with superficial matters such as the niqab, the wearing of beards and Islamic punishments. Why?

You are right. We have to address real issues. The Revolution aimed at justice and human dignity and at employment and freedom. We must focus on these goals and not stray into ideological conflicts. We must not split the country into Islamists and modernists, Salafis and anti-Salafis. We must remain a united front in order to achieve the goals of the Revolution in terms of employment, dignity, and freedom. We must promote true Islam, and not just say that Islam is the solution. Now is our moment of truth. We need to address poverty, unemployment, and marginalisation. We need a good healthcare system and a good educational system.

Focussing on appearances is not the answer. I believe that bringing up Sharia now is a manner of focusing on appearances. Some people focus on Sharia in the abstract, and others are afraid and say no to Sharia tout court. It boils down to dogma countering dogma. Instead of this, we should focus on meaning, because God says that worship must be through meaning and not just words.

We should think of the aims of Sharia in terms of achieving justice and dignity. Turning society into warring zones would be counter-productive. However, we can activate well-established Islamic practices such as zakat (alms) and Islamic banks and other economic tools that can help us to revitalise our damaged society. This revitalisation must take place through the achievement of justice. We need to create civil society organisations, charities, schools, modern universities, and a strong infrastructure. This is what Islam and Sharia are all about.

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