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A Tunisian Islamist Looks to the Future

5:05 PM, Dec 1, 2011 • By LEE SMITH
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Earlier in the week Israel Hayom reported that the new Tunisian constitution may include “a section condemning Zionism and ruling out any friendly ties with Israel.” Yesterday Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of al-Nahda (Revival), the main Islamist party that won more than 40 percent of the seats in Tunisia’s parliamentary elections two weeks ago, disputed the report. “I don’t think this clause will be included in the constitution,” said Ghannouchi.

Rached Ghannouchi

His aides clarified that the condemnation of Zionism was in a document between the leading parties. As for the constitution itself, Ghannouchi continued, “I don’t think it should be included.” There’s no reason, he explained, to outline policies about a situation in flux like the Arab-Israeli crisis. “The only country that should be named in the constitution,” said Ghannouchi, “is Tunisia.”

Ghannouchi’s comments came during the course of an hour-long meeting at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Wednesday morning. The 70-year-old intellectual and activist is making the rounds this week in Washington, D.C., to give policymakers, researchers, and journalists a preview of what’s in store for post-Arab Spring Tunisia and the rest of the region.

Often described as the very model of the moderate Islamist, Ghannouchi spoke of women’s rights, democratic principles, and freedom of speech in the new Tunisia. Regarding freedom of religion, he seems to have surprised most of the dozen or so assembled scholars and analysts when he offered his opinion that people “are free to quit any religion, or change their religion.”

Leaving, or reverting from, Islam is typically considered apostasy and many schools of jurisprudence contend that the act is punishable by death. In countries like Egypt with a large Christian population—Tunisia is almost exclusively Sunni Muslim—charges of apostasy have frequently been at the center of Muslim-Christian conflict. How much weight his interpretation carries is unclear. For instance, Ghannouchi’s patron, head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars Yussuf al-Qaradawi, seems to have a much more traditional understanding of apostasy.

Ghannouchi lived in exile in London for 20 years before returning to Tunisia in the wake of the uprising that deposed President Zein Abdine Ben Ali. After the Tunisian Islamist thanked the “martyrs of the revolution” for making this trip to the United States possible, Washington Institute executive director Robert Satloff reminded Ghannouchi why he had been denied a visa for so long. Among other things, he’d threatened attacks against the United States for its 1991 war against Saddam Hussein. Ghannouchi supported Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait—a political position at odds with a reputation now bolstered by his opposition to despotic, and secular, Arab republics. Avoiding altogether the subject of Saddam, he explained that his ideas had developed and he disagreed with Ayatollah Khomeini’s idea that America was the Great Satan. “The United States is a nation that makes decisions,” said Ghannouchi, “some of them good, and some of them bad.”

He had relatively kind words for America. The U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks were evidence, said Ghannouchi, that the United States was “slightly better” than France in so far as they were concerned with Ben Ali’s human rights abuses. He sees “the position of the U.S. on the Arab revolutions as very positive,” said Ghannouchi, “It provides a new basis on the ruins of what the extremists have wanted to destroy through war.”

Nonetheless, Ghannouchi says, “bin Laden was right.” “The regimes can’t be changed from within, but he didn’t see they could be changed peacefully,” said Ghannouchi. “This is our contribution,” he said of Tunisia, where the winds of the Arab revolts first picked up almost a year ago now. “It’s our patent,” said Ghannouchi, “and Tunisians are very proud of it.”

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