Ghannouchi and Separating Religion From Politics
31 May 2016
By Abdulrahman Al-Rashed
Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi is a leading figure in the field of political Islam.
He is one of a few leaders, like the late Sudanese leader Hassan Al-Turabi,
that has a presence and influence that can be used to change the course of
Islamic movements and governments, and save them from themselves in addition
to saving the region from projects to dominate the government.
But there are two different Rachid Ghannouchis, there is one who addresses the
west and then there is another who is the head of the Tunisian Ennahda party.
Coinciding with the tenth conference of the Tunisian Ennahda Movement held
recently, Ghannouchi told the French newspaper Le Monde ''Ennahda is a
political, democratic, and civil party based on Muslim and modern
civilizational values. We are moving towards a party that specialises solely
in political activities…We are leaving political Islam and entering democratic
Islam. We are Muslim democrats who no longer claim political Islam'' We want
religious activity to be completely separate from political activity. This is
very good for politicians because, in this way, they can no longer be accused
of manipulating religion for political ends. And this is very good also for
religion so that it is not a hostage to politics and manipulated by
politicians''. These are great words at a time when such a proposal is needed.
However, we saw the other Ghannouchi when he delivered a speech to the party
on the same day in which he said ''We are surprised by the insistence of some
to remove religion from national life, although the leaders of the national
movement have historically adhered to our Muslim religion.'' This is all very
confusing because he contradicted himself on the same day.
The majority of workers in other parties are also patriotic Tunisians and
Muslims, but Ennahda wants to be presented as a representative of Islam. Here
lies the controversy; Islam is a consistent creed as opposed to politics which
is variable civil work and has been persistently used by figures of authority
who work in the religious field.
The President of Tunisia Beji Caid Essebsi, who delivered a speech in front of
the Ennahda party, said he was reluctant to attend the party's conference due
to the large number of licensed parties in Tunisia (about 204). However, he
singled out Ennahda because the party plays an important role, and he urged it
to transform into a civilian oriented party.
Despite the contradiction, Ghannouchi's remarks to the French newspaper Le
Monde, was greeted enthusiastically by the media and intellectual and
political figures via social media. They considered it a shift that was
intellectually and historically important, and that with this concept the
sheikh would not only lead Tunisia, but also the Islamic world towards
modernising the concept and role of political Islam. If he means what he says,
his statements reflect a progressive ideology that puts him ahead of other
political religious figures. However, I do not really know who to believe; the
Ghannouchi of Le Monde or the Ghannouchi of the Tunisian religious
renaissance. He is not the only one whose speech is contradictory.
What makes so called ''moderate'' leaders deliver contradictory speeches? Is
this a policy of caution? Or are they marketing their personalities and their
parties to the West? Or do they live contradictory lives?
I have had discussions with many of them including Sheikh Rashid, and despite
our differences which went to the British courts, he is a prominent
intellectual figure. He has a renewed proposal and has lived through the era
of many different movements, has learnt from them and impacted them. However,
I think the sheikh is a fox, like all other foxes of politics.
This does not diminish the value of his idea, and I imagine that he means what
he says about his desire to develop the party's Islamic thought by aligning it
with the western and European experience so that those who hold Islamic ideas
engage in political activities and influence it with their religious point of
view whilst also respecting their competitors within the broad democratic
However, a leader's desire to stay in power may obstruct this tolerant thought
because a leader must adopt the view of his party members. This is why we see
Ghannouchi wearing two hats; one hat belongs to the liberal western Islamic
thinker and the other belongs to the Islamist party member who wants to stay
As the head of Ennahda, Ghannouchi is eager to please the party's supporters
and the wider Islamic audience which is mostly against the idea of coexistence
with others and adopts the principle of monopolising governance. This is what
Dr Turabi did in Sudan and what the Muslim Brotherhood Party did in Egypt,
after it rode the wave of democracy and obtained power. It then tried to
dominate and disregarded the rules of democracy, and this allowed others to
use its practices as a pretext for attaining power.
Al Rashed is the general manager of Al -Arabiya television. He is also the
former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al- Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly
magazine, Al Majalla. He is also a senior Columnist in the daily newspapers of
Al Madina and Al Bilad. He is a US post-graduate degree in mass
communications. He has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is
currently based in Dubai.