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Tunisia: Moderate Political Islam Eschews Violence

By Thomas Riggins

24 February, 2012

The world of journalism and that of the broader reading public suffered a major loss last week with the death of Anthony Shadid in Syria. Shadid one of the most daring, and daringly honest, journalists in the world succumbed to an asthma attack at the age of 43 last Thursday while on assignment for the New York Times. Before he died he sent this story ["Exile Over, Tunisian Sets Task: Building a Democracy"] which appeared in the NYT 2-18-2012 two days after his death. It is important to discuss and evaluate the story as it reveals the complexity of modern political Islam and upends many current false and bigoted notions being spread in the US and Europe.

The story revolves around the return to Tunis of Said Ferjani, a self educated Islamic politician, who lived in the U.K. for 22 years and is a member of the Ennanah Party -- an Islamic political party that won the recent elections in Tunisia after the overthrow of the dictatorial former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011.

Ferjani sees the task of his party as building a society both democratic and Islamic. "This is our test," he said. The test, of course, is to see if it is truly possible to create a modern democratic society, even a bourgeois democracy, based on Islamic rather than than secular foundations. Shadid pointed out that the Islamists of Ferjani's generation (and the Ennanah Party ) are the spiritual descendants of the movements spawned under the aegis of the Muslim Brotherhood- a society founded in 1928 in Egypt by Hassan al-Banne who was inspired both by European fascist movements and the desire to impose Sharia law.

Many Arab secularists and political liberals doubt that so-called "moderate" political Islam, such as is represented by the Ennanah Party, can, given its roots in fascism and Sharia, actually lead the way to a real representative democracy. We shall see, in the course of this article, if their fears are warranted or not.

"I can tell you one thing," Ferjani is quoted as saying, "we now have a golden opportunity. And in this golden opportunity, I'm not interested in control. I'm interested delivering the best charismatic system, a charismatic democratic system. This is my dream." It is strange for a Sunni to be using the term "charismatic" as this is a term usually associated with the Shia tradition and a "charismatic" and mystical element that can be found in leaders; it is also associated with fascist ideology.

As a young teenager Ferjani came under the influence his school teacher, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who went on to become a political activist and the founder of the Ennahda Party. The questions that were discussed by Ghannouchi centered around the theme of Muslim backwardness. Ferjani remembers his teacher asking "What makes us backwards? Is it our destiny to be so?"

At this time these questions were being answered by the Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hassan al-Banna whose ideas had spread beyond Egypt to other Arab countries including Tunisia. Banna was a pan-Arabist and anti-imperialist who build the Brotherhood he founded in 1928 from a small group to a large international organization of 500,000 members. He was assassinated in 1949 at the age of 42 because he opposed violence and denounced terrorism as a way for Muslims to fight imperialism and to further democratic rights.

After Banna's death Sayyid Qutb rose to prominence in the leadership of the Brotherhood. Originally a man with secular values that did not conflict with Islam he became a radical jihadist in theory after a sojourn in the US (1948-50 he was turned off by the "immodesty" of the women and he hated jazz) and rejecting the secular government in Egypt that resulted from the overthrow of the monarchy (which he approved) by Nasser, who later executed him as a terrorist-- although he had only advocated it not engaged in it personally.

Qutb's faction of the Brotherhood advocates offensive jihad, violence, and eventual world conquest by militant Islam and the universal imposition of Sharia law. World conquest has never worked out for the those who advocate it and Qutb's version of radical Islam, which was very influential in the ideology of bin Ladin and al-Queda, is a minority viewpoint within the Sunni branch of Islam where it originated (although past and current US policy in the Middle East is making it more popular day by day.)

Despite its rejection by the majority of Muslims it is almost the only version of Islam that the American public is exposed to from the preachings of right wing fundamentalists calling themselves "Christians", the screechings of talking lunkheads on Fox TV, to the frothy mixture of political opportunism and misinformation bandied about by Rick Santorum and other Republican presidential wannabes.

Over in Tunisia, Ghannouchi and his followers did not adopt Qutb's extremism and instead argued for an Islam compatible with pluralism and democratic values (a move away from fascism). This did not stop their falling victims to political oppression and in some cases imprisonment, torture and exile. In the late 1980s Ferjani found himself in jail, tortured, and finally forced to flee into exile in London.

London in the 1990s was a hot bed of Islamic thought. Ghannouchi followed Ferjani and there were Muslim exiles from all the Arab countries and of all stripes and Islamic positions. There was also exposure to Western values and ideas. Here was no Chinese wall between western and eastern ideals. Ferjani told Shadid that while all the different exiles were mixing it up they did not all agree. "We know each other. But knowing is one thing, doing things together in every sense--- as many may think--- is another. In politics, its not that we all agree." The moral here, I think, is that any attempt to paint political Islam with broad strokes as some kind of monolithic movement threatening the West at every turn, is a gross error.

The NYT report makes an important point, often overlooked by other Western media and especially by conservatives in the US-- including the Republican party leaders whose grip on reality is questionable to say the least. The idea of a unified and radically violent political Islam grew out of three sources in the 90s and early 2000s. These were the revolt in Egypt by radical islamists, the the civil war in Algeria, and the rise of Bin Laden. And, the Times points out, Bin Laden's distorted "Manichaean" world view was the mirror image of "the most vitriolic statements of the Bush administration."

To place al-Queda and the Bush administration on the same level of ideological putrescence took a lot of courage. This should tell us what is at stake in the 2012 elections. The Republican Party is the standard bearer of Bush's ideological putrescence and lack of understanding of the world as it really is. For this crypto-fascistic party to take control of the US would be a disaster for the American people and the world taking us down the road to more wars and inviting the growth of radical anti-Western sentiments at the expense of more moderate outlooks. It would be especially disastrous to working people here and abroad whose class interests would be sacrificed for the illusory well being of what has come to be called the 1%.

This article also makes the case for a real moderate Islamic political trend such as the one now heading the governing alliance in Tunisia and led by Ghannouchi who favors democracy and maintains that majority rule is not anti-Islamic as the radicals claim. He also wants more participation by women in the political process and in the Parliament-- a very different position from what we see in Saudi Arabia and the Taliban (although the King in S.A. has recently allowed women to participate in municipal elections; but no car driving). "Frankly," Ferjani told the NYT, "the guy who brought democracy into the Islamic movement is Ghannouchi." As for resorting to violence, Ghannouchi has publicly said that "Rulers benefit from violence more than their opponents do."

Ghannouchi, and many others, have evolved away from the rigid stances of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood itself has undergone changes and while many of its positions such as the subordination and separate education of women, since their natures are unlike those of men (this is a little analogous to the Southern Baptist position on women but the Baptists allow for co-education), are unacceptable to progressives, and it now says it is against violence and supports political democracy. However, the Brotherhood is an international muti-tendency organization and still has many militant radical fundamentalists within some of its chapters.

The Brotherhood's old motto, still in use, "hearing and obeying" is increasing being rejected by the new generation of Islamists. "That's over," Tariq Ramadan said (best remembered by Americans as the Islamic scholar barred from visiting the US by the second Bush administration and thus prevented from teaching at that hot bed of radical Islamic thinking Notre Dame University). "The new generation is saying if it's going to be this, then we're leaving. You have a new understanding and a new energy." Ramadan pointed out that this has a lot to do with the contact of the Islamic exiles with Western thought and ideals. The ideology of Islamists is "not just coming from the Middle East anymore. It's coming from North African countries and from the West. These are new visions and there are new ways of understanding. Now they are bringing these thoughts back to the Middle East." Ferjani, for example, who left Tunisia an anti-Leftist, returned from London a believer in the economic theories of Karl Marx and a critic of capitalism; views not usually associated with Islamic politics. "Exile," he remarked, "changed me a lot, profoundly."

Well, we shall see what the results of the Constituent Assembly are with respect to writing a new constitution for Tunisia. The October election won by Ennahna allows this party to have a major influence now in running the country and in composing the constitution. It is actually ruling in a coalition with two other parties, a center left secular party and a "populist" party set up by a wealthy businessman with alleged ties to the ousted president Ben Ali. Of the 217 people elected three are members of the Tunisian Communist Workers Party so Marxism will be represented in a small way at least. If a real democratic constitution is drawn up it should put to rest the anti-Islamic hysteria in Europe and the US. Time will tell.

Thomas Riggins is the associate editor of Political Affairs and also writes for the People's World-- both online.


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