Tunisia's Ennahda Movement leader Ghannouchi: Muslim world can incorporate modernity without negating religion

HILAL KAPLAN @hilal_kaplan
Published 01.01.2018 00:00
Ghannouchi L and Daily Sabah's Hilal Kaplan
Ghannouchi (L) and Daily Sabah's Hilal Kaplan

The Muslim world should overcome the danger of clashing between Western values and their religion by incorporating the advancements in modern life into their lives without neglecting the religious values

In an exclusive interview with Daily Sabah on issues concerning the Muslim world and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region), the co-founder of Tunisia's Ennahda Movement, Rashed al-Ghannushi, has said the Islamic world today should be able to adjust to the dynamics of modernity, and that this adjustment does not mean that they ignore their religious values.

Ghannouchi said although colonialism has left most formerly colonized countries, there is now a new form of imperialism imposed on the people at the economic, security and cultural levels. Moreover, he argues that with the diminished power of bipolarity and emergence of new influential players in world politics, oppression through means of colonialism will be limited.

Commenting on U.S. President Donald Trump's recent decision on Jerusalem, he said the White House's move was an act in violation of international law and a provocation against the Muslim world. He also said that Tunisia has entered a new phase of democratization after the successful revolution in 2011, at the forefront of the Arab Spring, and that this phase is continuing to positively shape Tunisia, despite some attempts to limit the transition.

Daily Sabah: There are, on the one hand, those who defend such an Islamic resistance as to negate and reject the modern world entirely, and they accuse those who say that it is impossible to negate and reject the modern world entirely and thus underline the necessity of negotiating and debating it, of surrendering to the modern world, of assimilating into modernity. What would you say to this?

Rachid Ghannouchi: This debate began in the 19th century when the discussion within the Muslim world when they discovered that the competing civilization had progressed toward modernity and had developed their means of production, weaponry and technology. This made them pose the question why the other civilization had advanced while they had regressed. One of the several answers in the Muslim world was that we cannot advance ourselves unless we adopt the same lifestyle and become like Westerners. The other view was that we reject all of this because our religion prohibits actually taking habits from other civilizations. And the solution proposed by the Islamic reformist movement was not to accept everything and not to reject everything, but rather to take what we need from other civilizations, while at the same time preserving our religion and our identity. So, this is the answer that we adopted. That we maintained an independent identity of our own. For instance, Hayreddin Pasha, who was the beylerbeyi of Tunisia then and also the grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire, developed the idea that our religion enables us to take anything that is good if it is not in contradiction with our values. For example, in the case of women, the debate was whether women should remain at home or whether they should go out, live and act just like Europeans. The solution that the Islamic movement proposed was that women should be able to go out and work, but at the same time preserve their identity and balance their different roles and responsibilities. For example, today Muslim women are working, are present in the public sphere, but they adopt the Islamic dress code, which expresses this balance, this marriage between their new role within the public sphere as well as their religious identity.

DS: Secularism also continues to be a hot topic of debate within the Islamic world. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan argued that secularism was the correct approach to government back in 2011 in Egypt, and it caused huge controversy, as you might remember. Where do you stand with regard to this?

R.G.: Secularism is a concept of many possible meanings and it has many models and implementations even in the West. For example, you have the British model, on the one hand, and the French model on the other, which are very different. We accept the modern state as the expression of the popular will – it is not an expression or translation of the divine will. And we accept also the concept of citizenship, which regulates the relations between citizens and the state and also among citizens themselves. Equal citizenship for everyone regardless of their religious affiliation. So, the relationship between the state and citizens can take different forms. In the case of the U.K., for example, the state can best be defined as neutral toward all religions. It protects all religions and cooperates with them. And at the same time, the queen is both head of the church and the head of state. In France, there is a very different model, which is laicite, in which the state combats and restricts religion. Secularism in Turkey and Tunisia are influenced by French laicite. The French state sees it as its mission to actively defend secularism, which gives it the right to intervene even in private affairs. This is also the debate where the ban on headscarves came from where you don't have a similar debate in the U.K. This ban was applies both in Tunisia and Turkey because their secularism was influenced by the French model. We believe that there should be an understanding of independence and cooperation between religious institutions and the state. On one hand, the state should not dominate religion, and on the other, religious leaders don't have the right to control the state. In Tunisia, we don't have a religious council that supervises the decisions of parliament. Parliament makes its decisions representative of the popular will. Under the Tunisian constitution, the state is not secular unless by secularism we mean freedom of conscious, freedom of thought and freedom of belief, and we believe Islam is totally compatible with all these freedoms. Tunisia is a civil state based on the popular will expressed through free and fair elections.

DS: In Sudan and Chad, Erdoğan gave speeches that are very critical of colonialism and colonialist practices. For example, on his visit to Sudan, he even said that "an imperialist who senses the smell of oil is way more dangerous than a shark that senses the smell of blood." It is claimed that we are going through a phase of de-colonization in formerly colonized states, but when we look at former colonized states, we can see that despite all the de-colonization efforts, colonialism persists as a reality to be addressed. What do you think, especially as one of the prominent political leaders in Tunisia, which is a former French colony?

All African and Asian countries managed to kick out colonialism and free themselves. The only official colonial entity that exists is Israel. Independence was won through a difficult struggle that made the cost of imperialism bigger than the benefits, which forced the colonial powers to leave these countries. However, this independence is only formal. We have independence flags and national sovereignty, but in fact, economy, culture and international relations are still very much tied to important centers in the world. For example, countries in which Britain was an imperial power, still have the strongest ties with Britain. It is the same with France. They first established the Commonwealth to organize these relationships and the second Francophone countries. Today, we have a new existing form of imperialism that is expressed more at the economic, security and cultural levels. But I believe we are heading toward a more multipolar world where there is more diversity, more centers of power and influence, because the world is bigger than just Europe and the United States. Today, power centers are rising such as Turkey, Brazil, India, China, Indonesia and Iran.

DS: It is said that the region is going through a post-Arab Spring period and now post-Daesh situation. Changes are happening very rapidly, alliances are formed and transformed within weeks. How do you interpret the current situation in the Middle East and do you have any suggestions and predictions for the times we are in?

In 2011, Tunisia entered a new era of freedom. This candle is now lighting the whole Arab world, which had been living outside history, because without freedom, a country cannot create or make history for many decades due to being under tyranny and oppression. So the Tunisian Revolution ushered in a new era of democratic transition, and with the success of the Arab Spring, the possibility to join the rest of the world in being able to make history emerged. These waves of changes moved from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen and so on. Of course it met with counterrevolution. Now there is a struggle taking place in different ways between the revolution for freedom and the counterrevolution. Now at this moment, it may seem that the counterrevolution is advancing, but the forces of freedom are too strong. As we can see from the plots against Turkey to punish it for standing side by side with the revolutions have failed. And attempts to draw Tunisia into conflict and war have also failed. Tunisia is showing that it is possible to have democracy in the Arab world and that it is possible to have democracy in Islam, and that Islamists and secularists can cooperate and they can co-exist. So, transition is still underway. If we look at the history of revolutions, it shows us that declaring a revolution does not mean that it is going to succeed, and bringing down a dictator does not mean building a democracy is successfully. France took 70 years to complete its democratic transition.

DS: What were you doing on the night of the failed coup attempt in Turkey? How did you find out and react?

I was sitting in this room with a number of colleagues and the news came to us as a shock. I immediately contacted one of the president's advisers, but he was not near the president at the time. I advised him that the only way was to go to the streets. It was really a historic night. God be praised, it ended well and we saw young, old, women, men defending their country in the face of tanks and planes. It really showed us that freedom has its defenders and that people who once lived under freedom will not accept to go back to the ages of tyranny.

DS: When there is disagreement or turmoil between Turkey and some countries, the Ottoman past usually comes up, as in the last case of dispute that started with the Emirati foreign minister insulting Fahreddin Pasha, who defended Medina against British forces. What is your interpretation of Ottoman rule and its being recalled again and again in different contexts?

Tunisians have a very positive and beautiful memory of the Ottomans who arrived in the mid-16th century in Tunisia, and another time when Tunisia was under Spanish rule and they had tried to convert the local people to Christianity. They had even taken and used the Zaytuna Mosque as a stable for their horses, which you know is one of the oldest mosques and oldest universities in the world. The Ottoman army came under the command of Sinan Pasha and they managed to push out the Spanish who had destroyed Andalusia and pushed Muslims out of their homes there. Ottomans returned Tunisia to Islam. Sinan Pasha is also the name of a big road in Tunis, as well. So the image of Ottomans is linked to this past of freeing Tunisia and restoring its independence and to its roots. When I went to Istanbul, I looked for Sinan Pasha's grave, and when I found it, I cried because I felt that if it were not for this man, I would not be a Muslim today.

DS: President Trump declared Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and Erdoğan immediately took initiative and called the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation for an emergency meeting. He also took initiative for the U.N. Security Council and General Assembly afterward. How do you see Turkey's role in this and for the future of the Muslim world?

What the U.S. president did was clear aggression against 1.5 billion Muslims and aggression against international law. By this act, he gave something that he did not possess to those who do not deserve it. He does not own Palestine for him to give it to Zionists. Palestine has a people and it is a center of history and civilization and Al-Aqsa is considered sacred by 1.5 billion Muslims. So what President Erdoğan did was the least that should be done by every president who believes in the Quran. I agree with what President Erdoğan said, that "If we lose Jerusalem today, we will lose Mecca tomorrow." So, what he did by inviting Muslim leaders to meet was absolutely necessary. God has given this ummah many resources and capacities with which it can defend itself, but unfortunately, what it lacks is leadership, unity and strategic planning. What President Erdoğan did was what the leaders of the Arab League should have done. Some of its leaders who had been called to the meeting did not even attend, and this is a clear sign of treachery and a big failure. Palestinians are defending their land and they are staying there, but they need our support and they need our messages of assistance. So what President Erdoğan did was an important message to those in Al-Aqsa that the ummah is with you and the great nation of Turkey is with you.

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