People call him "The Godfather of the new Islamist Middle East." Rachid Ghannouchi, whose Ennahdha party won Tunisia's first free elections last November, does indeed spearhead the post-Arab Spring Middle East. After being imprisoned and forced into exile by President Ben Ali for his Islamist views, Ghannouchi triumphantly returned during the Arab Spring. Tunisia's Islamist government is set to be joined by more; Islamists recently won the Egyptian elections.
But Ghannouchi doesn't like the everyday business of political office, he tells Metro. He has chosen to remain party leader while fellow Ennahdha member Hamadi Jebali serves as prime minister. But Ghannouchi is the country's real power central, "the man who pulls the strings," Tunisians say.
Far from a firebrand preacher, Ghannouchi is a soft-spoken former philosophy professor. He met Metro at Ennahdha's headquarters in Tunis. Staff scurried through the dilapidated building, while hordes of poor Tunisians gathered downstairs, hoping for handouts from Ennahdha.
Islamism was banned during the rule of Ben Ali. Did you expect Tunisians would vote for your party in the elections?
I always expected our party to win the elections once the dictatorship collapsed. We won the majority in the 1989 elections, but the regime falsified the results and decided to eliminate our movement. Nothing can convince me that the people of Tunisia have changed their minds since then.
How will Tunisia change now that the coalition led by your party is in power?
Our government is the result of the revolution. There will be a lot of change, and we'll respond to the needs of Tunisians. Right now, Tunisians want calm more than anything else, and we'll provide that.
How do you foresee the Middle East developing as a result of the Arab Spring?
Of course I'm very proud that Tunisia started the Arab Spring. In one year, we've seen five revolutions, and most of them have succeeded. This wave of revolutions will spread and will influence all Arab and Muslim countries, and even influence the rest of the world. And the Muslim world will be lead by the Islamic movement, specifically the mainstream moderate Islamic parties. These parties are against extremism and terrorism.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party won Egypt's elections. Are they the same kind of Islamists as you?
They're part of the mainstream Islamic movement, and the mainstream is moderate. But each country's Islamic movement has specific elements.
How do you see the situation developing in Egypt?
The Muslim Brotherhood just won the final stage of the parliamentary elections, and I believe the Egyptians will be able to establish true democracy. I'm certain that the army will cede power to a civilian government. Egyptian politics is more complicated than politics in Tunisia, because they have a strong army and large minorities, but I have no doubt that the Egyptian people will once and for all succeed in replacing their dictatorial regime with a democratic one. And I'm convinced that SCAF [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] will voluntarily step down rather than risking bloodshed.
So countries like France and Britain will feel the Arab Spring at home?
Absolutely. The Arab Spring has given people a new understanding of Islam. Before, it was linked with terrorism. Now it's linked with revolution, democracy, human rights and justice.
Did people simply misunderstand Islamism in the past?
I think what the world has discovered is that Islamism goes hand in hand with modernity and human rights. Islam and terrorism are incompatible. In the elections and Tunisia, Morocco and Egypt moderate Islamists won the majority of votes. Still, some people stick to their old views on Islamism. Those views are fueled by the media. Most newspapers and TV stations still spread the idea that Islam is a threat to democracy, human rights and modernity. But in time we'll convince those people as well that Islam is in favor of people's interests.
What's your response to people who see Islamism as a threat?
In Islam all human beings are equal in front of God and in front of the law. Nobody can pretend that he's better than others. During the history of Islamic civilization Muslims have co-existed with Christians and members of other religions. We haven't had any religious wars like the Catholics and Protestants. The Holocaust happened in the West, not in an Islamic state. The conflicts in the history of Islam have been about politics; which party or person will rule? But your religious convictions are up to you. Religious minorities in the Islamic world today have full rights as citizens.
What about religious minorities in Tunisia?
We only have tiny minorities of Christians and Jews. Two months ago, the head of the Jewish minority came to congratulate me on our election victory. Afterwards he told a newspaper that he's not afraid of Ennahdha because we're moderates.
How do you plan to tackle extremism among Muslims?
Extremism and terrorism are a very real threat to Islam and Muslims. Most people killed by Muslim extremists are Muslims! Just consider Iraq, Egypt, Indonesia and Algeria. Being perceived as a religion of extremism is a danger to Islam as well.
But how can you make sure that young men in particular aren't drawn into extremist networks?
Terrorism is the fruit of dictatorships. For example, the seeds of terrorism by Egyptians were sewn Mubarak's prisons. Once democracy is established we won't see these strange phenomena of Islam.
How will you convince those who doubt that Islamists are peaceful?
Through deeds. By being role models. If we succeed in implementing our model, people will see that Islam is compatible with democracy, development and women's rights.
The West supported secular dictators in the Muslim world to make sure Islamists didn't win elections...
It was hypocrisy. Ben Ali and Mubarak ran Mafia regimes. Western leaders acted against the very beliefs they professed to have. By doing so, they trampled on human rights and democracy. I hope the post-Arab Spring will lead to an opening between Islam and the West, based on mutual respect. After we won the election, Western leaders called to congratulate us. Now they have an understanding of what we're trying to do.
Ben Ali supported women's rights, and observers worry that your government may revoke some of those rights, including women's right to divorce. Will you?
My party won't change the rights women have under Tunisian law. Allah, God, created us male and female, and we're equal. In Islam we can't distinguish between people based on gender. Of the 49 female MP's in Tunisia's newly elected Assembly, 42 belong to my party. The majority of Tunisian women accept our views on Islam. They fight for their rights inside Islam, not outside. One of our MP's is a woman who doesn't even wear a headscarf.
One human rights observer told me, "even if Ennahdha wanted to force women to wear headscarves it wouldn't have to, because more and more women are wearing it anyway"...
Scarf, no scarf: it's the woman's choice, just as she decides what she wants to eat and drink. The state doesn't have any reason to intervene.
Previously published in Metro, http://www.metro.lu