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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Arab World: Distancing Religion from Politics?

Filed under: Egypt, Radical Islam, The Middle East

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party Ennahda since its inception and its president, dropped a bombshell at the party’s general assembly in May. Henceforth, Ennahda would no longer be defined as a “traditional Islamic group” but as a “national civil party.”

Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi
Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi

Seventy-five percent of the delegates approved the change, and a similar proportion reelected Ghannouchi for another term at the helm. He pledged to steer the party to moderation and the middle way.

In his opening speech, he claimed that from the very beginning the party had striven to move forward with the times and with developments in Tunisia. Ennahda is aware of the country’s advances in the fields of women’s rights, health and education, and will further those advances in accordance with the needs of the people and the constitution.

He stressed that separating the political dimension from religious activity is not a matter of opportunism or of yielding to pressure but the crowning measure of historical processes, adding: “We want to distance religion from political battles and conflicts, and we call on the mosques to remain completely neutral so that they can be a unifying and not a divisive factor.”

Foreign media praised a decision seen as further proof of what they called “the moderate nature” of Ennahda.

However, there should be no misunderstanding.

Ghannouchi is not interested in amending radical trends in Islam, which are not in keeping with modern times and have prevented the development of Islamic countries. These trends are at the core of Islam and continue to inspire extremism. They brought about murderous organizations such as al-Qaida, the Taliban, Boko Haram, Islamic State and a host of smaller groups, which have retarded the development of Arab and Islamic countries as well as the security and the economy of the world at large.

Nor did he call for a legal separation of religion and state, as was done in European countries in the beginning of the last century.

It appears that the Tunisian leader is desperately looking for a way out that would help his party, without having to deal with the very principles of Islam he fought all his life to impose.

Islam is inherently a total religion encompassing all aspects of personal, social, economic and political life – from the manner in which the faithful have to wash themselves to the conduct of the state. Islam is both religion and state on the basis of the Koran and the Sunna (teachings of the prophets), which constitute the Shari’a (Islamic law) and have remained unchanged since the 11th century. They derive from Prophet Muhammad, who was not only a religious and political leader but a military leader as well, and who embodied the virtues that the faithful strive to emulate. He imposed Islam on Arab tribes, created the first Islamic state and deployed his armies to conquer and forcibly convert the Middle East to Islam. He died prematurely, and his heirs continued his mission.

A change in Egypt?

The only current leader who has shown himself ready to tackle this complex issue today is the Egyptian president. In a dramatic address at Al-Azhar University to his country’s religious leadership on the occasion of the birthday of the prophet, on January 1, 2015, Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi boldly asserted that there are radical elements in Islam that are no longer in keeping with modern times, elements that had turned Muslims into “a source of pain, danger, murder and destruction” in the eyes of the world.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (El-Sisi Campaign)
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi
(Al-Sisi Campaign)

Therefore, he said, “We are in need of a religious revolution, and you, men of religion, are responsible to Allah. The whole world is waiting for you to act because the Arab nation is being torn into pieces and being destroyed by no others but us.”

He emphasized that it is up to Al-Azhar to initiate a reform that would permit a dialogue and ease the Arab nation into modern times.

But Ghannouchi is not Sisi, and given his personal history and his lifelong fight to impose Islam on Tunisia, he won’t be the one to turn his back on political Islam. He comes from a religious family and knows the Koran by heart. As a student, he read the writings of Hassan al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb and others who preached for a return to the values of Islam and the restoration of the caliphate. He became imbued with radical Islamic trends that were at the basis of the creation of the Muslim Brotherhood and, later, other extremist movements. In 1972, Ghannouchi founded an Islamic movement that fought to implement Islamic values. It became an Islamic political party in 1981, and in 1989 morphed into Ennahda in the spirit of the Muslim Brothers.

The man and the party not only promoted and preached their views, they often resorted to violent activities. Then-president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali arrested tens of thousands of party members and closed down their newspaper. Ghannouchi chose to leave the country and settled in London, from which he continued to be active in the world movement of the Muslim Brotherhood until he came back home in the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising of 2011, which brought Ben Ali’s downfall.

Surfing on the Islamic wave that flooded Arab states after the so-called Arab Spring and brought victory to the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and in Morocco, Ennahda scored 29 percent of the vote in the first election following the revolution. It seemed as if Arabs believed that Islam, always an important part of their identity, would indeed put an end to corruption and dictatorships.

Ghannouchi had pledged not to be a candidate for the presidency, and a liberal president was elected, while Ennahda, being the largest party, formed a coalition government led by its secretary-general, Hamdi Gebali.

However, Salafi movements, left out, were vocal in their demands for more and more Islamic rules and resorted to violence. In the ensuing turmoil, Ghannouchi was accused of trying to “Islamize modernization,” while the people wanted to “modernize Islam.”

Meanwhile, a political crisis developed, the economy suffered, leading to more violence. Ghannouchi ordered Ennahda members to leave the government in order to defuse the situation, a decision that probably saved the party from the fate of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, who were ousted from power by a disillusioned majority helped by the army, with their party outlawed.

In the 2014 election Ennahda was “only” the second- largest party, but very much a force to be reckoned with. It has no wish to disappear from the scene, and neither does its leader.

Thus Ghannouchi’s “bombshell” should be taken not as a sincere wish for a more moderate Islam, but as a tool to ensure the survival of his party, while waiting for a more propitious time. Municipal elections to be held in 2017 and presidential elections scheduled for 2019 will show how successful the ploy was.

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This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post on June 12, 2016.