Tunisia’s Ghannouchi is too liberal for some conservative Islamists

October 25, 2011

(Rached Ghannouchi, head of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, speaks at a news conference in Tunis October 19, 2011/Zoubeir Souissi)

Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi is seen by many secularists as a dangerous radical, but for some conservative clerics who see themselves as the benchmark of orthodox Islam — he is so liberal that they call him an unbeliever. His Ennahda party won Tunisia’s first free elections, 10 months after an uprising brought down ruler Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who had banned the group and imprisoned Ghannouchi before he took up home as an exile in London.

The party said on Tuesday it had won more than 40 percent of seats in Sunday’s election, pledging to continue democracy after the first vote that resulted from the “Arab Spring” revolts sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. “There will be no rupture. There will be continuity because we came to power via democracy, not with tanks,” campaign manager Abdelhamid Jlazzi said.

Ghannouchi’s moderate brand of Islamist thought, which matured during 22 years in exile in London, led in part to him once being deported from Saudi Arabia when he tried to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. He stands out in the Islamist spectrum — which ranges from the political ideologues of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood to puritanical Salafists in Saudi Arabia — for his view that there should be no bar on women or non-Muslims as head of state since citizenship must take priority over Islam.

“Salafis, Wahhabis and even some Brotherhood don’t like the guy, some might even say he’s a ‘kafir’ (apostate),” said an Egyptian friend of Ghannouchi’s from his years in London, who did not want to be named.

Acquaintances describe Ghannouchi as a formerly left-leaning Arab nationalist who like many Arab intellectuals shifted toward political Islam in the 1960s and 1970s during stints of study in Cairo, Damascus and Paris. As with most leaders in the political Islam movement, Ghannouchi is not a cleric by training, though he is a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars headed by Qatar-based Egyptian cleric Yousef al-Qaradawi.

The clerics of petrodollar power Saudi Arabia view Ennahda as lightweight, said Mohsen al-Awajy, a Saudi Islamic thinker who often debates with Ghannouchi at Muslim Scholars Union meetings. “The conservatives here will resist those outside who are more open and modern. But we shouldn’t look to those who are trying to undermine him,” he said, noting that Saudi authorities once deported Ghannouchi when he arrived to make pilgrimage.

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