Tunisia’s Islamist party: A wolf in sheep’s clothing?

Analysis: Ennahda seeks "moderate" Shari’a state, but members have history of violence, current platform raises questions about role of Islam.

Rached Ghannouchi 311 (photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Rached Ghannouchi 311
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jamal Saidi)
Western media routinely describe Tunisia’s Ennahda party as “moderately Islamist.” The once-banned movement’s own past, however, reveals a tendency to violence, and its current platform raises serious questions about the role of Islam in arguably the Arab world’s most secular state.
Ennahda, or “Renaissance” has its roots in the Islamist university groups that proliferated in the Muslim world’s universities following the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The party was officially founded in 1989, two years into the 23-year reign of president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
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Two years later Ben Ali banned the party, and over the course of his term jailed tens of thousands of its leaders.
Ennahda was legalized in January of this year, following Ben Ali’s ouster in a month-long popular revolt. One thousand supporters welcomed back the party’s founder and leader, 70-yearold Rachid Ghannouchi, on his return to Tunis from European exile in January.
The Islamist party now appears set to take a majority, or at least a plurality, in the Arab world’s first post-revolutionary elections. Ballots were held Sunday and results are expected the following day.
Ennahda presents itself to outsiders as nonviolent, but the movement’s members have been implicated in both incitement and violent actions against Tunisian and foreign targets.
The party supported the 1979 embassy takeover in Iran, and evidence suggests it was responsible for bombing four tourist hotels in the 1980s. In 1991 its operatives attacked the headquarters of Ben Ali’s party, killing one person and throwing acid in the faces of several others, and that same year Ghannouchi called for attacks on US interests in the Middle East in response to America’s invasion of Iraq in the Gulf War.
Ennahda’s founding ideology was largely shaped by that of Sayyid Qutb, a leading ideologue of the grandfather of all Islamist groups, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Ennahda still maintains ties with the Brotherhood, but the Tunisian party prefers to compare itself with another political model: Turkey’s ruling AK party, which though religious in its founding and nature, has stopped short of calling for the imposition of Shari’a.
In an interview this month, however, Ghannouchi said he supports a “moderate” form of Shari’a that would combine “democracy, which is a Western product, with Islam, which is our own heritage.”
“Shari’a is not something that is alien or strange to our societies... For example, in Britain we have Islamic finance and Islamic banking, and Islamic family law can be applied for marriage and divorce,” he said. “We don’t see Shari’a interfering in people’s private lives or in their freedom to wear what they want. Personal freedom is very important for us.”
An opinion poll conducted in March found Ennahda enjoyed the support of 29 percent of Tunisians, far ahead of its closest rival, the secular Progressive Democratic Party, at 12%.
Tunisia is arguably the most gender- equal country in the Arab world and one of the only Arab states with a large non-religious community. During the era of Ben Ali, and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia was the first Arab country to allow women to vote, and later banned polygamy, legalized abortion and made marriage condition on female consent.
Since Ben Ali’s ouster, however, Tunisian secularists have pointed to a disconcerting trend toward xenophobia and religious extremism.
In February, footage uploaded to YouTube showed hundreds of protesters converged on Tunis’ Grand Synagogue after Friday prayers shouting “Allahu akbar” and “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews! The army of Muhammad will return!” Khaybar was a Jewish oasis in Arabia conquered by the Muslims in the seventh century.
Jews were forced to pay tribute and later expelled. Tunisia’s Jewish population – more than 100,000 in 1948 – is now less than 2,000.
In July, a draft constitution compiled by the country’s interim authorities included a clause banning normalization with Israel. Some constitutional committee members from secularist parties called to remove the clause, but Ennahda – along with Arab nationalist and extreme left factions – supported its inclusion.
This month, police used tear gas to disperse thousands protesting an animated film, Persepolis, they deemed blasphemous. The film shows an Iranian girl’s coming of age story after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and angered Islamists for its representation of God and its protagonist’s supposedly un-Islamic lifestyle.
The house of the owner of the station that broadcast the film was later firebombed. It was unclear whether the assailants belonged to Ennahda or even more extreme Salafi Islamist groups.