Moral Lessons from Tunisia

Editor’s note:
The original version of this column contained some allegations that the author believed were well-attested at time of publication. The statement regarding the threat to hang Raja bin Salama in Basij Square, along with Latif Lakhdar, cannot be directly attributed to Ghannouchi, as the article below stated.  The Economist, which had made the same attribution, has since issued a retraction. Mr. Reilly had no knowledge that the attribution was unfounded, and he therefore withdraws it as well. The Catholic Thing apologizes to any and all parties wrongly accused for this regrettable and unintentional error.

In Tunisia, the Islamist Nahda (“Renaissance”) Party won a large plurality, if not an outright majority, in last Sunday’s elections. The most overtly anti-Islamist party, the Progressive Democratic Party, did far worse than expected with a meager 4 percent. How ought we to regard this outcome and what is its significance for the Arab Spring?

During his recent visit to Berlin, Benedict XVI greeted the representatives of the German Muslim community, remarking that, “mutual respect grows only on the basis of agreement on certain inalienable values that are proper to human nature, in particular, the inviolable dignity of every single person as created by God.” 

While these principles lay out the only reasonable basis for dialogue between Muslims and Christians, they also serve as the underlying foundation for democratic constitutional government anywhere. It is difficult to imagine how, without the inviolable dignity and mutual respect of which Benedict speaks, a democratic government could be formed and sustained.

The question then is:  do these principles underlie the Nahda Party in Tunisia? The Nahda party was founded in 1981 by Rachid al-Ghannouchi. Its motto was “Islam is the solution.” After the overthrow of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali last January, Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia from more than two decades in exile.

Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Nahda Party had been the most visible Islamist opposition to the dictatorial regime and was used as the excuse for continuing its repressive measures, and, therefore, Nahda was in the position to benefit the most from its overthrow.

Also, the Ben Ali regime was secularist. Under it, Tunisia enforced legal equality for women, forbade polygamy (the only Arab government to do so), and offered the most enlightened and tolerant education system in the Arab world. The Nahda alternative is Sharia. Sharia embodies the denial of “the inviolable dignity of every single person,” as it codifies the inferiority of non-Muslims and women.

Now, Nahda’s secretary general, Hamadi Jebali, proclaims that “Islam is based on freedom,” and the party publicly eschews the enforcement of Sharia. However, all is not as it seems. While a Washington Post editorial assures us that Ghannouchi “has pledged to support women’s rights,” its writer is apparently unaware that, from his exile in London, Ghannouchi threatened to hang Raja bin Salama in central Basij Square in Tunis for her criticism of Islamic extremism, the subjugation of women, and her call for the nation’s laws to be based on the universal declaration of human rights. For good measure, Ghannouchi also said that Lafif Lakhdar, a Tunisian reformer and one of the most enlightened thinkers in the Muslim world, should be hanged with her.

     Hopeful Tunisian voters face an uncertain future.

In a way, this did not surprise me because I first became familiar with Ghannouchi’s name in connection with the radicalization of Saad al-Hussaini, a native of Morocco. As a postgraduate student studying in Spain on a scholarship, Hussaini was approached by a Tunisian Islamist who gave him audiotapes of Ghannouchi’s speeches, among other things, and instructed him in the ways of jihad. 

Hussaini then embraced jihad, becoming one of Al Qaeda’s principal explosives experts. While I am not privy to the content of the audiotapes which helped inspire Hussaini, I wonder if they can be by the same man who now presents himself as a kind of Frank Capra figure in a version of Mr. Smith Goes to Tunis.

While to his credit Ghannouchi condemned the 9/11 attacks, he was also quoted during a visit to Iran as saying, “The greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.” In respect to Israel, there is this unpleasantness:  “There are no civilians in Israel. Men, women and children, they are all reserve soldiers and can therefore be killed.”

Ghannouchi has long been an ardent supporter of Hamas. His biographer is a Palestinian by the name of Azzam Tamimi, who recently said something to which we should pay close attention. He remarked that the real struggle of the future is “going to be about who is Islamist and who is more Islamist, rather than about the secularists and the Islamists.” 

If these indeed are the terms of the debate, democracy will be the loser, no matter how many pretty words are spoken beforehand. In 2006, Hamas came to power through an election. In Gaza, it immediately jailed the opposition, where they remain to this day, and there has not been an election since. One vote, one time. Welcome to democracy Islamist style.

Tunisia may be more fortunate – even if Ghannouchi turns out to be who he was, rather than what he now says. It is a homogeneous country with an educated middle-class that has benefited from an enlightened education system that has eschewed sectarian hatred (practically unique in this respect in the Arab world). Though it is a small nation of only 10 million people, it is the bellwether for the future of the Arab Spring. If it cannot succeed in Tunisia, it cannot succeed anywhere.

Finally, in the larger sense, it can only succeed if it chooses the first of the following two options, as once put forth by Benedict XVI to an Italian student:  “Either one recognizes the priority of reason, of creative Reason that is at the beginning of all things and is the principle of all things – the priority of reason is also the priority of freedom – or one holds the priority of the irrational, inasmuch as everything that functions on our earth and in our lives would be only accidental, marginal, an irrational result – reason would be a product of irrationality.”  

The real problem is that Islam has largely chosen option number two, which is why it has a history of tyranny. Let us hope and pray that it can turn this corner, despite the Islamist electoral victory.

Robert Reilly is Director of the Westminster Institute and a former director of the Voice of America. He has taught at the National Defense University and served in the White House and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist. His most recent book is Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior Is Changing Everything.

  • Silenced - Wednesday, October 31, 2012