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Rachid Ghannoushi

Activist in Exile

John L. Esposito

John O. Voll

If God wishes me to become a martyr of the mosques, then let it be. But I tell you that my death will not be in vain, and that from my blood, Islamic flowers will grow.

—Rachid Ghannoushi

In 1987, Rachid Ghannoushi defiantly faced the State Security Court in Tunis, knowing full well that President Habib Bourguiba sought to strike a mortal blow against the Islamic movement in Tunisia by having him sentenced to death.1 The epigraph is from Linda Jones, “Portrait of Rachid Ghannoushi,” Middle East Report (July-August 1988): 19. Two years later, in April 1989, Tunisians participated in the first democratic elections after the fall of Habib Bourguiba's government in mid-November 1987. To the astonishment of many, Islamic activists did extraordinarily well, capturing 13 percent of the popular vote nationally and between 30 and 40 percent in many major urban areas, in a country long regarded as among the most Westernized secular governments in the Muslim world. The Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI; Mouvement de la Tendance Islamique) and its leader, Rachid al-Ghannoushi, who had been imprisoned and sentenced to life in prison in September 1987 and after the coup granted amnesty in 1988, emerged triumphant, earning their place as the strongest opposition group in Tunisia. By the 1990s Ghannoushi was in exile and his movement driven underground.

Despite the growth and expansion of the Islamic resurgence throughout much of the Muslim world in the 1970s and 1980s, most observers had been convinced that North Africa in general and Tunisia in particular, with its strong Western secular orientation, would not experience the impact of contemporary Islamic revivalism in any significant manner. By the 1990s, Rachid Ghannoushi's movement had proven its effectiveness, emerging as the major voice of political opposition, a voice the government progressively sought to silence.

Tunisia, which gained independence in 1956, had had but one ruler for more than thirty years, Habib Bourguiba (1956–1987), its nationalist hero. More than any other Muslim ruler, except perhaps Turkey's Ataturk, who established a totally secular state, Bourguiba set Tunisia on a path of modernization that was heavily pro-Western and secular and in the process became a valued friend and ally of France and the United States. Tunisia's Arab-Islamic heritage was overshadowed by an official Francophile culture. French rather than Arabic was the official government language, the language of higher education, and the language and culture of elite society: Bourguiba carefully circumscribed the presence and influence of Islam. Shortly after independence, Tunisia passed the Personal Status Law (1957), which went farther than any other Muslim country except secular Turkey in banning polygamy. Even more symbolic of Bourguiba's approach to religion and modernization and his wholehearted acceptance of Western values were the abolition of Shariah courts, the ban on the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) by women, and his attempt to get workers to ignore the fast of Ramadan. Drinking a glass of orange juice on national television during the fast of Ramadan and thus publicly violating Islamic law, Bourguiba criticized the deleterious effects of fasting during daylight hours and urged Muslims not to observe the fast, which he claimed affected productivity and economic development. The Zaytouna, a famed center of Islamic learning in North Africa and the Muslim world, was closed. The ulama were debilitated, rather than, as occurred in many Muslim countries, coopted by the government. For Bourguiba, Islam represented the past, and the West Tunisia's only hope for a modern future. That attitude was rigorously challenged to its logical conclusion in the 1980s when Islamic revivalism did emerge as a force to be reckoned with.

While much attention was given during the 1980s to Islamic movements worldwide, comparatively little was known about Tunisia's Islamic Tendency Movement and its leaders. Government attempts to portray MTI as an Iranian-inspired radical revolutionary organization only confused its image at home and abroad. The charge of an Iranian connection was acceptable to many people who believed that revivalism could not be indigenous to Tunisia.

The emergence of MTI and the life of its principal ideologue, Rachid al-Ghannoushi, encompass many of the political and religious currents of the times: Tunisian nationalism, Nasserism, and finally the reassertion of Islam in Muslim public life. Ghannoushi, who has guided MTI (subsequently renamed the Renaissance Party, EnEnnahda, or Hizb al-Ennahda) throughout its history and ideological development, has emerged as one of the most adroit and flexible of Islamic activist leaders. While drawing on the richness of the Islamic tradition as well as Western thought, he has proven to be a creative reformer and interpreter of Islam.

Notes:

1. The epigraph is from Linda Jones, “Portrait of Rachid Ghannoushi,” Middle East Report (July-August 1988): 19.

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