Sheikh Rashid Al Ghannushi, leader of the Islamic Nahda Party in Tunisia, is known for tailoring his discourse to the audience sitting in front of him. Therefore, it was no surprise that he dared to state to a British newspaper that if his Islamic party assumed the presidency in Tunisia, it would be so tolerant as to allow the sale of alcohol, and let women wear swimwear. This statement is hard to believe; for how can he accept a woman stripping off to reveal most of her body in public, whilst at the same time insisting that women cover their hair?
Such a liberal statement, of which we hear nothing of the sort from Mr. Ghannushi in the Arab press, may be none other than a political speech addressed to the West, aiming to reassure them that the Islamists are not responsible for the phenomenon of veiled women in the streets of London, or the practices of the Basij in Iran, or Hamas in Gaza.
Because Tunisia is among the most liberal Arab countries and has now fostered a culture of equal rights for men and women, with great regard for the civil rights of individuals, Mr. Ghannushi’s party reiterates that it “seeks a civil and democratic state ensuring public freedoms… and will never seek to seize absolute power.” Is this clear and sufficient enough? Skeptics believe that the Nahda Party, like any other Islamic political movement, should be asked dozens of detailed questions in order to understand what they mean by such loose and elastic phrases. Then we would discover that these religious movements are committed to their unilateral way of thinking, and never plan to be truly democratic.
Mr. Ghannushi, who is speaking extensively at the moment about his commitment to democracy, also believes that Western democracies are the major obstacle hindering the democratic transformation in the Arab region. He attributes the historical failure of Muslim countries to the success of the Western “crusaders,” who delivered the deathblow to the sultanate, the ruling system that succeeded the caliphate.
In order to do so, the Western invaders sidelined the Islamic Sharia and replaced it with Western laws, as evidenced in the Treaty of Lausanne, which forced Turkey to abandon its Islamic legislation. Mr. Ghannushi claims to support democracy in terms of political action, yet at the same time he considers the sultanate to be a wonderful model that was slaughtered by the West.
Even if Mr. Ghannushi is sincere in his promises, and realistic about accepting freedoms to the extent that he will permit the bikini and the sale of alcohol, this does not necessarily mean that the rest of his Islamic Nahda Party will act likewise, and will apply such a way of thinking. Having observed the practices of Islamic parties, it can be concluded that their foundations are purely conservative, whilst their leaders are political pragmatists. Nevertheless, these groups are subject to the criteria of their supporters, not the liberalist discourse addressed to the West, as in the case of Mr. Ghannushi.
Matters reached the extent whereby hard-line currents began to use force to impose their ideology, thus Islamic party leaders tended to disavow them under the pretext that some Islamic movements were being infiltrated by groups seeking to distort their image, in an attempt to deny the reality of the hard-line ideology within. We saw this with the Islamic parties in Algeria, who renounced the crimes that were committed in the 1990s under their name, yet it was eventually proven that extremists were still prominent within these groups, insisting upon their radical ideologies.
Were the Nahda Party leaders truthful when saying “we aspire to establish a free, open and modern society, in which every citizen enjoys equal rights?” No one knows. Yet the experiences of Iran, Sudan, Hamas and Hezbollah would suggest otherwise. This does not mean that Muslim society is not in need of Islamic currents that adopt a moderate and tolerant intellect socially, and adopt a broad vision politically, in a manner that does not contradict the principles of Islam, as was the case with the Islamic Movement in Turkey.
As for the contradictory speeches that aim to reassure the West, they only serve to delay the truth, namely that these groups still aim to seize power by whatever means.
(The writer is General Manager of Al Arabiya and writes a column for Asharq Al Awsat where this piece was first published on July 21.)