After the revolution, Tunisia’s Ennahda managed to transition from decades of opposition to secular autocracy, finding the middle ground. It has managed to survive as an active political movement thanks to its lifelong leader, Rached Ghannouchi.
Tunisia’s Ennahda movement has been navigating in the Arab world’s troublesome waters for almost a half century. The religiously inspired political movement’s intellectual and political founder, Rached Ghannouchi, has won acclaim for his firm embrace of democracy and political pluralism in a region where autocracy has long been the norm. The 76-year-old has for decades advocated that Islamic and democratic values can live together side by side.
Ghannouchi officially co-founded the Islamic Tendency Movement with a small group of likeminded friends in 1981 [the movement first emerged in the late 1960s, originally as an offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood]. Despite suffering extensive repression under the country’s secularist establishment, the group has not resorted to violence or armed struggle.
In the wake of the Tunisian Uprising of 2011, the newly legalised Ennahda was the biggest winner in the 2011 parliamentary elections. But their success was checked by Tunisia’s secularist establishment when two leading leftist politicians were assassinated in 2013 and a lot of protesters were on the streets of the country against the Ennahda-led government.
The movement under Ghannouchi’s directions decided to withdraw from power in a smooth process in 2014 and opening the road for the establishment of a transitional technocratic government.
During TRT World Forum, held in Istanbul in October, Ghannouchi was a keynote speaker. He spoke to us for his movement’s survival codes and how Islam and democracy can work together.
Despite so much trouble in the Middle East and North Africa, Ennahda has managed to survive in Tunisia as an influential Muslim political movement. How do you define your movement’s guide to survival?
RACHED GHANNOUCHI: This is to be expected. Ennahda is not a new movement, it’s been around more than 50 years. It’s a movement which adapts to its environment. We have been evolving and adapting as the situation unfolds in Tunisia. That’s why we feel that Ennahda has its own specificity, a Tunisian specificity. We are not copying another movement from anywhere else. We are Tunisian and we are a unique movement following our own path.
Why have there been so many divisions in the Muslim world?
RG: Each country and party has its own situation. Each has its own context and it has to be evaluated and judged according to its own context.
Do you rate your adaptability in changing political conditions as being better than others?
RG: Maybe. One of the main conditions for survival for any organism is its ability to adapt and to evolve. Ones who don’t adapt will disappear like dinosaurs.
Our adaptability starts with an understanding of Islam that is open and flexible. It starts, too, with an understanding of the context of any given situation that is also open and flexible. Then, you take this understanding of Islam with an understanding of a [particular] situation and combine them. As a result, as situations change, you come up with new solutions. That’s what we’re trying to do in Tunisia.
You and your movement have taken exceptional political stances at crucial points in Tunisia, which are atypical in the Islamic world. Your movement willingly withdrew from power [in January 2014] despite having won most votes in the country [in the historic 2011 election]. How do you explain your movement’s exceptional capability to give up power when you see it as being necessary? How do you compare your movement with other Muslim political movements in the region?
RG: I do not want to talk about other movements …
All the milestones the party and the movement have gone through [throughout Ennahda’s existence] show we have adapted [in new conditions] through our self-evaluation and we learnt from our mistakes and corrected them [in the process]. And we moved forward. We also reacted to the changing situation.
For example, in 1981, when president [Habib Bourguiba] said the country will be open to democracy and the formation of parties, we applied to become a party. They rejected our application and resorted to violence, but we remained a peaceful movement. By slowly reacting to these realities and through self-evaluation, we were able to keep moving forward.
Even though we might have differences with others, we accepted their right to exist. For example, we have many differences with communists and leftists and criticise them [for some of their stances], but we believe in the right to be different and to coexist [with those differences].
We also changed our stances regarding women's rights in Tunisia. There are laws related to the rights of women in Tunisia. We were against them in the 1970s. But in time, we came to a point where we decided to accept them.
The previous regime excluded us [from the political process] and put us in prisons. After the  revolution, when we came to power, we did not respond to them the way they dealt with us. We tried to behave in a prophetic way, seeking no revenge, no exclusion [of political actors linked to the Old Regime], or the methods they had used against us when they were in power. Because of that, we were able to work with them and others later on.
After so many people killed in Syria following the failure of Arab Spring rebellions in much of the Middle East, alongside the uncomfortable fact that Assad, an Arab autocrat, seems well-positioned to stay in power in the foreseeable future, how do you envision the future of the Muslim world?
RG: The future is freedom. We understand that Islam stands for freedom and justice. As a result, the future will be for Islam. We are going to go through a period of change. I believe the future will be better. Developments in the world, like revolutions in media and particularly in digital media, are forcing the world to be more free [about political matters].
There is no future for dictatorships and just one view. [People want to see] multiple views. In a free world, we can offer our understanding to people, and they can freely choose what they want – us or others…
It is unacceptable in our time that we can have pharaohs [autocrats who impose their will on their people] that let people see only what they want them to see. It is not possible anymore. The media is free now and has broken down its own barriers. I do not see any future for dictatorships.
What should Turkey do for the Muslim world?
RG: Turkey’s role in the world is very important. It plays a crucial role in terms of humanitarian aid. It hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees. It’s even helping Somalis. Turkey has also achieved remarkable economic development, being a good financial model for other [Muslim countries].
Turkey can increase cooperation among Muslim countries to help the Islamic world progress. Today [October 20] Turkey, under Erdogan’s leadership, is hosting a significant D-8 summit, which is a good step to increase cooperation in the Muslim world. [The Developing 8 Organisation for Economic Cooperation was established in 1996 by a former Turkish prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, who was once the political mentor of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s current president. Aiming to increase cooperation among Muslim countries, the D-8 includes Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Nigeria as its members.]