Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism by Azzam S. Tamimi. Pub: Oxford University Press, New York, USA, 2001. Pp: 268. Hbk: $49.95.
Those Muslims and Islamic movement activists who support ‘democracy’ or ‘democratic’ understandings of Islam often get a bad press within the movement. This is understandable, for many are nothing more than apologists for the wholesale importation of Western political thought into the Muslim world, and with it – whether they realize it or not – Western political hegemony into the Muslim world.
Iqbal Siddiqui, the editor of Crescent International, published an article in 2000 on ‘the dangers of democratising Islam and Muslim political discourse’ (Crescent International, June 16-30, 2000), in which he highlighted some of the problems which arise when Muslims talk about democracy. Among the points he made were that there is no consensus even in the West on what democracy means, yet Muslims tend to accept uncritically an idealised liberal understanding which has few relations with the reality of either Western countries or Western policies towards Muslim countries. He also pointed out that that Western ideological hegemony is such that Muslims who attempt to discuss democracy critically often find themselves accepting democratic ideals as a standard to which Islam must conform, rather than being able to constructively critique them.
All of which is very true, and can be amply demonstrated with reference to the writings of ‘democratic’ Muslim thinkers. But, as this book demonstrates, there are Muslim intellectuals who are capable of approaching Western democracy more critically and analytically, and of discussing Islam and Muslim societies in democratic terms without falling into the all-too-common errors that Siddiqui highlights.
Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Tunisia’s main Islamic movement, Ennahda (or the Tunisian Renaissance Movement), is widely recognised as a leading advocate of ‘Islamic democracy’ and pluralism in the Muslim world. His most important book, Al-Hurriyat al-’Ammah fi’Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (‘Public liberties in the Islamic State’) is recognised as having made an important contribution to Islamic literature on the Islamic state. It is surprising, therefore, that relatively little is known about him, and that there is little literature on his thought available in English. This is partly because he has deliberately stayed out of debates on these issues in the West since his arrival in London as a political exile from Tunisia in the late 1980s, perhaps because of some of the issues that Siddiqui raises. Nonetheless, this book by Azzam Tamimi, a long-time associate of Ghannouchi’s and director of the Institute of Islamic Political Thought in London, goes a long way towards filling that gap, providing an excellent and accessible overview of Ghannouchi’s intellectual and political development, and his mature thought.
Ghannouchi was born in a small village in south-eastern Tunisia in 1941, at a time when local tribes were in the middle of a rebellion against French rule which ended in 1943. His early life, as portrayed in Tamimi’s first chapter, ‘From Qabis to Paris’, appears a microcosm of the Muslim experience of Western colonialism and the impact of modernity. His father was a village imam and farmer who instilled in Ghannouchi sufficient love of learning and Islam for him to travel to study at the great Islamic institution of al-Zaytouna in Tunis in 1959, at a time when traditional Islam was in retreat and secularism rife. His first intellectual commitment was to Nasserist Arabism; this he abandoned for an "Ikhwan-Salafi style of religiosity" while studying in Syria in the 1960s.
It was in the mid-1970s, Tamimi suggests, by which time Ghannouchi was back in Tunisia and active in the Islamic movement there, debating the applicability of Ikhwani thought in the local context, that Ghannouchi’s thought matured into what Tamimi calls "a specific Tunisian character" based on traditional Tunisian Islam, his salafi inclinations and what Ghannouchi himself calls his "rational religiosity". At the same time, he was interracting with local political movements advocating secular democracy and other western-influenced ideas. All these factors have contributed to Ghannouchi’s thought.
Although Ghannouchi is widely characterised as a ‘democrat’ – a ‘democrat within Islamism’ in Tamimi’s title – it is important to note that he has a particular understanding of democracy, as a set of mechanisms for guaranteeing the security of the people from authoritarian hegemony. Unlike many so-called Islamic democrats, he has no illusions about Western liberalism democracy, arguing that liberal values in general, and their secular foundations in particular, are a product of the Western historical experience and have no place in Islamic societies or the ‘democratic’ institutions that they need. It is this conceptual clarity which distinguishes him from many other Islamic democrats.
Ghannouchi also displays similar critical judgement in his understandings and usage of the terms ‘secularism’, ‘liberalism’, ‘modernity’ and ‘civil society’. In all cases, he takes them out of their Western context, strips them of their Western ideological baggage and uses their conceptual core meanings in his exposition of the sort of societies that Muslims need to establish in their own countries.
Siddiqui might prefer that Muslims avoid such terms altogether, arguing that they cause more confusion than they avoid, but Ghannouchi demonstrates that the problems Siddiqui highlights can be avoided with clear thinking. Having said that, Tamimi’s final chapter considers criticisms of Ghannouchi’s thought, some of which demonstrate that conceptual clarity on an intellectual’s part is not enough; he also needs his readers to be similarly discerning, which cannot be guaranteed.
Azzam Tamimi has done sterling service in making Rachid Ghannouchi’s thought accessible in clear and readable form to the many Muslims who are dependent on English-language literature. One suspects, indeed, that he has contributed something to the clarity of Ghannouchi’s thought as laid out in this book. It should be particularly noted that he has avoided the common authorial problem of being overly-critical of his own subject, on the grounds of some spurious academic objectivity; his willingness to allow readers to draw their own conclusions on Ghannouchi’s ideas is rare and welcome. One can only wish that other Islamic intellectuals could be accessed through similarly excellent literature.