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Tunisia’s Ennahda Movement Redefines Muslim Democracy

Ennahda's founder Rached Ghannouchi calls for an end to 'political Islam,' a groundbreaking shift for a key Tunisian leader and intellectual long identified as Islamist.

Marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Tunis
Marking the fifth anniversary of the revolution in Tunis
Frederic Bobin

TUNIS — In the days after the fall of the regime of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the long-exiled founder of the Ennahda movement Rached Ghannouchi made a triumphant return. The Ennahda political party, which hold its General Conference later this month, has long been described as "Islamist."

Now 74, Ghannouchi outlined to Le Monde a major ideological shift that his party is currently undergoing. The Ennahda movement, which has a majority in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, is now seeking to define itself as a civil movement. Ghannouchi says that since the 2011 revolution and the adoption of the new Constitution in 2014, there is no point in referring to the term "political Islam" anymore.

Le Monde: During the May 20-22 Ennahda General Conference, the party is expected to reformulate its core doctrine in what appears to be a turning point in its political history. What will it consist in?

Rached Ghannouchi: One of the major points that will be discussed during the Congress's agenda is the link between both religious and political dimensions within the party. We aim to show that we are a civil and democratic party, based on both Islamic and modern civilization values. These values are the same as those found in the 2014 Constitution. They reflect the dual understanding we have of the terms modernity and identity. We are going to shift towards a party that devotes itself to political action only.

Is Ennahda breaking its historical bind with Islam?

This is exactly what we are trying to do by distinguishing political activities with religious preaching. Political activism has no place in a mosque. It is a place where Muslims can come together, and should not be used by any political party as a means to preach its own ideas. We want religion to be a way for Tunisians to come together, and not to be divided.

This is why we don't want imams to become political leaders, or even party members in the long run. We want our party to tackle daily issues that are important to families. We don't want a party that focuses on Day of Reckoning Day, Reaching Paradise, and so on.

Political and religious activities must be independent from one another. And such clear-cut distinction is positive for both sides: politicians will no longer be accused of manipulating Islam to achieve political ends, and religion will never be taken as hostage by politics or monitored by it.

What are the reasons for such a turning point?

We are taking a step, among many others, toward a more mature society. We believe that political Islam — though we don't like the term itself, which was coined by the West — was a direct reaction to two factors. It was a way to fight against both dictatorship and secular extremism. The Jasmine Revolution in 2011 (that overturned the regime) put an end to both. Tunisia is now a democracy. The 2014 Constitution limited secular and religious extremisms. We no longer need political Islam in Tunisia. Besides, groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS corrupted the concept in itself. This is why we need to distance ourselves from such jihadist organizations that advocate an extremist view on Islam.

Can we conclude that Ennahda is leaving behind political Islam?

Exactly. We depart from political Islam to enter a Muslim democracy. We are democratic Muslims that no longer refer to political Islam.

Ghannouchi in 2011 — Photo: Ennahda

There is currently a debate in Tunisia regarding gender inequality concerning inheritance. What's your stance on the subject?

This is not a popular debate but an elitist one. Tunisian people believe there are bigger priorities. Many Tunisians, including some of the elite, consider it not to be an issue but a diversion.

Since Habib Bourguiba's presidency (1957-1987) all political leaders remained faithful to that statement written in the Koran and which is part of our identity and culture. Caricaturing the rule stating that the woman inherits only half the portion of the man's is wrong. It is a much more complex issue.

Decriminalizing homosexuality is another burning issue in some Tunisian areas. Do you support it?

We abide by Tunisia's laws, which distinguish between private and public space. Neither law nor religion has a right to meddle with private life. The law belongs to the public sphere, while the private sphere has to do with individual liberty.

Since the beginning of 2015, you're part of a government coalition ruled by the party of Nidaa Tounès, your former political opponent. Is it just a matter of government cohabitation or rather a strategic alliance?

This cohabitation is for the country's best interest, as it allows us to learn how to deal with diverging viewpoints, especially in a country like Tunisia where political decisions used not to stem from debate but monopolistic power. We still need to learn how to coexist and live with people who have different perspectives.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Vulnerable Are The Russians In Crimea?

Ukraine has stepped up attacks on the occupied Crimean peninsula, and Russia is doing all within its power to deny how vulnerable it has become.

Photograph of the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters with smoke rising above it after a Ukrainian missile strike.

September 22, 2023, Sevastopol, Crimea, Russia: Smoke rises over the Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters after a Ukrainian missile strike.

Kyrylo Danylchenko

This article was updated Sept. 26, 2023 at 6:00 p.m.

Russian authorities are making a concerted effort to downplay and even deny the recent missile strikes in Russia-occupied Crimea.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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Media coverage in Russia of these events has been intentionally subdued, with top military spokesperson Igor Konashenkov offering no response to an attack on Russian Black Sea Fleet headquarters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, or the alleged downing last week of Russian Su-24 aircraft by Ukrainian Air Defense.

The response from this and other strikes on the Crimean peninsula and surrounding waters of the Black Sea has alternated between complete silence and propagating falsehoods. One notable example of the latter was the claim that the Russian headquarters building of the Black Sea fleet that was hit Friday was empty and that the multiple explosions were mere routine training exercises.

Ukraine claimed on Monday that the attack killed Admiral Viktor Sokolov, the commander of Russia's Black Sea Fleet. "After the strike on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, 34 officers died, including the commander of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Another 105 occupiers were wounded. The headquarters building cannot be restored," the Ukrainian special forces said via Telegram.

But Sokolov was seen on state television on Tuesday, just one day after Ukraine claimed he'd been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry released footage of the admiral partaking in a video conference with top admirals and chiefs, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, though there was no verification of the date of the event.

Moscow has been similarly obtuse following other reports of missiles strikes this month on Crimea. Russian authorities have declared that all missiles have been intercepted by a submarine and a structure called "VDK Minsk", which itself was severely damaged following a Ukrainian airstrike on Sept. 13. The Russians likewise dismissed reports of a fire at the headquarters of the Black Sea Fleet, attributing it to a mundane explosion caused by swamp gas.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has refrained from commenting on the military situation in Crimea and elsewhere, continuing to repeat that everything is “proceeding as planned.”

Why is Crimea such a touchy topic? And why is it proving to be so hard to defend?

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