Tunisia's Islamist Leader

The real face of the "moderate" theocrat.

The images of Tunisians taking part in their first free election are inspiring, but we must not become so caught up in the euphoria of the moment that we overlook the dangers posed by the victors. Partial results show an Islamist party named Ennahda winning 44% of the vote. It is led by Rachid Ghannouchi, a pseudo-moderate who has endorsed suicide bombings and whose pre-campaign rhetoric sounds more like Ahmadinejad than a modern-day Thomas Jefferson.

Ghannouchi, like any skilled office-seeker, modifies his rhetoric to fit his audience. He has earned the title of “moderate Islamist” in the media and his party’s candidate for Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, has met with top American lawmakers like Senators McCain and Lieberman and aides to Senator Kerry. Ghannouchi reassures his opponents that he can’t be compared to Ayatollah Khomeini. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who nonetheless has led Turkey in an anti-Western direction, is his model. He praised Erdogan in a visit to the IHH in Turkey, the extremist group behind the Gaza flotilla.

The Ennahda Party can be referred to as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian branch. Ghannouchi sits on two organizations led by Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s most influential theologian and fiery anti-Semite. In 2001, Ghannouchi celebrated mothers who raise their children to become homicide bombers as a “new model of woman” and called on Muslims to support “the Intifada and the liberation of Palestine,” meaning the destruction of Israel. Ghannouchi sides with Hamas over the Palestinian Authority because he feels that Fatah has “given up the choice of jihad,” while Hamas is “maintaining the resistance.”

In 2002, Ghannouchi signed a statement along with the top leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah and Muslim Brotherhood endorsing jihad against Israel because the Zionists seek to “destroy the entire Islamic ummah.” It also called on Muslim nations to refuse to sell oil to the U.S. Ghannouchi continues to happily talk about a future without the state of Israel, referencing Hamas’ late spiritual leader’s projection that its destruction will happen by 2027. Ghannouchi optimistically says current events make him believe it may happen sooner.

His animosity extends to the West. He preaches that the West “implanted” Israel as part of a scheme to divide and dominate the Islamic world. The West “imposed secularism and partition upon us,” he says. He supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and condemned Saudi Arabia for hosting forces from “Crusader America.”

“We must wage unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam, or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world,”  Ghannouchi said in Khartoum, one of the major hubs for terrorists at that time.

The environment on the ground in Tunisia shows how deep the intolerant influence of Islamist ideology runs. On June 26, a cinema was attacked after it showed a film about persecution of critics of Islam. In October, about 300 Salafists tried to burn down a TV station that aired a debate about religious extremism. The home of a TV director who aired a film showing God as an old man with a beard was firebombed. These actions not only intimidate those opposed to Islamic extremism, but also allow Ennahda to portray itself as a comparatively “moderate” force.

Ennahda had a huge advantage in resources over its secularist rivals, resulting in suspicions that it took money from Gulf sources, which Ghannouchi denies. Ennahda also re-branded itself. It ran a female candidate who didn’t wear a hijab and said it won’t impose Islamic values, such as by banning alcohol or legislating what type of clothing is appropriate for women to wear.

The success of this political strategy can be seen in a statement by one voter for Ennahda who said, “This morning I voted for Ennahda and this evening I am going to drink a few beers.” The secularists failed to convince the Tunisian masses that Ennahda is not as open as it portends to be. The Secretary-General of the Ettajdid Movement, Ahmed Ibrahim, warned of Ghannouchi’s “double-speak” and said Ennahda threatens the “modern war of life.”

The Ennahda Party will now be the dominant influence when the interim government drafts the next constitution. Nothing will get passed without its approval. Its ambitions will be limited by political considerations, as it has to form a unity government and must be careful not to shatter its image as a “moderate” force. However, the Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy has always an incremental, practical approach towards establishing Sharia-based governance. The West and Tunisian liberals must hope that the Tunisian secularists can make a comeback, but the Islamists are now in the driver’s seat during a defining moment in the history of the country.

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