Headline Ideas & Philosophy — 22 March 2012
Ghannushi’s Political Paradoxes: the Islamic Secular?

Dr. Abdul Wahid

In early March 2012, Rashid al-Ghannushi—the well-known thinker and leader of Ennahda, the political party that fared best in Tunisia’s recent elections—addressed a small audience from Tunisia’s elite at the Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy. The speech was covered widely in the Arab media.

Ghannushi’s party is commonly considered an Islamic party, and many of its members sacrificed for Islamic views during the harsh tyrannical years. But, since the popular uprising that led to the removal of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Ennahda’s leaders have made statements distancing themselves from their Islamic heritage. They have made several statements that are out of step with the fervent Islamic feeling unleashed by the uprising, sending out ‘reassuring’ messages to the West that they want a ‘civil’ state. Ghannushi himself even rebutted comments by Hamadi al Jebali who tried to win the hearts of supporter by talking about this historic period of change as ‘a divine moment in a new state, and hopefully a 6th Caliphate’.

In his speech, Ghannushi decided to address what he called the ‘problematic’ issue of ‘Islam’s relationship to secularism’ and ‘contentious matters’ of ‘Islam’s relationship to governance, the relation between Islam and Law’.

The speech, full of contradictions and paradoxes, often mixes false premises with real issues, also taking some legitimate ideas well beyond their context and relevance.

His speech, like other statements from Ennahda’s leadership in Tunisia, as well as respected figures from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, tries hard to straddle the demands of the West (and Tunisia’s military authorities which it supports) and the population, which has deep Islamic sentiments.

But, the danger for Ghannushi is that, in attempting to marry secularism and Islam to pacify the ruling military authority, the tiny secular elite, and western observers, he will alienate the majority population, not least his own support base. Indeed, he may well find he loses respect amongst the Tunisian masses and still will not be trusted by the secular elite within Tunisia who accuse him, and others, of ‘double-speak’.

Moreover, it might seem strange to many that he would be such a strong advocate for secular ideas given that even many people in the West are increasingly questioning the fruits of secularism in economic, social, and ethical areas.

However, the speech is worth dissecting to show how he confuses and conflates various issues to produce a paradoxical political philosophy that is simply unsustainable.

The first lesson to understand from his speech is the error of giving things new definitions or selecting examples in a way that suits one’s conclusions, rather than defining things as they actually are and building conclusions from a comprehensive examination of evidences.

The most obvious example of this is Ghannushi’s (almost unique) definition of secularism or ‘secularisms’ as he argues. He says that secularism ‘appeared, evolved, and crystallized in the West as procedural solutions, and not as a philosophy or theory of existence, to problems that had been posed in the European context.’ It would be hard to find an advocate of secularism who restricted its definition to its procedural aspects alone!

Indeed, to discuss processes about elections and implementing the rule of law, side-stepping the controversial the philosophical ideas that underpin secularism, is not simply to define it in an inaccurate way; it is disingenuous.

Every variety of secularism, whether in Britain, France, or the United States, shares at least one fundamental principle—that is, the supremacy of laws made by men over any religiously inspired law. This is the universal idea that is central in any secular state, even though the ways and the extent to which different Western secular states try to enforce this idea do vary ( as do the procedural aspects).

This is unquestionably the central principle in any written or unwritten constitution: Whether in France—where the state enforces this fundamental secular principle with rigour (which Ghannushi disapproves of)—or in Britain, who has traditionally tried to distance the State from legislating in such a way that enforces this principle (which he welcomes).

But, debates in Britain over the past few year clearly illustrate the supremacy of this principle in their state, most notably the debates over Catholic adoption agencies having to recognize homosexual parenting and the on-going recent debate about same-sex ‘marriage’.

Even though Ghannushi rightly says, ‘The Queen combines the temporal and the religious powers’, he is not telling an accurate story. The British monarch of UK is supreme head of the Church of England precisely because King Henry VIII, the current Queen’s predecessor some 500 years ago, broke with the Catholic church since he wanted his temporal authority to supersede the Pope’s and from the desire of power to change religious rulings to suit his opinions. Hence, he established a church whose fundamental belief includes the secular creed that political supremacy belongs to temporal authority and not to the church, a church whose doctrines and teachings changed with the prevalent trends of the time.

Similarly, in the United States—a society that, Ghannushi rightly says, sees religious beliefs expressed more openly which in turn inform public policy—it is the institutions of political power that ultimately determine legislation. The fact that religious lobbies might be powerful does not make the state any less secular and does not mean that, ultimately, the right to define right and wrong lies with people and not religion. For example, the religious lobby may decry abortion, but the US Supreme Court in the famous case of ‘Roe versus Wade’ [1973] effectively legalized abortion, flying in the face of this religious lobby.

So to restrict secularism to its procedures alone and to mischaracterise secular states in this way is not intellectually honest, and is a false premise upon which to build an argument. Hence, this is first contradiction in his political paradox.

The second lesson to learn from the speech is to set one’s ideal models of governance according to the dominant norms of the world today: i.e. the secular, capitalist, nation state model, instead of looking to the Islamic beliefs, traditions and history of the people in the region for a vision for the future.

The existing dominant model has only become dominant by virtue of force.

Nation states were a European construct after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 CE, something peculiar to European history. However, they were imposed on the Middle East and North Africa after World War I, in the Sykes-Picot Agreement (so dividing and weakening the region), and on everyone else after World War II by the formation of the United Nations (so subjugating the world to the whims of the permanent members of the Security Council).

Secular systems were also established in the Muslim world by force following World War I. The Treaty of Lausanne in July 1923 recognized the republic of Turkey following the formal abolition of the Ottoman Sultanate in November 1922 and preceded the abolition of the Caliphate in March 1924 taking extreme measures introduced by Mustafa Kemal to abolish Islam from the public sphere and promote European clothing, lettering, and political systems. The regions that were cut off from Ottoman state were weaker and vassal states of the victorious powers.

It might be argued that Capitalism dominates in part because it out-competed Communism in a battle of ideas. But it also dominates because capitalist states were colonial and imperial states that financial systems on these countries they subjugated.

When Ghannushi acknowledged some of the flaws of the Western system in his speech, he linked them with the problem he called the ‘total stripping of the state from religion’ which he argued ‘would turn the state into a mafia, and the world economic system into an exercise in plundering, and politics into deception and hypocrisy’. He went on to say that ‘this is exactly what happened in the Western experience, despite there being some positive aspects’. He even recognized that ‘International politics became the preserve of a few financial brokers owning the biggest share of capital and by extension the media, through which they ultimately control politicians’.

He recognised these problems, but somehow seemed to think what the West has is a flawed version of secularism, or the result of misapplication by the practitioners rather than the inevitable consequence of it. And his own seeming endorsement of the British and American models (because they are less abolitionist on religion than is France) would suggest that he is in denial about the fact that all ‘secularisms’ inevitably lead to these problems.

For, anyone who looks back to understand the emergence of secular ideas at the time of the enlightenment would see that the idea that individuals are sovereign would ultimately mean that religious ideas would be pushed out of the public domain. They would know that when the theoretical ideas about individual freedoms, which the enlightenment philosophers debated and defined, were put into practice, the freedom to own capital would inevitably dominate to the extent it does today.

His neglect of this issue whilst recognising the problems in the West suggest he is in denial; and such a denial would strongly suggest he is smitten by the system, even in the face of the problems that he and everyone else sees, and cannot find it in himself to look outside this paradigm, even though large sections of his population might be begging him to do so.

At a time when people across the world are questioning the capitalist system, the role of the United Nations, the ethical and spiritual vacuum that secularism has left within Britain and Europe, Ghannushi does not confront these issues in his speech, but excuses it as an aberration of secularism. It is all the more extraordinary because Islam has clear views on all these things—on how to solve the real human and economic problems facing society.

Either Tunisia is truly in a historic period of change, whereby such vital issues should be addressed, or it is merely making superficial changes to its governance and claims to remain content with being a satellite of distant states, and continue to revolve around the interests of those states.

The third lesson to be found in this speech is about the manipulation of Islamic ideas, either through omission or extension beyond their context in order to fit with these dominant secular capitalist norms.

Ghannushi makes some absolutely valid points about Islam from religious text and Islamic history, but then seems to manipulate them to conform to his preferred model.

He rightly mentions that Islam ‘since its inception, has always combined religion with politics, religion and state’, that ‘The Prophet (peace be upon him) was the founder of the religion as well as the state’, that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was an imam who led prayers whilst at same time ‘a political imam that arbitrated people’s disputes, lead armies, and signed various accords and treaties’, that the state founded in Al-Madina was a civilisational transformation and not simply founded on a transfer of power, that great scholars of Islam resisted the political leaders imposing one opinion upon people in all areas of religious practice or in relation to beliefs, that the Prophet (peace be upon him) established a constitution which recognized distinct communities based on religion, but then bound them together as citizens, that Islam sets a very high standard by justice and realizing peoples’ interests, that ijtihad can lead to a multitude of varying opinions, that Islam does not allow compulsion in religious belief; and the list goes on.

But with many of these points, he somewhat misrepresents the Islamic position to fit his own theory of governance which accord with Western norms.

So, when he discusses that in Islam there is a ‘distinction between the religious and the political’ and that Islamic scholars/jurists ‘distinguished between the system of transactions/dealings (Mu’amalat) and that of worship (‘Ibadat)’, he has omitted to clarify that Islam and the Shariah address both areas, but that the State’s jurisdiction is to adopt Shariah laws predominantly in the Mu’amalat, and issues such as the adoption of the sighting of the moon for Ramadhan, details about Zakat, and organization of the Hajj are all areas of ‘Ibadat that the State can have a role in.

When he discusses the constitution of Al-Madina, he omits the fact that all these citizens were united under Islamic rule as the law of the State even though they were not obliged to believe in it as divinely revealed. And, strangely, he equates the obedience to the law of the land—if that law is adopted from Islam—with hypocrisy since it forces one to adhere to something when it goes against one’s reason—an argument we never heard from him when he lived in the UK where he would have presumably held that obedience to the law of the land was ordained by Islam, even if one didn’t agree with it and provided it did not contradict Islamic law.

When he says that great scholars of Islam opposed political leaders imposing one opinion upon people in all areas of religious practice or in relation to beliefs, he omits the fact that one opinion needs to be adopted in any area where the law needs to be an arbiter in society, though not in matters of personal worship, private life or branches of religious knowledge. And when he tries to distinguish between what was ‘Wahy’ [revelation] and what is politics, he draws the line in such a way that ignores many aspects of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’s rule and those of the first four Caliphs (as witnessed by all the Companions of the Prophet)—both of which are indication of the Wahy.

When he discusses the issue of Justice and looking after peoples’ interests, it is as if this aim is divorced from the Shariah rules that have come to achieve this aim, and a mere intension of a majority parliamentary decision to meet these aims would be sufficient to make it in accordance with Islamic values or the ‘spirit’ of Islam.

He does not say what to do if this ‘spirit’ of Islam contradicts the rules of Islam! He is keen to have a truly democratic system—in the full Western sense—where the people vote for halal things, but omits what to do if the majority vote to allow an oppressive interest to run economy, or the freedom to insult Prophets of God. These omissions are necessary to discuss frankly.

All of these examples—and many others—reinforce the impression that the agenda is to conform to Western secular norms—either because he is smitten by their ideology, or because he fears the pressure from the West and the military leadership in Tunisia.

Whichever it is, the arguments delivered in this speech are a plethora of contradictions and confusion. And while this project unravels over the short to medium term (if it ever really gains ground within the society in the first place), Western governments and those hostile to Islam will undoubtedly welcome his deferential statements about secularism, freedom and democracy, seeing them as a victory for their ideas over Islam’s. Yet, they might still argue that because his party is an ‘Islamic’ party, any future political failures are a failure of political Islam. But they are more than likely to celebrate any successes as a triumph for a third way in Middle East politic—a middle road between Islam and Secularism which, it seems clear, would be little more than a secular state that is easy for external powers to manipulate politically and economically.


Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected] 

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