Rashid Ghannouchi on Britain, Islam and liberal democracy

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Rashid GhannouchiImage source, AFP

One of the leading ideologues of the modern Muslim world has a vision of a state where respect for Islam and other faiths exists within a secular system - and he points to the UK as a model. But can his words be taken at face value?

Woodville Road in Ealing, West London, is not necessarily the first place you would expect a new future for political Islam to be forged.

But it was partly here, in tree-lined English suburbia, that the softly-spoken Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi developed a unique set of ideas that are are gaining traction internationally, in the wake of the Arab Spring.

The green lawns of suburban London appear to have been more than just a base for Mr Ghannouchi. He once famously declared that Britain embodied the values of his ideal Islamic state more than most Muslim-majority nations - a shocking statement at a time when many Muslim ideologues saw the West as a mortal enemy.

"We consider that a state is more Muslim, more Islamic, the more it has justice in it," he says.

"When people asked me why I came to Britain, I explained that I was going to a country ruled by a queen where people are not oppressed and where justice prevails."

More than 20 years ago, Mr Ghannouchi - then, as now, Tunisia's leading Islamist ideologue - sought refuge in Britain. He used the time in exile to complete a series of writings arguing that Islam and modern, secular democracy are compatible.

"His views have always been considered quite liberal," says Maha Azzam of the Chatham House think tank in London. "He was able to return after over two decades in exile… and still win the hearts and minds of the young."

In a dramatic sequence of events last year, Tunisia kick-started the Arab Spring by throwing off dictatorship, and then held elections, from which Mr Ghannouchi's party, Ennahda, emerged as the biggest winner.

Mr Ghannouchi's writings, have already been required reading by Muslim parties competing in elections and they are now experiencing renewed popularity across large swathes of the Muslim world.

He says he sells more books in Turkey than Tunisia. He is being read in Malaysia's Islamic Party, and his writings are apparently attracting attention among younger members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood as they grow in power.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood recently followed in Ennahda's footsteps, winning a third of the seats in parliamentary elections.

Other Brotherhood-inspired parties hope to benefit if countries elsewhere in the region, such as Yemen and Syria, eventually move towards democracy.

In a detailed interview for the BBC's ideas series, Analysis, Mr Ghannouchi was candid about his ideology and the challenges it now faces.

Tunisia is now drawing up a new constitution and one of the key questions it faces is the role of Islam in the government apparatus. Many want religion to be the basis of the country's law, while others want to see a strict division between religion and state.

"Tunisia's elite is very closely connected to French secularism - the idea that society and state have to be secular and religion has very little role to play in that society," says Maha Azzam of Chatham House.

In pre-revolutionary Tunisia, even the hijab or female headscarf was largely banned.

Mr Ghannouchi argues that Britain's version of secular democracy is more neutral and tolerant than the French, and therefore has some of the answers.

"The type of state we want is one that doesn't interfere in people's private lives," says Mr Ghannouchi.

"The state should not have anything to do with imposing or telling people what to wear, what to eat and drink, what they believe in, what they should believe in."

He says he has no plans to ban bikinis on the beach or the sale of alcohol, for example. "I would prefer it if people didn't do this, but it is up to them," he says.

"His vision for the model of an Islamic nation is built heavily on the idea of values," explains Anas Altikriti, a British Islamist intellectual whose father led the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq.

Mr Ghannouchi goes back to the values of the Koran rather than a literal reading of it. He then argues that these values - such as justice, public consultation and human rights - are encapsulated in modern democratic states.

But many secular-minded people simply do not trust Rashid Ghannouchi.

"He's just playing on words," says Ibtisam, one of a group of Tunisian feminist law students.

"The danger is that yes, they say you can go to the beach in a bikini. But at the same time when women on the beach are attacked [by Islamists], they are doing nothing to protect them," she says.

Others in both the Arab World and the West accuse Mr Ghannouchi of double-talk when it comes to Islam and democracy.

While he encourages Islamists to work in a secular system he has also written that "secularism is turning the West into a place of selfish beasts".

He says this was meant as a criticism of how religious and moral values were fading away. "This leads to threats to family values, to values of solidarity," he explains.

Doubts are also expressed by those who worry that Islamist leaders will turn on Israel. When questioned by the BBC about Israel's right to exist, he didn't answer directly - saying instead that Israel has a duty to make peace with the Palestinians.

So is this all tactical talk - using democracy as a way to impose theocratic states by the back door?

No, says Maha Azzam. She argues that Tunisians and other Arabs have now lost their fear of tyrannical dictators, and so Islamic parties have no option but to remain democratic.

"The struggle of those that came out on to the streets of Tunisia is for accountable government," Ms Azzam says.

"Within that context, they still want respect for Islamic values, but I don't think that there is a desire for an Islamic system of government that throws away democracy."

Anas Altikriti says Mr Ghannouchi's theories are helping the Muslim Brotherhood to stop talking endlessly about ideology and instead address the tough questions - such as how to create jobs - that the electorate care about most.

"For the past 30 years the Muslim Brotherhood has been raising the slogan, 'Islam is the answer,'" he says. "Well now they really need to answer many, many tough questions."

You can listen to the full Analysis programme about Rachid Ghannouchi's ideas on the BBC Radio 4 website, or on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday 12 February 2012 at 21:30 GMT. You can also download the podcast.

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