Tunisia`s Ghannouchi: Islamists to dominate Arab world
By Dasha Afanasieva
November 29, 2012
Salafist cleric leader Yasser Borhamy (R) speaks with Bassam al-Zarqa, one of the advisors to Egypt`s President Mohamed Mursi, at the Shura Council during the final vote on a draft new Egyptian constitution, November 29, 2012. An assembly drafting Egypt`s new constitution voted on Thursday to keep the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation, unchanged from the previous constitution in force under former President Hosni Mubarak. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany
LONDON, Nov 29 (Reuters) - The leader of the Tunisian Islamist party that rose to power after the first Arab Spring uprising last year said this week that Islamist movements would eventually emerge triumphant throughout the Arab world after a difficult transition period.
Rached al-Ghannouchi, whose Ennahda party governs with two junior leftist partners, said secular groups should join forces with Islamists to manage the first phase after autocratic rulers were removed.
But in the end, Islam will be the “reference point”.
“The Arab world is going through a transition phase which needs coalitions to govern, which brings together Islamist and secular trends,” Ghannouchi said in an interview during a trip to London where he spoke at Chatham House.
“These coalitions will lead to eventual rapprochement between the Islamists and the secularists.”
However, he added Islamists would have the upper hand.
“There`s a true way that Islam represents the common ground for everyone ... Eventually Islam becomes a reference point for everyone,” he said.
The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of an uprising two years ago that sparked “Arab Spring” revolts that have empowered Islamists throughout the region.
Ennahda is accused by liberals of sympathy with puritanical Salafis, concerns exacerbated by a video that surfaced last month in which Ghannouchi is heard discussing which parts of the state are now in Islamist hands and how Salafis should spread their influence further.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt - a movement affiliated to Ennahda - is locked in conflict with secular forces who fear the new Islamist President Mohammed Mursi and his Brotherhood backers want to impose their vision on society.
The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is also the strongest force in the opposition that hopes to take over in the country if President Bashar al-Assad is ousted by rebels in what has become a bloody civil war that has claimed some 40,000 lives.
The Brotherhood-linked groups, which include the Hamas group that rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip, are backed by Qatar and its influential television network Al Jazeera.
The Gulf Arab state has played a pivotal role in supporting protests and armed rebellions that have ousted rulers in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen, who all cast themselves to one degree or another as protectors of Arab secularism.
Islamist movements say they will return Arab societies to more authentic values that were distorted by colonialism and excessive Western influence.
CHANGE IN GULF?
Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia from exile in London after Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali fled in January 2011, predicted there would be more change in the Gulf Arab region, whose family-ruled states, insulated by oil and gas wealth, have been the most resistant to the Arab Spring.
“I expect the victory of the Syrian revolution, reforms in more than one Arab country, particularly in the Gulf region,” Ghannouchi said, when asked about the next stage, citing Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. “And for the countries where there have been revolutions, (I expect) there to be more stability.”
Qatar joined other Gulf states in backing Bahrain`s ruling Al Khalifa family against an uprising led by the island`s majority Shi`ite population.
On Thursday, a Qatari court sentenced a poet to life in prison for incitement to overthrow the government and criticising the ruling emir.
Saudi Arabia faces emboldened Shi`ite protesters in its Eastern Province, while quieting its Sunni majority with more social spending and clerical warnings against protests.
But mass protests by Kuwaitis since October over an election law decree by the Emir has alarmed Gulf states this year.
Speaking through an interpreter, Ghannouchi said he saw further reforms in Morocco, where early elections last year brought an Islamist-led government to power though ultimate control of state affairs still lies with King Mohammed.
“Morocco has already made quite a few significant steps on the path to reform, and these will continue,” he said.
(Editing by Andrew Hammond and Sophie Hares)
© 2012 Reuters Limited
In Egypt and Tunisia, Salafis move from prisons to parliaments
The Christian Science Monitor
November 28, 2012
Members of the ultra-conservative Salafist al-Nur party attend the first session of the Egyptian parliament since a popular uprising ousted Hosni Mubarak in Cairo on 23 January 2012. Egypt`s first free parliamentary elections, which were held in phases between November and early January, saw Islamists clinch nearly three-quarters of the seats. GETTY
Mehdi Mezmi rediscovered Islam eight years ago via a website, then illegal to access in his native Tunisia, called Minbar at- Tawheed wal Jihad The Forum for Gods Oneness and Holy Struggle.
It seemed to him a dark time for Islam. Afghanistan and Iraq were under US assault. At home, President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was jailing the pious under a new anti-terrorism law. Mr. Mezmi read about the struggles of the early Muslims, and was inspired.
I felt the prophet was talking about our times and what was happening in the world, he says.
Today Mezmi works as a tugboat engineer in Tunis. He`s also part of a deeply conservative and sometimes violent - Islamic current known as Salafism that has gathered force in North Africa since the 2011 uprisings. It`s inevitable that Salafis will help guide their countries evolution. The challenge for governments is to make sure they do so peacefully.
Salafis made international headlines in September with assaults on US embassies in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt. While they have mainly acted as pressure groups so far, some leaders fearful of violence want to steer Salafi activists into politics instead.
There must be zero tolerance toward violence, says Said Ferjani, a political bureau member of Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that leads Tunisia`s coalition government. We have to bring them into the sphere of intellectual and theological debate, because where there is debate, you can challenge their views.
Reversion to `early Islam`
Salafis are Sunni Muslims who aim to emulate Islam`s first three generations, called salaf in Arabic, in a quest to transform society. But views differ on the right approach. Many Salafis simply try to set an example. Some get involved in preaching and charity work. A minority embrace varying degrees of violence.
The evolution of Salafi thinking dates to medieval scholars such as Ibn Taymiyyah. His call to scrap centuries of jurisprudence and return to the pure Islam of the prophet Mohammed`s time has inspired generations of fundamentalist reformers.
One was the 18th century scholar Mohammed Ibn Abdel Wahhab, who branded other Muslims infidels a widely reviled practice called takfir and teamed up with the Al Saud family to seize control of central Arabia. His teachings now form the basis of Saudi Arabia`s state creed.
Most Salafi scholars, however, have warned against getting into politics. Sometimes called Scholastic Salafism, this school of thought urges Muslims to live piously and invite others to do likewise.
Both Salafis and more moderate reformers have long debated issues such as takfir, the concept of holy struggle called jihad, and the role of sharia the comprehensive understanding of how Islam guides life. In recent decades a new discourse has offered stark answers.
Forged in the crucible of the 1980s Afghan war, the violent fundamentalism of Al Qaeda and its cheerleaders demands direct application of sharia, depicts Islam as under attack including by some Muslim-world governments and calls on Muslims to fight in its defense. Those who do so are often called Salafi jihadis.
Making sense of life
Meanwhile in North Africa, the regimes of Tunisia`s Ben Ali, Libya`s Muammar Qaddafi, and Egypt`s Hosni Mubarak spent decades trampling dissent, letting unemployment skyrocket, and seeking to varying degrees to control religious life.
For some North Africans raised in the bleak landscape of authoritarianism, Islamic activism offers meaning, says Isabelle Werenfels, a specialist on the Middle East and Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, in Berlin.
Many of the people termed Salafi don`t really know much about Islam, she says. These are young people who don`t have many choices. They`re looking for a way to give sense to life.
Mezmi has studied Islam for longer than many young Salafis, but he waited five years before he dared let his beard grow a good way to attract the police in Ben Ali`s Tunisia. His friend Hamza El Arabi, an engineer at a plastics factory, also studied discreetly. The two men grew up in El Kram, a working-class neighborhood of Tunis. One recent evening they were sharing an outdoor caf table with their friend Redouan, also a Salafi. Inside, dozens of eyes were glued to a soccer match on TV.
Before, it was like I didn`t have an identity, says Redouan, 26, who began studying Islam in 2010. In jeans and sneakers, he and his friends still look like most of the other young men at the caf save for their beards. I was drinking and playing cards. And in Islam I found my identity.
A slide toward intolerance
Since last year, a growing number of North Africans mainly young men has translated that sense of identity into action. Most Salafi activism has been peaceful. But violence has risen, from messy scraps between police and rioters to religiously-driven vandalism.
In Tunisia, Salafis have done charitable work and called for religious freedoms such as lifting restrictions on Islamic dress denied them under Ben Ali. But some have also lashed out at what they call blasphemy.
Demonstrations last year against a Tunis TV station that aired the film Persepolis, which contains an image of God, ended in rioting. Last June Salafi activists trashed an art show on similar grounds, with similar results.
In Libya, Islamic hardliners have wrecked several mosques associated with Islam`s mystical Sufi traditions. Sufis often congregate around spiritual leaders they believe transmit Gods blessing, and bury them inside mosques. To Salafis, that can look like witchcraft and polytheism.
If these people controlled the country they`d kill everyone, says Abdelbaset al Turki, a relative of Sheikh Abderrahman al Turki, who since 2003 has led the Sufi community at the Zaouia al Shaab mosque overlooking Tripoli`s harbor.
One morning in August, Abdelbaset al Turki watched Salafis bulldoze the Zaouia, pick-axe open graves, and pull out four bodies including Sheikh Abderrahmans father and grandfather. Nominally pro- government militiaman on gun-mounted pick-ups blocked any interference.
Now the Zaouia al Shaab Sufis frequent the home of Sheikh Abderrahman, a converted garage, where one September afternoon Abdelbaset al Turki and his brother, Fathi, were having tea. Photos of robed figures hung on the wall. The men say rigid Salafi doctrines contradict Islam.
Sufis know the history of Ibn Abdel Wahhab and the Wahhabi discord, and stay with the true belief, says Fathi al Turki.
Just weeks after the Zaouia al Shaab was destroyed, four US diplomats were killed in an assault on the US consulate in Benghazi that US officials blame on a local Salafi Jihadi militia with possible links to Al Qaeda. Three days later, Salafi-led mobs attacked US embassies in Cairo and Tunis over an American-made film that lampooned the prophet Mohammed.
Mezmi and his friends blame such excess in part on a shaky grasp of religion. Several Salafi-led demonstrations in Tunisia have turned violent after hordes of young men some perhaps Salafis, some apparently just poor and angry seized the occasion to brawl with police.
If Abou Iyadh calls for a demonstration, thousands of Salafis will turn out, Mezmi says, citing a prominent Tunisian Salafi. But so will thousands of other guys, because they`re Muslims, and some of them are ignorant and throw stones.
The solution, they say, is better knowledge of Islam.
We have sheikhs in Tunisia and abroad, like in Saudi prisons and in Yemen, says El Arabi. Their teachings are available online.
Working within the system
However, that sort of ad-hoc study invites extremist ideas, says Mr. Ferjani, from Ennahda. His party wants to tackle job-creation while also training mainstream religious teachers to coax Salafis from society`s margins into political life.
In Egypt, that has already begun. Salafis generally stayed out of politics under Mr. Mubarak`s rule. Some objected on religious grounds to any semblance of democracy, however flawed. Others preferred to sit out a rigged game. But recently some have changed tack.
The Salafi Nour Party won nearly a quarter of seats in Egypt`s lower house of parliament, which has since been dissolved, in elections last year. It sees politics as a way to express our own point of view, to have pressure power, and to participate in the next government, says spokesman Nader Bakkar.
The Nour Party wants to put its stamp on Egypt`s new constitution. It strove to make a more direct connection to sharia via an article making the principles of sharia the main source of legislation and pushed hard if unsuccessfully for Cairo`s Al Azhar University, a leading Islamic authority, to vet laws for sharia compliance.
The prospect of Salafis in politics has gotten mixed reviews. While some Egyptians prefer them to the slick businessmen who rose to power under Mubarak, others worry of a clampdown on personal freedoms. As a Cairo taxi driver named Hossam put it, they`ll make us stop listening to music and grow our beards.
In Tunisia, a leaked video in October showing Ennahda`s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, advising Salafis to work gradually, prompted liberals to cry conspiracy. Ennahda said the remarks, recorded last April, were taken out of context.
Politics could bring an element of realism to [Salafis] perceptions and approaches, argues Ferjani. They must make an adjustment, and that can only happen within the sphere of democratic interaction.
Democracy vs. Islam?
In Tunisia, the newly-minted Reform Party hopes to play that role, says its president, Mohamed Khoja. Two decades ago his activity in underground Islamist circles earned him ten months in Ben Ali`s jails. Today his party wants to channel resurgent Salafi energy into politics.
Its not a choice between democracy and Islam, he says. The people can have political authority what matters is that governance is Islamic and law adheres to sharia.
For now, Mr. Khoja and his party are trying to win the ear of young Salafis. Winning their support may prove difficult. Many reject democracy as un-Islamic.
Gods governance but the peoples authority that`s just philosophizing, says Mezmi, using a term that in Islamic parlance often equates to splitting hairs.
He and his friends want to refashion society, but through other means than electoral politics.
Governance should be what comes to us from God, says El Arabi. Not communism, not liberalism, not secularism. Only Islam.
After the Arab Spring uprisings, it`s inevitable that Salafis will help steer the evolution of North Africa`s new governments. The challenge is to make sure they do so peacefully.
© 2012 Christian Science Monitor. All Rights Reserved.
The Gulf protection racket is corrupt and dangerous folly
November 07, 2012
In this photo, British Prime Minister David Cameron, left, shakes hands with Saudi Arabia`s King Abdullah, right, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, November 06, 2012. Saudi Press Agency
Sooner or later the Arab despots David Cameron is selling arms to will fall, and the states that backed them will pay the price
On the nauseating political doublespeak scale, David Cameron`s claim to “support the Arab spring” on a trip to sell weapons to Gulf dictators this week hit a new low. No stern demands for free elections from the autocrats of Arabia - or calls for respect for human rights routinely dished out even to major powers like Russia and China.
As the kings and emirs crack down on democratic protest, the prime minister assured them of his “respect and friendship”. Different countries, he explained soothingly in Abu Dhabi, needed “different paths, different timetables” on the road to reform: countries that were western allies, spent billions on British arms and sat on some of the world`s largest oil reserves in particular, he might have added by way of explanation.
Cameron went to the Gulf as a salesman for BAE Systems - the private arms corporation that makes Typhoon jets - drumming up business from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Oman, as well as smoothing ruffled feathers over British and European parliamentary criticism of their human rights records on behalf of BP and other companies.
No wonder the prime minister restricted media coverage of the jaunt. But, following hard on the heels of a similar trip by the French president, the western message to the monarchies was clear enough: Arab revolution or not, it`s business as usual with Gulf despots.
The spread of protest across the Arab world has given these visits added urgency. A year ago, in the wake of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, it seemed the Gulf regimes and their western backers had headed off revolt by crushing it in Bahrain, buying it off in Saudi Arabia, and attempting to hijack it in Libya and then Syria - while successfully playing the anti-Shia sectarian card.
But popular unrest has now reached the shores of the Gulf. In Kuwait, tens of thousands of demonstrators, including Islamists, liberals and nationalists, have faced barrages of teargas and stun grenades as they protest against a rigged election law, while all gatherings of more than 20 have been banned.
After 18 months of violent suppression of the opposition in Bahrain, armed by Britain and America, the regime has outlawed all anti-government demonstrations. In western-embraced Saudi Arabia, protests have been brutally repressed, as thousands are held without charge or proper trial.
Meanwhile, scores have been jailed in the UAE for campaigning for democratic reform, and in Britain`s favourite Arab police state of Jordan, protests have mushroomed against a Kuwaiti-style electoral stitch-up. London, Paris and Washington all express concern - but arm and back the autocrats.
Cameron insists they need weapons to defend themselves. When it comes to the small arms and equipment Britain and the US supply to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and other Gulf states, he must mean from their own people. But if he`s talking about fighter jets, they`re not really about defence at all.
This is effectively a mafia-style protection racket, in which Gulf regimes use oil wealth their families have commandeered to buy equipment from western firms they will never use. The companies pay huge kickbacks to the relevant princelings, while a revolving door of political corruption provides lucrative employment for former defence ministers, officials and generals with the arms corporations they secured contracts for in office.
Naturally, western leaders and Arab autocrats claim the Gulf states are threatened by Iran. In reality, that would only be a risk if the US or Israel attacked Iran - and in that case, it would be the US and its allies, not the regimes` forces, that would be defending them. Hypocrisy doesn`t begin to describe this relationship, which has long embedded corruption in a web of political, commercial and intelligence links at the heart of British public life.
But support for the Gulf dictatorships - colonial-era feudal confections built on heavily exploited foreign workforces - is central to western control of the Middle East and its energy resources. That`s why the US has major military bases in Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, Oman and Bahrain.
The danger now is of escalating military buildup against Iran and intervention in the popular upheavals that have been unleashed across the region. Both the US and Britain have sent troops to Jordan in recent months to bolster the tottering regime and increase leverage in the Syrian civil war. Cameron held talks with emirates leaders this week about setting up a permanent British military airbase in the UAE.
The prime minister defended arms sales to dictators on the basis of 300,000 jobs in Britain`s “defence industries”. Those numbers are inflated and in any case heavily reliant on government subsidy. But there`s also no doubt that British manufacturing is over-dependent on the arms industry and some of that support could usefully be diverted to, say, renewable technologies.
But even if morality and corruption are dismissed as side issues, the likelihood is that, sooner or later, these autocrats will fall - as did the Shah`s regime in Iran, on which so many British and US arms contracts depended at the time. Without western support, they would have certainly been toppled already. As Rached Ghannouchi, the Tunisian leader whose democratic Islamist movement was swept to power in elections last year, predicted: “Next year it will be the turn of monarchies.” When that happens, the western world risks a new backlash from its leaders` corrupt folly.
© Copyright 2012. The Guardian. All rights reserved.