Public Freedoms in the Islamic State

[On October 27 the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding co-hosted a book launch for the English translation of Rached Ghannouchi’s book Public Freedoms in the Islamic State, co-moderated by Radwan Masmoudi and John  Esposito.  This is a summery of highlights of and is not intended to be a transcript of that discussion.]

Prof. John Esposito, Georgetown University and the Center for Christian-Muslim Understanding. We have seen how Shaikh Rashed walked his talk, and, until recently, hopes were high for the success of Tunisian democracy.

Shaikh Rached responded to questions from Andrew March, Univ. of Amherst (who said this book is of importance not only to Islamic studies but to political philosophy more broadly) David L. Johnston, Fuller Theological Seminary (who translated the book), Tamara Sonn, Georgetown Univ. (who noted it was his advocacy of democracy that required Shaikh Ghannouchi to seek political asylum in the face then, as now, of well-funded disinformation campaigns), and from the audience.

Rached Ghannouchi wrote this book during exile and imprisonment. Islam is valid for all time and places and not linked to  a particular context.  There  is no value unless humans are free. Shurah (consultation with stakeholders) and democracy are compatible. Revelation and reason are compatible. All human relationship are established by free will, whether social, theological, or economic. Freedom of conscience is essential. In prison he came to realize that riddah is a political crime (treason), not a religious crime (apostasy). Islam is democratic because democracy is not a creed but a mechanism to avoid dictatorship. The ethical dimension is important in the state. Islam provides values from which a democracy may draw strength.

The first Islamic state in Medina was headed by the Messenger (peace be upon him) so that state and ummah were intertwined. Now the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) consists of 27 countries, and the religious community is no longer linked to the nation state, but refers to a broader society.

Human beings are ideological creatures. Even secularism is a kind of religion. Humans have spiritual longings beyond matter. Politics is built on interests but should not be divorced from values. For example, the war on Iraq in the nineties, launched on the false premise that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, led to horrible consequences to Iraqis and to Westerners. The transition to democracy in Tunisia has been difficult but so have all others — many more difficult. Even America has undergone wars and even recently has seen an attack in the Capitol. Tunisians will fight those who seek to take it back to its despotic past.

Sayyid Qutb believed that Islam is civilization, whereas Malek Bennabi believed that they are separate things. Islam can be understood in a way that produces progress or that leaves us backward. Ghannouchi met with both men and realized that Malek Bennabi’s understanding was better. The greater the space for freedom, the more liberal understandings of Islam that spread. Under the Soviet Union Islam was almost extinct, but as soon as communism collapsed, Islam regained its power. Islam flourishes where there is freedom.

The concept of human vicegerency is a fundamental concept due to the fact that humans are neither pure matter nor pure spirit. Regarding non-Muslim minorities, all citizens equally own the state regardless of creed. In the process of writing the book Ghannouchi abandoned any notion of classes of citizenship, realizing in the modern world such distinctions serve no positive purpose. In the medieval era Muslim states came closer to this ideal than the Christian ones.

Like Stalin and Hitler, the founders of the French Revolution (who invented modern state terrorism) were all secular. In America, politicians visit churches, synagogues, and mosques, and debate issues like abortion and prayer in the schools. Yet, many have chosen to push democracy on the French, rather than the American, model. In Tunisia, Ghannouchi was not pushed from parliament by elections, but by a coup which some persons in a position to do something about it have refused to call it by its true name. Ghannouchi believes people are fundamentally good and is hopeful that the truth will prevail over the smear-mongers.

Responding to a question as to whether democracy is now unpopular in Tunisia and Egypt, Ghannouchi said that we cannot say that democracy failed in Tunisia or Egypt until there have been free and fair elections from which no one is excluded.

Ghannouchi denied any contradiction between Islam and democracy. In democracies, parliaments represent the people, but they do not have absolute power.  They reflect the common culture whether it is Islamic or something else. The book is premised on the notion that Islam is freedom. Establishing freedom is the necessary first step towards an Islamic state. Excluding secularism from public life  is not moderation, it is extremism of a Jacobin sort.

Islam is a space for common ground, not conflict. Islam is democratic because democracy wants to create space for dialog, not war. Tunisia is living though a difficult transition, but it shall triumph because justice will prevail.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad. I asked a question which, unfortunately, there was not time for Shaikh Rached to entertain: Even if foreign investment were more valuable than domestic development (a premise I do not share) a viable domestic economy would still be important to attract foreign investment. Either way, what though have you given to freeing up the Tunisian domestic economy, especially given the degree to which over-regulation invites the corruption which, after all, was the seed around which the regulation there sprang?

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute






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