Last January, shortly after the collapse of the government of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Rachid Ghannouchi returned home to Tunisia after over twenty years in exile. One of the founders and intellectual leader of Tunisia’s non-violent Islamist Ennahda ("Rennaissance") party, which claimed victory in Tunisia’s recent elections, Ghannouchi spent much of the 1980’s in Tunisian prisons for his political activities. He left Tunisia for Europe in 1987, and spent the intervening decades opposing the Tunisian regime from exile.

Earlier this week I attended a discussion with Ghannouchi at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he talked about his movement’s victory, addressed concerns about the various Islamist currents unleashed by the Arab revolutions, and how his ideas on the relationship between Islam, human rights, and democracy have developed over the years.

"Events in Tunisia have changed the world," Ghannouchi said. "Some had claimed that change was only possible through violence,” but the Tunisian revolution has shown differently. Ghannouchi described the revolutions across the Arab world as "like surgery, a painful last resort by our nations to save themselves. Some revolutions, like some surgeries, fail. We hope for success.”

The region continues to be "governed by dictators, single families controlling wealth, like a mafia robbing the country, using violence to enforce their rule," Ghannouchi said. By delegitimizing and banning non-violent movements like Ennahda, the Tunisian government "created a void that was filled by more violent Salafi ideologies… But the violent alternative didn’t succeed. [It] did not produce a single case of success.” Moreover, “Violent elements enabled dictators to present themselves to the West as allies in the war on terror.”

Describing the role of Islam in the Arab revolutions, Ghannouchi said that "Islam gave people self-confidence, helped them break their fear." He described the events of the past year as "An opportunity to reintroduce Islam on the global stage, not as a symbol of violence, but as a symbol of unity and peace.” Ghannouchi noted that "There are many currents within Islamism. My feeling is that the dominant current will be a centrist, moderate current." He also stressed that “We don’t want religious division in society. The real division should be between pro- and anti-democracy forces.”

Addressing the role of sharia in a future Tunisia, specifically in regard to the status of women and non-Muslims. Ghannouchi said, “Discrimination against women, to me, finds no real justification in the text" of the Koran, which "has revealed that the Creator will look to our hearts and our deeds to judge us."

"There is one issue that has bothered me," Ghannouchi continued, "that’s the issue of reversion, the ability to leave Islam. I concluded when I was in prison that people should be free to come and go in religion as they please.”

Asked about anti-U.S. comments he had made during first Gulf War — he condemned the U.S. as an “enemy of Islam” and supported Saddam Hussein — Ghannouchi claimed that his words had been distorted, but also noted that "they’re also from twenty years ago. Only stones do not change. People do. If you look at what I’ve been writing [over the past years] you will see the difference.”

Discussing the future Tunisian relationship with Israel, Ghannouchi said, "If the Palestinians reach an agreement with the Israelis, it will no longer be a concern of people in the region. I don’t think any Muslim country will have a tougher position than the Palestinians." Ghannouchi stressed that "We have no problem with people of any religion. After Ennahda’s victory, the leader of Tunisia’s Jewish community congratulated us.” Asked whether he thought language against relations with Israel did not belong in the Tunisian constitution, as has been considered, he responded, “Yes. I don’t think this should be included in the constitution, which should focus on Tunisia, not on other countries.”

I asked Ghannouchi about the impact of the young Tunisians who had traveled to Iraq to fight, something he had mentioned earlier in the discussion. “There are hundreds of young people from Tunisia who went to Iraq," he said. "Many are still in prisons there or dead. Some have been executed for crimes. This is a problem for [Tunisian] public opinion, a source of stress between Tunisia and Iraq." But "there is a lot of work being done" between the two governments to deal with this issue, Ghannouchi said. I followed up afterward and asked if he thought the Iraq war had made any contribution to the Arab revolutions, as some in the U.S. have claimed. He looked at me and said simply, “I don’t think there’s any relationship.”

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