Shaikh Hamid al-Nayfar is a leading figure in Tunisia’s Islamist movement. Francois Burgat, who interviewed him in Tunis in 1985, works at the Centre de Recherches et d'Etudes sur les Societes Mediterraneennes (CRESM) in Aix-en-Provence, France.
What is the meaning of the name of your magazine, 15/21?
The basis of our project is to ask how one can be simultaneously a Muslim and live in this era — how to be a Muslim today. Fifteen stands for the fifteenth century of the hegira, the beginning of the Islamic community. Twenty-one signifies the fact that we are living now on the edge of the twenty-first century, with all the problems that poses for the world community.
Can you recall the route which led you into religious thought and then political action?
The end of the 1960s in Tunisia saw some fundamental changes. The departure of the Ben Salah government in 1970 marked the end of the socialist period, particularly the experience of the [agricultural] cooperatives. The change was very abrupt. Ben Salah was put on trial. Young people saw that the very same government could strike a leftist pose and then switch to rightwing economic policies. Many were completely disoriented. We realized that this was proof that there was no fundamental policy orientation.
Who joined the Islamist movement?
They were neither leftists nor rightists. They were uprooted. There was no longer any ideology that they could connect with. A search for identity became characteristic of this period.
To this Tunisian problem, you have to add what was occurring in France. I was living in Paris in May 1968. The question there was “where is the West going?&dquo; I discovered that we shared the same type of intellectual angst. It wasn’t only a Tunisian or Arab or Muslim problem.
The third thing that helps explain the emergence of the Islamist movement in Tunisia is the defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War. This represented a failure of the nationalist-Arab factor.
How did things fall into place in the Islamist movement?
A number of intellectuals, including Rachid al-Ghannouchi, began meeting together. Al-Ghannouchi was in Paris at the same time I was. Before that we had been together in Damascus. Immediately the question of religion was posed. None of those programs, which for so long seemed to offer certain solutions, could provide the answer — neither Arab nationalism nor Tunisian nationalism nor the West.
Had religion always played a significant role?
I’m from a very conservative family that was active in the University of Zaytouna. Religion and religious studies have always had an important place in my family.
So you never distanced yourself from religion?
Well, I was like everybody else. I didn’t practice at all. Religion was a part of the past, it was no longer current.
Why did you decide to organize yourselves into something besides informal meetings?
At that time there was the Quranic Preservation Society, set up by the ministry of religion. We began to congregate there. There was also al-Jama‘at al-Da‘wa (Association of the Islamic Call), a group that used to visit us every year from Pakistan. Soon Tunisians also joined their group. Al-Jama‘at al-Da‘wa people travel around the world preaching a return to Islam, to religious practice. We were influenced by their simplicity, a way of life that seemed old-fashioned in Tunisia.
Al-Jama‘at al-Da'wa was apolitical; it spread the “good news&dquo; and beseeched people to return to the straight path. There was a more intellectual tendency in the cadre of the QPS who wanted to organize conferences and meetings.
We functioned like that until 1973. Those years now seem to me to be ones of groping. But we were certain of one thing — that the religious aspect had become essential. By contrast, the political aspect was still very vague. No one agreed with the government, of course, but neither did anyone have a well thought-out plan of political action.
How was this vacillation resolved?
First, we came in contact with a Mr. Benslama, who was educated at Zaytouna. He had ideas that were a bit old-fashioned, of course, but he was very nice. Everyone readily agreed to re-launch the magazine, Al-Ma‘arifaf which had published one issue in 1962.
The second new element was Sadat’s release of the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. The Brothers resumed their literary production. Even before this, publications from Egypt had been very important. The shaikhs of Zaytouna were disappearing one by one, until we didn’t have any more ulama. Zaytouna University was completely closed. So the Egyptians encouraged us to engage more directly in political action as well as in underground planning.
What kind of ideological formation did you and Rachid al-Ghannouchi bring back from Syria?
I believe it was in Syria that al-Ghannouchi had his first contact with the Brothers. At the end of the ’60s the Islamist tendency was very weak, so upon returning from Damascus our political formation was still rather sketchy.
So it was from the reservoir of Muslim Brethren thought that the future ITM took its principle ideological references, strategies and tactics?
Yes. We read about how the Brethren in Egypt established their first cells. We lived in a country that was quite different from Egypt. The Tunisian government didn't concern itself much with the mosques. We could therefore meet very easily, outside of the usual Friday sermon. We also organized in the high schools. We held meetings during recess and lectured the students.
The government ignored you, but you considered yourselves essentially as political opponents?
We were tacitly against the government, but our ideology and plan of action wasn’t clear. We were against all Western forms of society, but what alternative society should we propose?
Things became clearer when our first high school students entered the university. There they came into contact with people from the left and the extreme right. This confrontation between traditional Islamic thought and the thought and modes of action of leftist groups radicalized our group. I believe it was at that moment that the political profile of the ITM was formed. The Islamist students couldn’t escape the university methods: political protest, meetings, graffiti, political “analyses.”
Imperialism — before no one ever spoke of imperialism. It was in contact with leftist elements that we discovered there was a history of foreign intervention in the lives of underdeveloped countries.
Did the movement then become more structured?
Not really. A bureau wasn’t established until 1981. But by that time I had already left the movement. In 1977 there was what we called a “central nexus” which, under the direction of al-Ghannouchi, planned activities, decided what was to be done in this or that mosque.
Why did your attitude toward the organization change?
Well, after 1975 I travelled to Egypt, where I met a number of religious personalities, especially among the Muslim Brothers, a whole bunch of well-known personalities who wrote in the newspapers and journals. It turned out in the end to be a deception.
You mean that their doctrine seemed insufficient to you?
Precisely. Let's take the example of Muhammad Qutb, whom I met in 1974 in Saudi Arabia. I explained to him that I was editor-in-chief of a magazine called Al-Ma‘afarifa. He shouted at me, “You are the agents of Bourguiba!” I realized that this man knew nothing of what was happening in Tunisia. He undoubtedly wrote very well. I read everything he published. But regarding the reality of the Arab countries, or at least Tunisia, he knew nothing whatsoever.
The second disillusion I had was with ‘Abd al-Alim Aouis, who was reputed to be the political theoretician of the Muslim Brothers and a specialist in the political history of the Muslim world. I asked him what the Brethren sanctioned in matters of curriculum and scholarly reform. He referred me to a text by Hasan al-Banna, who died in 1949. We were then in 1974! The problems had changed.
I came to realize that the Brethren of Egypt corresponded more to legend than anything else. What they called their methodology slowly appeared to me to be totally obsolete and could only lead to disaster. They spoke of three million members and sympathizers. I asked myself how a movement of such importance could have been broken up in a couple of months by Nasser — broken up not only physically, but ideologically! This organization hadn’t been capable of creating an ideological movement that could survive repression. A brotherhood of 4,000 members depending on three million sympathizers — and in a few months they could be imprisoned as if one was herding a flock of sheep. Obviously something had gone wrong. Besides, what they wrote was too general. This disillusionment gave me another way of seeing.
You somehow reclaimed your independence of thought?
Yes, but the problem was that our magazine, Al-Ma’arifa, was essentially that type of literature. I began to distance myself from the people there. Still, the movement spread and the audience for that type of literature grew.
With the radicalization going on inside the university and with what was happening at the trade union headquarters, you couldn’t take time to change orientation. We perceived the danger from the left to be imminent. If I put myself in al-Ghannouchi’s shoes, I understand that it was quite difficult to make any changes during that period. But I couldn’t continue. I felt we needed to create something Tunisian. I began to apply a notion that was completely taboo during that period: “Tunisian Islam.”
We also fought against what I called “the new sufism,” which ignored the uniqueness of each Arab country and only addressed Islam as a whole. For me, to emphasize solely the spiritual side of Islam is a form of sufism. Our project cannot have a real impact on our societies as long as we do not understand the workings of those societies, their recent history, their problems.
And on this basis you broke with the future ITM?
At the end of some articles that I wrote for Al-Ma‘arifa I pointedly attacked Hasan al-Banna. I wrote that this man was certainly a brave man, a militant, but he had not understood the ropes and that he was dead. D-e-a-d. To die physically is not important, but when one leads a movement and after one is gone the group is dismantled with surprising ease, that proves that the ideology was not in step with the real problems of society. We should not reemploy that strategy. We should study him, understand why all of al-Banna’s work went up in smoke. That’s what I wrote.
Since I was editor-in-chief of the magazine, I brought the text to the printer. Later, when I had the issue in hand, I noticed that the entire paragraph where I discussed Hasan al-Banna had been deleted. The director of the magazine had cut it without even speaking to me.
I requested that a statement be published in the next issue and it did appear. Then I withdrew. I remained alone for almost a year. “He’s someone whose faith is weak, they insinuated. “He no longer believes in certain things.” But at that time, I have to say that they were hardly concerned with those problems. Not as long as the meetings and sermons were successful. And the Iranian revolution was about to occur and give the movement greater significance.
That’s another important date in the history of this movement, right?
Absolutely. But I remember that at first the leadership of the ITM kept their distance. Rachid al-Ghannouchi thought that it was above all a Shi‘i revolution. After seeing the magnitude of the revolution, the participation of the entire Iranian population, it was no longer possible to remain neither for nor against. So they threw themselves onto the side of the Iranian revolution, especially in the magazines Al-Ma‘arifa and Al-Mujtama‘a. In its last issue, Al-Mujtama‘a published a huge picture of Khomeini on the cover. It was from that moment on that the authorities started to become alarmed. They arrested al-Ghannouchi for a few days and seized internal documents of the movement. I had met with Rashid al-Ghannouchi months before his arrest. I said that now that they were involved in this political business they could never turn back. He told me he didn't think he was risking more than six months in prison — if the government had the guts to put them on trial. They truly believed they were too strong for the government to dare to try. But all those people who followed them in the mosques did not constitute a real base.
A movement can only be important on two conditions — if it has structures and associations involved with various social classes and representing a definite social phenomenon, not marginal, frustrated people. Otherwise it's some kind of crowd. The second condition is that the movement provide a plan that society can identify with. A plan must have a well developed social profile, and that is something that the ITM has never had.
For you, the ITM stepped into political action much too soon, without the necessary theoretical reflection on which to base its activities?
It’s true. Theoretical reflection and reflection on reality. But they couldn’t lead this reflection as long as they believed that everything that took place between 1881-1956, and even between 1956 and the emergence of the Islamist movement — the Bourguiba project of modernization and all that — amounted to nothing, just a historical parentheses.
Translated by Linda G. Jones