Late last September, in the sweltering, heavily guarded State Security Court in Tunis, all eyes were fixed on Shaikh Rachid al-Ghannouchi as he concluded his impassioned defense:

If God wishes me to become the martyr of the mosques, then let it be so. But I tell you that my death will not be in vain, and that from my blood, Islamic flowers will grow.

The 47-year-old philosophy teacher and leader of the Islamic Tendency Movement (ITM) then returned to solitary confinement and awaited judgement on charges of spearheading an Iranian-backed plot to overthrow the Tunisian government. Many feared that President Habib Bourguiba would carry out his threat to “eradicate the fundamentalist poison,” even though the state’s case against the Islamist leader was extremely weak.

During the month-long trial that began in late August, international observers noted the prosecution’s exaggeration of tenuous circumstantial evidence against al-Ghannouchi and the ITM. They suggested that the proceedings amounted to a mere show trial, staged to eradicate a political adversary. Arab and Western leaders urged leniency in deciding al-Ghannouchi’s case, fearing that a death sentence would radicalize the movement and incite civil unrest.

In the end, the court handed down a life sentence at forced labor, depriving al-Ghannouchi of the opportunity to be “martyr of the mosques.” Civil unrest was avoided and by mid-November 1987 Bourguiba was in forced retirement. The new regime of former military intelligence chief Zine El Abidine Ben Ali abolished the State Security Court, made overtures to restore the “Arab/Islamic character” of Tunisia and reportedly released all political prisoners, many of them Islamists. Al-Ghannouchi was finally granted amnesty on May 14, 1988.

Lost Generation

Rachid al-Ghannouchi Khriji was born in 1941 in al-Hama, a village near the southeastern coast of Tunisia. The youngest of eight children, he studied at the prestigious Zaytouna madrasa, where he obtained a diploma in theology, and at Khaldounia secondary school in Tunis. He enrolled at the University of Damascus in 1964 and received a master’s degree in philosophy four years later. As a student he briefly joined a secular nationalist party. “But in my inner self,” he later confessed, “I did not cease to be a believer.” Like so many of his generation, he came to blame Western ideologies, particularly nationalism and socialism, for the Arab defeat in 1967. He was strongly attracted to the Muslim Brothers’ Islamist ideology, which he subsequently “adopted in its totality.”

In 1968 al-Ghannouchi went to France to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, where he witnessed the tumultuous student uprising of that year. For him, France’s political upheaval discredited the supposed superiority of Western civilization. Al-Ghannouchi returned home in 1969 to find his own country in the throes of upheaval. Bourguiba had purged his Socialist ministers and radically altered official economic policy in the direction of market liberalism. For al-Ghannouchi, this mercurial switch reflected the country’s lack of direction and crisis of identity. In 1970, al-Ghannouchi and ‘Abd al-Fatah Mourou, a Tunisian lawyer and Muslim activist, joined the government-sponsored Quranic Preservation Society (QPS) with the express desire to rebuild the “Arab-Muslim character” of Tunisian society. Wearing a trimmed beard, white jallaba and red chechia (headdress), “Shaikh” al-Ghannouchi drew crowds at Tunisia’s long abandoned mosques, where he spread the teachings of such Muslim fundamentalist ideologues as Abu al-Ala al-Maududi, Hasan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb.

Ostensibly an apolitical association, the QPS had Bourguiba’s blessing, part of his effort to stem the tide of anti-government criticism and to counter the left. But events in Tunisia and the regime politicized al-Ghannouchi and Tunisian society as a whole. In January 1978 the Tunisian army brutally suppressed a general strike. This event, along with the successes of the Iranian Revolution over the following year, broadened the base and scope of the Islamist movement in Tunisia.

Al-Ghannouchi realized that “remaining on the sidelines” of the events of 1978 had alienated his movement from those he sought to reach — the youth, workers, the poor. In 1979 the QPS dissolved its cadre and formed a clandestine organization, al-Jama‘a al-Islamiyya fl Tunis (Islamic Association in Tunisia).

As the “Emir” of the Jama‘a, al-Ghannoushi expanded the organization’s activities throughout Tunisia, giving lectures, sponsoring conferences and creating cells of activists. A high school philosophy teacher, al-Ghannouchi understood the dilemma facing Tunisia’s youth, a “lost generation” uncertain of their identity and economic future. He offered them an Islam that encompassed more than “prayers and rituals” and addressed their specific spiritual, economic and political problems: “What concerns the young people of today?” he asked: []The position of the Mu‘tazilites on the attributes of God…whether the Quran is pre-existent or created? Was Islam revealed for this kind of useless, sterile argument? I wonder how our students feel studying “Islamic philosophy” when it offers them only a bunch of dead issues having nothing to do with the problems of today…I propose that these shrouds be returned to their graves, that these false problems be buried and that we deal with our real problems — economics, politics, sexual license…

When these high school students entered the University of Tunis, al-Ghannouchi was able to build support there, particularly in the faculty of science. Males and females attended Islamist study groups. Violent confrontations with leftist student organizations broke out on more than one occasion. By the early 1980s, the Islamists surpassed the leftists as the best organized and most unified student group.

Al-Ghannouchi also brought his Islamist appeal into the workplaces, through the Union Générale des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT). It was a daring move designed to break with the traditional Muslim belief that “unionism was alien to the Islamic view of life which disapproves of class conflict and bears no pretense of absolute equality in material status.”

Many workers were drawn to al-Ghannouchi’s message: “It is not enough to pray five times a day and fast in order to be worthy of Islam…Islam is activism…it is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.” Over the next five years, the movement became a major force in the UGTT as more and more rural and urban day laborers, carpenters and mechanics, taxi drivers and civil servants openly sympathized with the Islamists.

The Islamic Tendency

In April 1981, Bourguiba announced a program of political liberalization, opening up his one-party political system. Al-Ghannouchi and his associates responded by dissolving the Jama‘a and setting up a political party, the Islamic Tendency Movement (Harikat al-Ittijah al-Islami). Al-Ghannouchi requested a government license but he never received a response. Undeterred, the ITM leadership publicly proclaimed the organization as a “political movement based on Islam.” Al-Ghannouchi called for the “reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics and the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy.” The movement’s religious goals were sufficiently vague to appeal to popular desires for cultural authenticity and increased religiosity. Al-Ghannouchi advocated a “resurrection of the Islamic way of life in Tunisia, the renewal of Islamic thought, a return to more moral and religious values and a limitation on Westernization.” He stressed the ITM’s “rejection of violence as a means of transforming society” and demanded government recognition.

For Bourguiba and his ruling Destourien Socialist Party, Islamism was anathema to their espousal of “modernity” and “progress.” A government spokesman accused the ITM of being an Iranian puppet and “manipulating the religiosity of Tunisians in order to impose an Iranian-style regime in a country that has a constitution guaranteeing freedoms.” But the ruling party, by decimating the labor unions and the secular opposition and rigging the 1981 elections, had paved the way for Islamist dissent. Al-Ghannouchi garnered an impressive following among the ruling party’s traditional base of support. Young, educated, middle-class professionals — teachers, lawyers, doctors and engineers — comprised the original vanguard of the ITM and confidently demanded a political role.

By the end of July 1981, the regime had rounded up al-Ghannouchi and all the known leaders and members of the ITM in midnight raids and spirited them away to Burj al-Rumi prison in Bizerte on the northern coast. Prisoners were held incommunicado for weeks; torture was often used during interrogations.

Non-Islamist organizations such as the Communist Party, the Socialist Democrats, the Rassemblement Socialiste and the Tunisian League of Human Rights rallied to support the Muslim leader. Several factors explain this support: al-Ghannouchi’s commitment to non-violence, his advocacy of dialogue and cooperation with other opposition parties, and the relatively moderate orientation of the ITM. (Al-Ghannouchi claims he does not reject modernity but only seeks to “Islamize” it.)

Underlying this cordiality is a relationship of mutual dependency between the Islamists and the secular opposition. Most of the opposition parties have either been neutralized by the government or upstaged by the ITM. By attaching themselves to “moderates” like al-Ghannouchi and ‘Abd al-Fatah Mourou who pay homage to democracy, they apparently hope to gain credibility and popular support. Similarly, the ITM needs the secular opposition to bolster its own political platform and uses their journals to voice Islamist views. (The ITM journals Al-Ma‘arifa and Al-Mujtamaa have been banned since 1979.)

This relationship of mutual dependency has benefitted the ITM on more than one occasion. The bread riots of January 1984 forced the government to create a “climate of political appeasement.” Bourguiba amnestied a number of political prisoners, and Rashid al-Ghannouchi received his presidential pardon in August of that year, after three years in prison.

Reelected the president of the ITM at a secret meeting in 1984, al-Ghannouchi reorganized the movement to function on two levels, one clandestine, the other public. He set up executive, political, administrative and financial bureaus, each with its own leader, and elaborate security measures to maintain the integrity of the Movement in the event of future arrests. Vulnerable to police surveillance and arrest, al-Ghannouchi functioned largely as the movement’s chief ideological and political advisor.

In his directives to the ITM leadership, al-Ghannouchi stressed the need to balance the religious and political orientations of the movement. He encouraged the political leaders to renew their religious roots, and at the same time warned the shaikhs that “an overemphasis on faith and belief…creates an Islamist who is insensitive to the sufferings of humanity at large.”

In his writings and lectures, al-Ghannouchi emphasizes the need for innovation. The Tunisian Islamist movement has to be rooted in the current realities of Tunisia, not in the obscure theories of Sayyid Qutb or the [Muhammad Abduh] school of al-Manar.” This includes “the liberation of the Muslim woman from legacies pertaining to the period of the Muslim decline,” but al-Ghannouchi's criticism of Tunisia’s Personal Status Code, which outlaws polygamy and grants women other rights, has raised doubts among progressive Tunisians as to how “liberated” women would be under the ITM.

Al-Ghannouchi’s ITM has made some efforts to address social injustice. The ITM leadership initiated welfare programs to provide free legal assistance, medical care and religious services to the needy. A special fund provides support to the families of detainees and to Islamists fired from their jobs. These services are on a small scale, however; the ITM has yet to develop a coherent economic strategy.

Under al-Ghannouchi, the ITM has collaborated with Ahmed Mestiri’s Socialist Democrats in staging peaceful demonstrations to protest the April 1986 American bombing of Libya and the October 1985 Israeli raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunis. He joined with the Socialist Democrats again to boycott the November 1986 elections, charging that they were “neither free nor fair.”

The 1984 amnesty did not end harassment of the ITM. The government banned civil servants from praying during work hours and closed mosques it had opened previously to buffer “leftist extremism.” Public institutions were ordered not to hire back Islamists who had lost their jobs during the 1981-1984 incarceration. Women wearing the veil were barred from the universities and workplaces. Islamist university students were expelled and drafted into the military. Taxi drivers caught wearing neatly trimmed beards — the mark par excellence of the Islamist — or listening to Islamist cassettes had their beards cut and their licenses revoked.

The replacement of Prime Minister Muhammed Mzali in July 1986 by hardliner Rachid Sfar and military intelligence chief Ben Ali signaled a definitive shift from general harassment to the complete silencing of political dissidents. Al-Ghannouchi became a banned person, barred from the mosques, prohibited from teaching, public speaking or publishing his writings and forbidden to travel abroad. Refusing to submit to intimidation, al-Ghannouchi continued lecturing and writing.

The showdown began with al-Ghannouchi’s arrest on March 9, 1987, as he concluded yet another forbidden mosque sermon. Combined with the already tense climate fueled by an economic slowdown and political intolerance, this move sparked student rioting in the streets and violent clashes at the universities between Islamist and leftist students.

In Paris, meanwhile, French police arrested six expatriate Tunisians for possession of arms and explosions. This provided Bourguiba with an excuse to pursue his Iranian conspiracy theory. Although the French reported that the six were members of the pro-Iranian Islamic Jihad and Hizb Allah, the Tunisian government announced that it had evidence linking the ITM to Tehran: eight knives, a karate chain, Islamist propaganda and 500 Iranian rials, it claimed, were found buried under a tree in Tunis. The government immediately severed diplomatic relations with Tehran and arrested up to 3,000 Islamists, mostly members of the ITM. Then in early August — the month the trial of the “Khomeinistes” was scheduled to begin, the Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for a series of hotel bombings in Sousse and Monastir. Bourguiba dismissed the claim as a “diversionary tactic…because the culprits have already confessed to belonging to the ITM.” The Tunisian League of Human Rights and other independent sources confirmed, however, that torture had been used to elicit the televised confessions of these alleged ITM members. Seven of the ten implicated in the bombings had airtight alibis — they were already in prison. As for Rashid al-Ghannouchi, he had been held incommunicado in solitary confinement for weeks before the Paris incident and five months prior to the hotel bombings.

“Islamic Flowers”

These events culminated in the dramatic court scene last September, where Rashid al-Ghannouchi made his final public appearance. The false accusations, fanciful evidence and civil rights abuses against the 90 defendants clearly demonstrated the State Security Court’s foregone conclusion of guilt. With al-Ghannouchi and the rest of the ITM leadership either imprisoned or in exile, Bourguiba succeeded momentarily in silencing a troublesome opposition group. The Tunisian public, though, widely perceived the Islamists as victims of a corrupt ruling party. Ultimately, the aging ruler undermined the regime’s credibility and paved the way for his own demise.

The relationship between the ITM and the Ben Ali regime has so far been less antagonistic. In addition to releasing thousands of political prisoners and commuting the sentences of many others, Ben Ali has made overtures to redeeming Tunisia’s “Islamic civilizational identity.” Zaytouna University has been “restored to its place of preeminence,” radio and television stations now broadcast the calls to prayer, the Official Tunisian Register mentions the Hegira calendar and the Higher Islamic Council is allowed to publish a religious magazine, Al-Hedaya.

These measures were an attempt to co-opt the most superficial aspects of the Islamists’ platform. But after making much fanfare of his dialogue with other opposition leaders, Ben Ali apparently recognized the need to deal directly with the ITM leadership as well. The government released al-Ghannoushi on May 14, the eve of the Muslim holiday ‘Id al-Fitr. Exiled ITM leaders like Shaikh Mourou are planning to return to Tunisia to participate in “crucial” discussions with the regime. Al-Ghannouchi, upon his release, praised Ben Ali for his reforms and reaffirmed his commitment to “work within the system” to promote democracy and Islam. Future relations between the ITM and the Tunisian government remain uncertain, though. Despite Ben Ali’s gestures and al-Ghannouchi’s compliments, the government still regards the ITM as an illegal party. For the time being, “Islamic flowers” — to borrow al-Ghannouchi’s colorful image — may not be thriving in Tunisia, but neither are they withering away.

How to cite this article:

Linda G. Jones "Portrait of Rachid al-Ghannouchi," Middle East Report 153 (July/August 1988).

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