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Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Leader of Tunisia's Islamist party pretends to be moderate in DC

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisian Islamist Ennahda party, came to Washington last week to push the idea that his Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated group is moderate.

Palestine Press Agency quotes him at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as saying that he will not include any anti-Zionist statements in the new constitution and that he disagrees with the language of Iranian ayatollahs describing the US as "the devil." He also said that the controversial statements by the next prime minister of Tunisia saying he wanted to be at the forefront of the next Islamic caliphate was meant from a moral and not political perspective.

From other reports he also said that people "are free to quit any religion, or change their religion" and that he supports women’s rights, democratic principles, and freedom of speech in Tunisia.

There was predictable skepticism about his trustworthiness from right-wing websites. But surprisingly the PBS Newshour blog dug behind his moderate persona as well.
Rachid Ghannouchi, head of the Tunisian Ennhada Party which captured the majority of that country's parliamentary seats in a recent election, wants to convince Westerners that the Tunisian brand of political Islam is as non-threatening as kittens frolicking with balls of yarn.

"Tunisian Islam is very moderate Islam," he told a small group of Mideast analysts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Thursday.

Ghannouchi is in Washington, D.C., this week making the rounds with U.S. foreign policy wonks (he also spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center Friday morning and was at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy on Wednesday), spreading a message of Tunisian liberalism based on the spirit, if not the letter, of Islamic teachings.

"People think that Islam is (only about) how we punish people," he said. "The problem is not how we punish people, but how we avoid crime. ... In our program you don't find verses of the Koran, Hadith or (quotes from) the Prophet, but you find the goals of Islam."

Ghannouchi also said that he hopes to partner with secular-liberal parties in the coming weeks to form a governing coalition and "prove that Islam can work with moderate secularism."

But comments attributed to Ghannouchi regarding Israel show that Tunis and Tel Aviv won't soon become sister cities if he has anything to say about it.
Earlier this year, Ghannouchi told this Arabic-language publication that the elimination of Israel could come as soon as the year 2027 or even before that time. This seems to also be of-a-piece with Ghannouchi's long-held views.
According to this Middle East Media Research Institute translation, Ghannouchi blessed the mothers of Palestinian suicide bombers back in 2001, telling Al Jazeera that "The Palestinian woman, mother of the Shahids [martyrs], is a martyr herself, and she has created a new model of woman."
"We will focus our efforts on Tunisia," Ghannouchi said when asked about his Israel comments.
Kudos to writer PJ Tobia for actually looking beyond the soothing words of an Islamist leader.