Sheikh Rached al-Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s [Islamist] Ennahda movement, said Tunisia will never recognize Israel.
During a conference entitled “Revolution and Democratic Transition in the Arab World: Towards a Roadmap,” organized by the Centre for Arab Unity Studies and the Swedish Alexandria Institute in the Tunisian city of Hammamet, Ghannouchi said the Tunisian Government wants to separate its relations with the West and its position toward Israel.
In an interview with Al-Safir, regarding his position on the recognition of Israel, Ghannouchi said there is a consensus among Islamic movements that Palestine is a central issue. He added that “we will never recognize the occupation or [the Zionist] entity. There is no need to feel surprised, as there is consensus among all Islamists and nationalists over [the issue of] Palestine.”
On whether the West approves of this separation, Ghannouchi said the subject of Israel used to be raised by Western officials at every meeting he had with them. [He said] “we used to tell them that we do not want to link the two issues, or else we will put the issue of Cuba on the table.”
As to whether he believes the West has now agreed [to go along with the separation], he said the subject of Israel has not been raised in recent meetings. He said that the West is cunning and evasive. He said “this is our position, and we will uphold it”.
Ghannouchi said that one of the missions of the revolution is to reactivate efforts aimed at establishing Arab unity and the unity of the Maghreb, as well as a common Arab market. He explained that, in the past, the Council of Arab Interior Ministers used to hold meetings headed by [former Tunisian President] Zine El Abidine Ben Ali on the premise that threats arose from within [their countries] rather than from abroad, while there was no [complementary] council of [Arab] foreign ministers.
Ghannouchi opined that “there will be no return to dictatorship. Democracy is protected by the [political] consciousness of the people, and the [Arab] peoples have revolted. However, there is a danger of Somalization [in Tunisia] and of our inability to achieve order [after having obtained] freedom. There have been attempts to burn down factories and block roads, which equates to Somalization. There is a difference between freedom and chaos.”
According to Ghannouchi, “there is no [standard political] role model. Each country has to create its own model. We [live] in an Arab and Islamic world. We interact with the Muslim world, which--since the nineteenth century--has experienced a wide gap between itself and the West. [The Muslim world] sought to redress this imbalance. The reform attempts in Cairo, Istanbul, and Tunisia were based on the [idea of] integrating Islam and modern values.” However, Ghannouchi noted that “the dream [of enacting reforms] was shattered by colonialism and occupation, [and we] paid the price through our religion.”
Ghannouchi said that the current Arab revolutions [reawakend] the dream of integrating Islamic and universal values. He asked “can we do it?” and answered “yes, the people who have carried out the revolutions are capable of achieving this.”
Ghannouchi rejected the view that there is one Islamic ideology. He said: “this is beyond the law. The Islamic movement is a social phenomenon subject to evolution. We had doubts about the  Personal Status Code, [but we] ended up having equality between women and men. There have been attempts to label the Islamic movements as against modernity and equality. However, in the new millennium, channels of dialogue were reopened between the Islamic and modernist movements--which is quite significant. In Tunisia, for example, [dialogue] with other parties, including the Communist Party and others, resulted in the October 2005 [joint platform]. The [parties involved] agreed on a democratic model, the rejection of violence, and gender equality.”
On the relationship between religion and the state, Ghannouchi said that “the problem in Tunisia was that the state used to use religion [for its own ends]. The West has faced the problem of how to free the state from the authority of the church. We, on the other hand, are trying to free religion from state control.”
On the Tunisian revolution, Ghannouchi said that it was not led by a single party or person, but that all of the people raised [anti-regime] slogans. He added that “when we won [the elections], we did not waste time [deciding on] the model of state we wanted, as we had already agreed on that”.
Regarding [Ennahda’s] relation to nationalism, Ghannouchi said that “we do not believe that there is a contradiction between Arabism and Islam. We, [the people of] North Africa, became Arabized first, and then adopted Islam.” He added that some nationalist parties reject [the idea of] Islam being part of Arab identity: “This was a shock to us, but [the idea] has been accepted by Christian thinkers.”
As for the challenges facing the revolution, Ghannouchi said “we are tapping into new ground. We are trying to reconcile between our values and modernity. Some have left the Marxist camp and have no right to teach us democracy. We are all beginners with regards to democracy. We are still in the first years of the democratic experience. Let us try not to outbid each other. We are all beginners.”
Ghannouchi rejected the notion of military coups, explaining that “it is a mistake to reach power through a military coup. Shura [deliberation] is the only way, and Shura is democracy. God gave us [the option of] Shura. [He] did not provide us with the tools to [implement Shura], but [endowed us] with minds [to accomplish this task]”. He said that “the most critical thing is how to reconcile freedom and order. Under Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, order was maintained through the Sultan’s whip. The Sultan is gone. The question here is how to organize ourselves through freedom rather than the Sultan’s whip. This is a big challenge. Another challenge [for us] is how to accept the results of the democratic elections. Some have not yet absorbed the idea that the Islamists are part of the country. The Islamists have realized that the challenges [facing the country] are great; thus they cannot rule alone. It was necessary to turn away from the image of single-party rule and for the people to forget that they were [previously] under single-party rule. Revolution has shown that the Islamists can work with moderate secularists. [Tunisia] contains diverse societies, and it is imperative that we accept each other so the ship does not sink.”
Ghannouchi said that the priority is “how to acquaint ourselves with democracy, co-existence, non-exclusion, and freedom. Since the fall of the [Islamic] Caliphate, we have resolved our differences by the sword. The other challenge is economic, since there is no dignity without work.”
For his part, new Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdul Salam said that “Tunisia will not recognize Israel. Yesterday, I was with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. We agreed on 90 percent of the issues, but disagreed on Israel.”
About the Tunisians’ admiration for the Turkish model and whether [Ennahda] accepts Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s call from Cairo for establishing a secular regime without hesitation, the young minister said that “Erdogan has his own opinion. Tunisia does not have to be secular. Tunisia is a republic, its language is Arabic, and its religion is Islam”. He added that “Turkey is a special case. The legitimate foundation there is secularism. We appreciate the success of the Turkish experience, but we are not obliged to import [political] models. There are other modern models of [governance], such as the French and American ones. Modernity is openness to various possibilities. Tunisia is open to all modern [ideas] and will move within its Arab sphere.” He added that “Iran is not an enemy, but it is not an absolute friend either. There are [both] areas of convergence and divergence [with Iran].”