Modern History and Politics: Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism

By Henry, Clement M. | The Middle East Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Modern History and Politics: Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism


Henry, Clement M., The Middle East Journal


Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism, by Azzam S. Tamimi. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. viii + 219 pages. Notes to p. 245. Bibl. to p. 258. Index to p. 268. $49.95.

Some may say that the subtitle of this book is an oxymoron, that political Islam is the antithesis of democracy. But Azzam Tamimi's careful study of Rachid Ghannouchi's political thought demonstrates a serious effort to reconcile Islam with Western democracy. Tamimi, who had extensive interviews in London with Ghannouchi, sympathetically but critically analyzes his subject's principal writing in political theory, Public Liberties in the Islamic State (Beirut: Center of Arab Unity Studies, 1993, in Arabic), making the Tunisian theorist's ideas accessible to English language readers. Ghannouchi had drafted much of the book in prison and had intended to submit it as a doctoral dissertation to the Faculty of Shari'a at the University of Tunis. Tamimi draws mainly on this work of Islamic scholarship, supplemented by scores of Ghannouchi's papers, articles, and personal correspondence. In addition, Tamimi demonstrates his own intellectual grounding in American and British studies of democracy, civil society, and authoritarianism. While sympathetic as a Muslim toward Ghannouchi's intellectual enterprise, Tamimi also spots the ambiguities and sheds light on some of the difficulties of reconciling Islamism with contemporary democratic theory.

Ghannouchi argues that Islam can accept Western democratic procedures. Indeed, they are needed to liberate official Islamic authorities and institutions from the control of incumbent dictatorial regimes. Ghannouchi has not yet formulated his ultimate vision of "Islamic democracy," but he considers Western democracy to be a distinct improvement over the status quo in his native Tunisia and in other Arab police states. His appreciation may be tactical, but his liberal understanding of Islam distinguishes between "religious" and "political" matters. Ghannouchi argues that the Prophet, himself, made the distinction in contracting with the people of Medina: the second bay'ah, which founded the new Islamic state, was not religious and gave each sect, including the Jews, the right to manage their personal affairs (p. 95). Before his death, moreover, the Prophet refused to appoint a successor. The revealed religion leaves a lot of space (faragh), developed at length by Ghannouchi, for the evolution of political institutions. Western democratic procedures, he claims, are the most suitable ones devised so far for fulfilling the various functions of shura (consultation) advocated by most Muslim theorists.

Ghannouchi dismisses the argument that democracy, being a mere set of procedures, presupposes secularism. In fact, secularization, along with the introduction of the territorial state and intervention by foreign powers over the past two centuries, is a principal obstacle to democracy in the Muslim world. Ghannouchi argues that secularization entailed handing religious foundations and control over education and culture to the state authorities. Yet, these institutions were the principal underpinning of "civil society," as Ghannouchi understands this term to apply to the Muslim world. …

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