Rashid Ghannoushi: John Esposito's Islamist in Tunis
by Stephen Schwartz
Rashid Ghannoushi (or Rachid Ghannouchi in French) is the ideological elder of Tunisia's Ennahda, or the Renaissance Party, the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. He arrived in Washington on Monday, November 28, 2011, in the halo of a skewed electoral victory by his party in the small North African country's recent elections.
In addition to being the man controlling Tunisia's main Islamist movement from behind the scenes, without an elected post and the responsibility that it would bring with it, Ghannoushi comes to America as someone who was, to a significant extent, lifted to power by the support of American Middle Eastern studies establishment. Indeed, the successful rise of Ghannoushi is symbolic of the American academic penchant for enabling and justifying radical Islam. A key advocate in this enterprise was the notorious professor John L. Esposito, director of Georgetown University's Saudi-financed Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding (ACMCU).
Esposito's infamous tome The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, which first appeared in 1992 and has been reissued in several editions, the latest in 1999, includes prolific praise for Ghannoushi as a model for Islamist politics. Esposito described Ghannoushi as passing through a stage of "[a]ssumption of the dual leadership role as teacher-activist, a path similar to that of many other activists like [Hassan] al-Banna and [Sayyid] Qutb in Egypt, [Abu'l Ala] Mawdudi in Pakistan, and modern-day leaders such ... [as] Hassan Turabi in the Sudan."
Al-Banna and Qutb were the two main ideological inspirers of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mawdudi was the founder of the jihadist Jamaat-i Islami, and Turabi is best-known for his attempt to impose a constitution in Sudan based exclusively on sharia (Islamic religious law) after the National Islamic Front to which he belonged seized control of that country in 1989. This does not put Ghannoushi in good company.
According to Esposito, Ghannoushi carried out a "resulting transition from an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood orientation to a more Tunisian-centered movement, and from a militant Qutb inspired activism to more pragmatic, moderate, accommodationist activism."
This "transition" did not, if one reads Esposito plainly, entail any change in Ghannoushi's goal of establishing a state ruled according to Islamist ideology and exclusive sharia law. It merely implied a change in tactics.
In his earlier period, Ghannoushi was the paramilitary "emir" or "commander" of the Jamaah al-Islamiyya (Islamic Association), founded under the influence of the Iranian Islamic Revolution, and Esposito's book acknowledges that the "Islamic Association" and the "Renaissance Party" are the same, the second being the first "as it is known today."
Esposito's book had nothing but praise or justification for the whole universe of Islamist thought. He even included lengthy attempts to minimize the threat of Osama bin Laden, such as:
In 2001, Esposito assisted Azzam Tamimi, a public supporter of terrorist "martyrdom," in publishing a biography of Ghannoushi titled Rachid Ghannouchi: A Democrat within Islamism, in a series of academic volumes under Esposito's editorial direction. In that volume's introduction, Tamimi referred to Esposito as "ustadh" or "honored teacher," an exalted title in Islamic society.
Esposito and Ghannoushi have also shared an enthusiastic posture toward the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish initials as the AKP) of Islamist Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Esposito has collaborated with Erdoğan's political adviser, Ibrahim Kalin, in presenting Turkey under the AKP as a flawless example of "Islamist democracy" in no way threatening to the Turkish secular order, even as the AKP has arrested military officers, journalists, and other public figures in the questionable Ergenekon conspiracy.
After the flight of Tunisian autocrat Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali in January 2011, Ghannoushi and Ennahda accumulated considerable credibility with naïve Westerners by claiming that, allegedly like Erdoğan and the AKP, the Tunisian acolytes of the Muslim Brotherhood were "moderate Islamists" who would not attempt to change the political institutions of the state. Ghannoushi preened in having published his thoughts on Islamic politics in Turkey.
As recently as October 2011, Esposito took to his blog at the Washington Post to renew his whitewashed view of the AKP and Ennahda:
But Tunisian Hamadi Redissi, professor of political science at the University of Tunis and president of the Tunisian Observatory for a Democratic Transition, pointed out in an op-ed published by the New York Times on July 16, 2011:
Ennahda and Ghannoushi have also received enthusiastic support -- before, during, and after the events of the past year in Tunisia -- from the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, a "soft" Islamist project headquartered in Washington and directed by Tunisian-born Radwan Masmoudi.
In the transformation of the Ennahda party, Ghannoushi never explained whether he had changed his mind about such declamations as the following, noted by Martin Kramer:
Not only can none of these statements be described as moderate, but they convey an air of unreality. Ghannoushi, on coming to Washington, also showed a capacity for self-aggrandizement. On November 24, the TunisiaLive agency reported a claim by Ennahda executive bureau member Zubayer Shouyrabee that Ghannoushi had been invited by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (WWIC) "to award him for his 10 years worth of publications." TunisiaLive then noted that WWIC media representative Drew Sample had denied the intention of giving an award to Ghannoushi. Kramer reports that Ghannoushi was to give a closed briefing at WWIC on Friday, December 2.
TunisiaLive stated on November 29 that Ghannoushi was visiting the U.S. capital "for a series of meetings with policy makers, figures in the media and foreign policy think tanks." Of confirmed appearances by Ghannoushi, one was a dinner on the same day (November 29) hosted by the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC), an Islamist political group best-known for the claim by its most noted spokesperson, Salam Al-Marayati, on September 11, 2001, that "[i]f we're going to look at suspects, we should look to the groups that benefit the most from these kinds of incidents, and I think we should put the state of Israel on the suspect list."
On November 30, Ghannoushi appeared at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP). According to Lee Smith of The Weekly Standard, Ghannoushi backed away from a constitutional anti-Israel clause, because "[t]here's no reason, he explained, to outline policies about a situation in flux like the Arab-Israeli crisis. 'The only country that should be named in the constitution,' said Ghannouchi, 'is Tunisia.'
However, Martin Kramer, who attended the briefing and endorsed Smith's account, commented that "[w]hen confronted with things he's said in the past about the US and Israel, Ghannouchi says he didn't say them or doesn't remember. Very convenient."
In addition, according to TunisiaLive, Ghannoushi was scheduled to visit the office of Foreign Policy magazine on Thursday, December 1. Foreign Policy has flattered Ghannoushi by listing him at number six on its roster of "The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers." Encounters with Ghannoushi were also reported at The Washington Post and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Back in Tunisia, the "moderate" image of Ennahda has already begun to fray. On Tuesday, November 29, Ennahda prime minister-designate Jbeli upset his fellow citizens by the daring Islamist declaration to party supporters that "[w]e are in the sixth caliphate, God willing," indicating his belief that Tunisia was headed for a form of Islamic governance that ended in 1924 with the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate. According to Reuters, Ennahda's leftist coalition partner, Ettakatol, reacted with alarm:
Of course, if Ghannoushi is disappointed by the breadth of his welcome in Washington, and if he hears that the atmosphere has become uncomfortable back in Tunisia, he can always fall back on the hospitality of his principal American academic booster, John Esposito at Georgetown. The sudden international stardom of Rashid Ghannoushi represents a payoff for American academics investing intellectual capital in the defense of Islamist ideology. As the machinery of the Muslim Brotherhood sweeps through the lands of the forlorn "Arab Spring," much appreciation should, and very well might, be expressed by its exponents for Esposito and the latter's cohort.