Straight after my last blog entry about Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia’s main governing party Ennahdha, comes news that Britain’s Independent newspaper has apologised to him for publishing an interview with Walid Muallem, the Syrian foreign minister, who cast aspersions over Ennahdha’s funding. He claimed that the Emir of Qatar had pumped money into Ennahdha prior to last October’s Tunisian elections. Ghannouchi was incensed that the Independent printed Muallem’s claims – for one thing, had they been true, Ennahdha would have broken funding laws for political parties in Tunisia. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/corrections/rachid-ghannouchi-8203500.html)
What surprised me was that, so soon after this apology, the Independent should publish an interview with Ghannouchi: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/rached-ghannouchi-says-he-doesnt-want-an-islamic-state-in-tunisia-can-he-prove-his-critics-wrong-8225092.html. What surprised me even more was that the interviewer was the Independent’s veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, who’d conducted the interview with Walid Muallem that’d caused all the bother in the first place. When he announced that he was suing the Independent, Ghannouchi had made a point of describing Fisk as an ‘honourable man’, but even so – I’d assumed that Fisk would be off Ghannouchi’s Eid al-Adha greetings-card list for a while.
Perhaps mindful of the bad blood that just passed between his newspaper and Ghannouchi, Fisk went easy on his interviewee and allowed him to do most of the talking. However, I would like to have seen a little more debate and argument from Fisk (which he is capable of providing). Ghannouchi claims that the attack on the American Embassy and International School on September 14th was carried out by common criminals and not by religious-extremist Salafists blaming all things American for the anti-Islam movie Innocence of Muslims. However, this goes against what I read in one eyewitness report at the time – and the eyewitness was a pretty convincing one, the American School’s principal, who was on his premises trying to ward off the attackers. (The kids, thankfully, were not in classes just then.)
According to the principal, the attackers came in two waves – first, religious extremists, who broke into the school grounds and made a point of setting fire to the school library, and then a shower of opportunist looters who ran in and helped themselves to computers and other school equipment. Given the Salafists’ track record of attacking TV stations, art galleries and theatrical performances, it sounds wholly in keeping with their character that they should burn a roomful of books.
The principal’s story appeared in a news article on the site Tunisia Live Net. Maybe I’m being paranoid, but I find it a little suspicious that the article has recently vanished off their website, so that it can no longer be used to contradict Ghannouchi’s claims.
Ghannouchi’s defence of the Salafists on September 14th is based on the following logic: “There is footage of people looting the contents of the US school and the embassy, including the canteen that sells alcohol in the embassy, and many of the attackers helped themselves to the alcohol. I don’t think these were Salafis.” But just because there is evidence that one group – the ordinary criminals – was present, behaving unlawfully, it doesn’t mean that the other group wasn’t there and wasn’t breaking the law too. In fact, the principal’s account describes how both Salafists and ordinary criminals broke into his school at different moments and did damage. And indeed, Tunisia has just sent Salafist leader Abu Ayub to prison for inciting the embassy attack – which suggests the Tunisian judiciary disagrees with Ghannouchi’s belief that the Salafists were innocent bystanders. (http://gulfnews.com/news/region/tunisia/tunisia-jails-salafist-leader-1.1093819)
Elsewhere, Ghannouchi peddles his usual line about why it’s necessary to take a softly-softly approach with the Salafists, to reason with them rather than penalise them for bad behaviour: “We understand democracy not just as a tool of government but also of education. I was in Paris in ’68 and these were revolutionary times. But one of its leaders, Cohn-Bendit is now in the European parliament.… There were examples of so-called extremists in Europe, the Red Army and Action Directe and through democracy they were able to be tamed and re-educated. So why can’t we imagine that we also can tame our violent actors? Through democracy, they will be slowly part of this democracy, rather than destroying it. I always tell some of our friends in Europe that through democracy they were able to tame the beasts – so why don’t you give us time to do the same with ours?”
Well, there might be something in what he says, though drawing a parallel with Germany’s Red Army is unfortunate. The main players in that particular group didn’t gradually mend their ways by virtue of being citizens in a democratic society. They were punished, severely, and some of them didn’t live to see the end of their punishments. Ulrike Meinhof, Holger Meins, Gudrun Ensslin, Andreas Baader and Jan Carl Raspe were arrested in the early 1970s: Meinhof hung herself in her cell in 1976, Meins died on hunger strike in 1974 and the remaining three apparently committed suicide at Stammheim Prison in 1977 (though inevitably conspiracy theories about state executions abound). Among the survivors, Christian Klar spent 26 years in prison and only got out in 2008, Brigitte Mohnhaupt did 24 years until her release in 2007, and Eva Haule was incarcerated from 1986 to 2007. Horst Mahler spent a comparatively brief ten years in prison until 1984, but some would dispute his rehabilitation – he is now a far-right Holocaust denier, has described Adolf Hitler as ‘the saviour of the German people’ and was imprisoned again for eleven years in 2009. None of this suggests ‘re-education’ and ‘taming’ through the miracle that is modern democracy.
And more to the point, even if the far future does contain a moment of magical enlightenment when Tunisia’s Salafists will start to be reasonable and stop behaving like intolerant, ignorant bullies – how many more ordinary Tunisians will have to suffer until then? How many more women, academics, journalists, artists, foreigners and Sufis will have to put up with their antics while the Tunisian government treats them gently in the meantime? And, while stories of Salafist violence continue to emerge from Tunisia, how many more tourists will elect to go elsewhere for their holidays, how many more foreign investors will decide not to risk their money in Tunisian business ventures, and much more will the Tunisian economy suffer?
In a democracy, any elected political party should be able to guarantee its citizens, all of them, that it will protect them from violence and intimidation in the here and now. If Rachid Ghannouchi’s party is unwilling or unable to guarantee that, it isn’t fit to govern.