An “Islamist” is generally a proponent of political Islam. I generally tend not to use the word, because many draw a distinction between “Islamic” and “Islamist,” implying (and sometimes asserting outright) that political Islam is a twisting and hijacking of the original, presumably non-political, non-supremacist Islamic religion. Since that is a false distinction, I shy away from the word. But in this case it is hard to know what to call Ghannouchi. This article suggests that Ghannouchi is anti-Sharia but is nonetheless an Islamist; this is a distinction that I cannot recall being made before, and I’m not sure what it means. Does the AFP author know what it meant when he or she wrote it? Did Ghannouchi really mean that he opposed the implementation of Sharia in Tunisia today? All open questions at this point.
“Thousands greet Tunisian Islamist leader’s return,” from AFP, January 30:
Thousands turned out Sunday to welcome Islamist leader Rached Ghannouchi after more than 20 years in exile, as he eyed a political future for his Ennahda movement after the fall of Tunisia’s regime.
“God is great!” Ghannouchi cried out, raising his arms in triumph as he walked into the arrivals hall of Tunis airport, with thousands of cheering supporters crowding around him before driving off to visit his family.
The crowd intoned a religious song in honour of the Prophet Mohammed, as supporters held up olive branches, flowers and copies of the Koran. […]
There were also dozens of people protesting his arrival at the airport, holding up placards that warned against Islamic fundamentalism. […]
Ghannouchi, a former radical preacher who says he now espouses moderate ideals similar to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), was persecuted in Tunisia ever since founding his Islamist movement in 1981….
The AKP is a pro-Sharia party that is slowly but surely dismantling Turkish secularism.
In contrast to his preachings from the 1970s in which he condemned the rise of secular ideas in his homeland and the advances in women’s rights, Ghannouchi also said that Sharia Islamic law now had “no place in Tunisia”….
It’s unclear what he means by this. Does he mean that it should not have a place in Tunisia, or simply that it does not actually have a place in Tunisia? If he is not pro-Sharia, what makes him an “Islamist,” which is a word usually applied to exponents of political Islam?
Najwa, a teacher who said she was imprisoned for wearing an Islamic veil, said: “Everything that’s said about him are lies… He’s a moderate Islamist.”…
Naima, who wore a veil, said: “Many people were imprisoned because of him, young people lost their future. No-one is happy about his return. He lived the good life in London while others paid a heavy price.”
Some feminist groups are worried that Ghannouchi’s return may signal a rise in political Islam that could endanger their hard-won rights.
Hundreds of women rallied in the centre of Tunis on the eve of Ghannouchi’s arrival, saying they would defend their rigths against conservatives.
Asked about some of this concern on Sunday, Ghannouchi was dismissive.
“This fear is only based on ignorance,” he said, because Ben Ali’s regime had “worked to distort all its opponents, described them as terrorists or being against modernity. All of these allegations have no basis in reality.”
Ghannouchi fled Tunisia two years after Ben Ali came to power in a bloodless coup in 1987. In elections in 1989, which were heavily falsified, an Islamist-backed coalition still managed to win 17 percent of the vote.
Shortly after that, persecution of leading Islamists began and Ghannouchi went first to Algeria and then to Britain in 1991. Hundreds of Islamist activists who stayed behind were thrown into prison, often on flimsy charges.