Moderates or Manipulators? Tunisia’s Ennahda Islamists

Oren Kessler

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The Ennahda party, which heads a coalition in Tunisia’s first freely elected government, is
described by most international observers as being a “moderate Islamist” party despite
its ideologically extreme origins, the recorded statements of founder Rachid Ghannouchi
and the party’s worrying recent activities.

Appeasing ultra-extreme Salafists
Since assuming the mantle of government, Ennahda is engaged in an awkward double
balancing act of appeasing both Tunisians and the West and secularists and ultra-extreme

  • Ennahda has tolerated but distanced itself from often-violent Salafist rallies in Tunisia, but it has also ruled out basing the country’s new constitution on sharia law.
  • Ennahda officials have also given implicit support to extremists by denouncing the award-winning animated film Persopolis as “prostitution” after the home of film’s Tunisian exhibitor was firebombed by Salafists.

Support for Hamas

  • Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, an Ennahda member, hosted a high-ranking Hamas official in November 2011 at which the official declared “The conquest of Jerusalem will set out from here. You are witnessing a divine, historic moment — a new era in civilization, God willing: the sixth caliphate.”

Support for extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir

  • Ennahda has given a license to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamist party that is banned in several Muslim-majority countries and in some European countries. Hizb ut-Tahrir’s express aim is to establish an Islamic caliphate.

Restricting religious freedom

  • In June 2012, a 30 year-old man was sentenced to seven years in prison for posting caricatures of Mohammed on Facebook.
  • In August 2012, Ennahda introduced a blasphemy proscription in a draft bill to the Constituent Assembly; if accepted, this bill would make “…insults, profanity, derision and representation of Allah and Mohammed” punishable by two years in prison, and four years for repeat offences.

Restricting women’s rights

  • In August 2012, Ennahda incurred the anger of many Tunisian feminists by introducing language into the draft constitution which suggests that women are “complementary” to men.


Since Ennahda’s ascent to power, Ghannouchi has been celebrated for his stewardship
of a transitional government. In July 2012, he shared the prestigious Chatham House
Prize in part for promoting “a culture of tolerance and bridge-building across the political

Scrutiny of Ghannouchi’s documented views have been largely absent from the media
and policy discussions about Tunisia. During his 23 years in exile in London, however,
he demonstrated ideological support for jihad and jihadist movements, anti-Israeli and
anti-Semitic views, denial of religious freedom and support for Islamist subversion of

Support for jihad 

  • During the First Gulf War, Ghannouchi called for “unceasing war against the Americans until they leave the land of Islam or we will burn and destroy all their interests across the entire Islamic world.”
  • Ghannouchi excoriated the Saudi regime for its “colossal crime” in allowing “Crusader America” on Islamic soil.
Support for jihadist movements
  • In 1990, Ghannouchi assured the leaders of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad that “the greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.”

Support for Saddam Hussein

  • In 1990 Ghannouchi lauded Saddam Hussein as a unifier of Muslim lands

Denial of religious freedoms

  • Ghannouchi has in recent years issued fatwas against secular Tunisian writers such as Lafif Lakhdar — for writing a supposedly blasphemous book he did not write — and Mongia Souahi, who wrote a book that given a theological refutation of the Islamic veil for women. Ghannouchi charged Souahi with takfir, the allegation of unbelief, which carries severe punishment – in some cases the death penalty

Anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic statements

  • In 1994, Ghannouchi described the State of Israel as an “alien polity [inserted] into the very heart of the Islamic world, which would exhaust its resources and obstruct any attempt at re-forging Muslim unity.” The idea of Israel’s doing so, he said, “proved immediately appealing to European policymakers and served well the new Western orientation which was materialistic, secular, and obsessed with the idea of territorial expansion.”
  • Ghannouchi described the Oslo Accords as “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economy and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.”

Support for Islamist subversion of democracy

  • In 1998, Ghannouchi declared that Islamists could abide by secular democracy, but only to postpone “the long-term objective of establishing an Islamic government.”

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