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Rachid GhannouchiA Democrat Within Islamism$

Azzam S. Tamimi

Print publication date: 2001

Print ISBN-13: 9780195140002

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0195140001.001.0001

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Ghannouchi's Detractors

Ghannouchi's Detractors

(p.200) 8 Ghannouchi's Detractors
Rachid Ghannouchi

Azzam S. Tamimi

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Four types of critique have been leveled at the work and thought of Rachid Ghannouchi.

The first critique is government sponsored and is exercised by local writers, such as Abdelqader Zghal, or by foreign journalists, such as those of The Sunday Telegraph and The Sunday Express, and authors, such as Michael Collins Dunn, who are suspected of writing at the behest of the Tunisian authorities.

The second critique emanates from Arab secularist writers, such as Egypt's Bahey Eddin Hassan and Sudan's Haydar Ibrahim, who see Ghannouchi as a foe who endeavors to undermine their own positions.

The third critique emanates from former comrades, such as Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, who left the movement either for personal reasons or because they have been disillusioned.

The fourth critique emanates from within the same Islamic school of thought to which Ghannouchi belongs, such as Abelwahab Elmessiri, who accuse Ghannouchi of oversimplifying Western liberal concepts including democracy.

Keywords:   Detractors, Dunn, Abelwahab Elmessiri, Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, Hassan, Haydar Ibrahim, Sunday Express, Sunday Telegraph, Abdelqader Zghal

Ghannouchi's ideas and his political stances have earned him many critics within and outside Islamic circles. The central theme in Ghannouchi's thought is that democracy is compatible with Islam, and that Muslims need to incorporate it into their political thought in order to institutionalize the concept of shura. His theme is based on the belief that civilizational products and achievements are universal. What may be called Greek, Islamic, or Western civilizations are only phases in a single human civilizational cycle, and thus the material and intellectual products of any particular phase are inheritable by subsequent phases. The belief itself is not new. It is prominent in Ibn Khaldoun's works and is said by its proponents to have its origin in the Islamic creed itself. Prophet Muhammad's mission, Muslims believe, was not aimed at repealing what had existed before him or abrogating the divine messages that preceded him, but at endorsing and complementing the goodness in all of them. It was in this spirit that ancient Muslim scholars translated and revived Greek philosophies and explored with enthusiasm the contributions of other cultures in all fields of knowledge.

The unwholesome relationship between Europe and the Muslim world since the beginning of the colonial era has been an impediment to what might otherwise have been a smooth exchange or peaceful interaction. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, intellectuals in the Muslim world have belonged to one of two strongly opposed groups, one infatuated with the European accomplishments, seeing nothing negative about them and believing Europe's route to progress to be the only option, and the other completely opposed to Europe, despising it, seeing nothing positive in it, and insisting that the route to progress is to be found nowhere other than in the Muslims' own heritage. Ghannouchi adopts a middle course, and as a result he is criticized by both radical secularists and radical Islamists. The critique of the radical Islamists, already dealt with in the preceding chapter, emanates primarily from groups such as Hizbut‐Tahrir and the so‐called jihadi and salafi trends. The Islamic critique of Rachid Ghannouchi was dealt with in the preceding chapter.

Ghannouchi's non‐Islamist critics denounce him more for his political standing than for his thoughts, that is more as leader of Ennahda than as an Islamic thinker. His writings on democracy, public liberties, and human rights are cause for admiration rather (p.201) than contempt. For this reason, much of the critique directed against him by non‐Islamist critics is based on presuming him insincere in his defense of democracy and human rights. He is accused of using these values to camouflage his struggle for power. Several attempts have been made by press reporters to prove his embroilment in inciting or plotting violence. Ghannouchi accuses the Tunisian government of indirect involvement in a number of press campaigns aimed at discrediting him. Recent court cases in the United Kingdom have substantiated his claims. Apparently embarrassed by repeated criticism of its human rights record by international humans rights organizations, the Tunisian government may have indeed sought vindication in proving Ghannouchi's guilt. At least thirty‐six reports on human rights violations in Tunisia were published by Amnesty International alone between the beginning of 1991 and the end of 1992. More than twice as many reports were published between 1992 and 1996 by Amnesty International and other organizations such as Human Rights Watch and the New York‐based Lawyers Committee for Humans Rights. The U.S. State Department and the European Community too have been critical of the Tunisian government's human rights record.1

Government‐Sponsored Critique

Ghannouchi and his colleagues in Ennahda implicate the Tunisian government in at least two attempts aimed at discrediting Ghannouchi by associating him with violence and extremism.2 The first attempt, it is alleged, was draped in academic research, the second in investigative journalism.

In 1992, Michael Collins Dunn, a senior analyst at International Estimate Inc., a Washington consulting firm, authored a book entitled Renaissance or Radicalism: Political Islam, the Case of Tunisia's al‐Nahda, which he then summarized in a paper entitled “The al‐Nahda Movement in Tunisia: From Renaissance to Revolution” in Islamism and Secularism in North Africa.3 Dunn sets out to prove what he claims to be evidence that Ennahda, under the leadership of Rachid Ghannouchi, evolved or was driven toward a far more radical revolutionary position than it originally appeared to hold. Relying on information which Ennahda insists were taken from Tunisian government reports as well as from writers who had been known to harbor hostility toward the Islamic movement in Tunisia, Dunn arrives at the conclusion that although there have been many observers who doubt some or all of the details of the plot the Tunisian government accused Ennahda of, and although one may certainly raise questions about the interrogations that resulted in some of the testimony and confession, “there was enough external evidence of a new commitment to confrontation on the part of Ennahda in 1989–1991 to lead to the conclusion that at least the general outlines of the ‘plot’ are credible.”4 The external evidence Dunn refers to is Ghannouchi's persistent criticism of the Tunisian regime under both Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Ghannouchi's attitude is alleged to have emanated from his inclination toward Iran. He is said to have led a radical pro‐Iran faction within the movement to contrast a more moderate pro‐Saudi faction led by his deputy Moro. Dunn deduces from Ghannouchi's speeches and messages, as well as from the MTI 1986 Basic Program, that Ghannouchi must have given the impression to his followers that it would be possible for them to declare their enemies, in (p.202) accordance with the doctrine of takfir, as kuffar (unbelievers), thus opening the way for resorting to violence because kuffar are to be dealt with through jihad.5

Ghannouchi has responded to the allegations made by Dunn in a letter to Lord Avebury, chairman of the British Parliament Human Rights Committee, upon the latter's request. Ghannouchi maintains that Dunn's book is full of errors and distortions, having been based mostly on information obtained from Tunisian government press statements, including the text of a press conference held by the interior minister, police files, and articles published in local government‐owned press.6 Ghannouchi's explanation for this “plot” is the government's desperation to justify “the terror campaign it has been waging” against Ennahda.7

Dunn's approach relies on the proposition that Ennahda is torn between two strong personalities, that of Ghannouchi, who is radical, and that of Moro, who is moderate. Mourou is described as a democrat who dissented from the movement because he was opposed to violence, the course Dunn alleges Ennahda eventually pursued. There is no evidence in Dunn's work that he has studied the writings of Ghannouchi. Instead, it would seem, he judges him on the basis of a few out‐of‐context excerpts probably rendered to him by Tunisian sources. Dunn's conclusions are in stark contradiction to those arrived at by many other Western scholars and researchers—such as Francois Burgat, John Esposito, John Voll, Linda Jones, and Robin Wright, to name a few—who have studied, and written about, Ghannouchi and his movement.8

Ghannouchi is naturally keen on disputing the allegations made by Dunn. His allegation that Mourou had left the movement to protest its involvement in violence is discounted as baseless. Ghannouchi insists that the circumstances surrounding Moro's decision to resign from Ennahda would have to be taken into account in order to understand his motives. A group of young men, reportedly associated with Ennahda, had been accused by the government in Tunisia of storming a barracks belonging to a ruling party militia and causing the death of a guard. The authorities seized the opportunity to crack down on the movement. A campaign was launched throughout the country, and thousands of arrests were made among the members and supporters of Ennahda. This is said to have been beyond the forbearance of Mourou, “whose physical, psychological, and social conditions did not help him endure the hardships of the terror campaign.”9 He, together with some of his colleagues, chose to renounce the movement and resign from it in the hope of evading the repressive measures that were bound to be taken against them by the authorities. However, their hopes were soon shattered. When they applied for permission to set up a political party, that is after having fulfilled all the conditions and criteria set up by the authorities, their application was rejected. Instead, the security authorities orchestrated, through the local government‐owned press, a defamation campaign against them to destroy them. Using special photography and video dubbing techniques, the regime produced and circulated photographs and a video film to convince the public that Mourou was caught in the act of adultery. Although few people believed it, the allegation has destroyed him. The assertion within Ennahda ranks is that this defamation campaign was launched in response to a press statement made by Moro, who denied that Ennahda had anything to do with the incident known as Bab Souika as a result of which the entire movement was outlawed.10 In his press statement, the first since his resignation from the movement, Mourou blamed the government for creating an environment conducive to violence. None of these details seem to (p.203) have been of available to Dunn, whose book shows no evidence of contacts with any of Ennahda leaders. One would normally expect in a work like his that at least Rachid Ghannouchi would be interviewed.

Lord Avebury responded to Ghannouchi's letter with a letter in which he stated that he had seen nothing in the views expressed by Rachid Ghannouchi, or those attributed to him by others, to justify the charge that he was involved in a conspiracy to overthrow the government by force. Lord Avebury said that the fact that Ghannouchi had been granted asylum in Britain showed that the British government did not think there was any basis for the charge either.11

As Ghannouchi's asylum application in Britain was still being processed, the Sunday Telegraph published two articles alleging that he was responsible for the 1987 bombing of four Tunisian hotels in which five British tourists were injured, and that he was additionally involved in other terrorist outrages in Tunisia, including a 1991 plot to assassinate its president. The paper further alleged that Ghannouchi refused to participate in the democratic process in his country, insisting on overthrowing the established government and founding an Iranian‐style republic.12 Confident that the reports were based exclusively on Tunisian government propaganda and that their objective was to undermine his asylum application, Ghannouchi took the Sunday Telegraph to court. In July 1996, the Sunday Telegraph offered to settle out of court. Ghannouchi agreed, and the publishers, a former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, and a journalist employed by the newspaper apologized to him for the allegations published by them and accepted that “his convictions by Tunisian State Security and Military Courts in 1987 and 1992 were unsafe.”13

The London Saudi‐owned Arabic daily Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat published the same allegations, quoting from the Sunday Telegraph.14 Ghannouchi took the paper to court. More than four years later, he agreed to settle out of court and the paper published the following statement of apology:

Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat wishes to clarify that the claims [it] published [quoting] the Sunday Telegraph are unfounded. Mr. Ghannouchi is not a terrorist and he has not committed any terrorist action. On the contrary, he has constantly condemned such [terrorist] actions. Furthermore, Mr. Ghannouchi was under arrest in Tunisia at the time of the bombings in August 1987, a fact that refutes the allegation of his involvement in these incidents. In addition, Mr. Ghannouchi has been living in exile since 1989, a fact that belies the allegation of his involvement in the conspiracy which the Tunisian authorities claim was plotted against President Ben Ali in 1991. Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat apologizes for having published the allegations originally published by the Sunday Telegraph regarding Mr. Rachid Ghannouchi, who has won a court case against the paper. Having agreed to an out of court settlement, Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat publishes this clarification in adherence to the truth and as an obligation toward the readers and toward Mr. Ghannouchi.15

Similar allegations against Ghannouchi were repeated by the Sunday Express.16 The paper alleged that Ghannouchi had masterminded the terrorist bombing of defenseless British tourists at a Tunisian hotel in August 1987, in which five holiday makers had received serious injuries, and that he had entered into a deal with the British authorities whereby he was granted political asylum in the United Kingdom in return for agreeing to reveal the secrets of Muslim terrorist groups to the intelligence services. Ghannouchi believed that this time the purpose of the article was not only to discredit him in the (p.204) eyes of the British public, but also to damage his reputation within Islamic circles by claiming that he collaborated with the intelligence services against fellow Islamists. He took the newspaper to court. The editors of the Sunday Express admitted that their allegations were published in reliance in part upon information provided by the Tunisian Embassy in London. In the settlement of the lawsuit, they agreed to the following:

Having undertaken further enquiries subsequent to the commencement of these proceedings, the Defendants (The Editor of The Sunday Express in 1995 and its publisher) now recognize that the Plaintiff (Rachid Ghannouchi), who was held incommunicado by the Tunisian authorities during the six months prior to the August 1987 bombing, was not responsible, and could not have been responsible, for the outrage. Further, the Defendants acknowledge that the Plaintiff is not linked with Muslim terrorist groups and that he could not have entered into the kind of agreement with the British authorities that was described in their article. The Defendants are here publicly to acknowledge these facts, to retract the allegations that appeared in the article of 6 August 1995 and to apologize. They have, in addition, agreed to pay a substantial sum in damages to the Plaintiff and to pay his legal costs.17

Arab Secularist Critique

Ghannouchi has often been the target of secularist vengeance for his critique of secularism. Seemingly finding little ammunition to undermine his ideas, the focus is turned to his intentions. Bahey Eddin Hassan, director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and a known opponent of what he calls political Islam, names Ghannouchi as an example of the “Machiavellianism rampant in the political Islamic trend.”18 He regards as a major obstacle hindering dialogue with political Islam the great “flexibility” that characterizes the leaders of political Islam, manifest in their willingness to adopt a certain position and its opposite. This, he claims, is explained historically by the resort to taqiyyah, “which allows Islamists, in the phases of weakness, to declare positions contradicting their beliefs and to conceal those opinions which contradict those of others.” He cites as an example what he calls “one of the most prominent symbols of moderation in political Islam.” It is Rachid Ghannouchi, who is accused of hypocrisy: “For while he is noted for his condemnation of violence, he considers terrorist and assassination acts in Algeria a part of what he calls a popular revolution.”19 Hassan refers to Ghannouchi as an example of the dualism in standards said to be “most evident in the political Islamists' hard criticism of the records of human rights in their countries while they keep silent on the violations in Iran and Sudan, or even consider them the model of the Islamic project and a victory for Islam, or otherwise justify them on the grounds of political specificity.”20

The practice of taqiyyah, which Islamic leaders, such as Ghannouchi, are alleged to resort to, in this context implies hypocrisy. The term is derived from the Arabic root waqa, which means to shield or protect or avoid. As a concept, taqiyyah is the precautionary dissimulation of religious belief and practice in the face of persecution. It is more a Shiite concept than a Sunni one, for since the death of the Prophet, Shiite Muslims have considered themselves subject to persistent religious persecution by the Sunni majority, the holders of political power. So what started as a passive or silent resistance (p.205) developed later on into active dissimulation of true beliefs when required to protect life, property, and religion itself.21

Rachid Ghannouchi, who had the opportunity to respond to Hassan's remarks at the same function where the latter made them,22 rebutted the allegations and accused Hassan of making “outrageous errors that severely undermined his credibility.” Ghannouchi finds no explanation for such an attack on his intentions except as “an act of vengeance for settling a score with a political foe using the cover of the global human rights movement.”23 What Ghannouchi alludes to is that Hassan is a veteran Nassirist “who, together with many of his comrades, converted to liberalism and espoused the cause of human rights to survive the loss of their glory. When Nassirism was in power, there was no concern for human rights. In fact they were violated in the name of the struggle against imperialism.” Hence is the charge made by Ghannouchi that Hassan was “employing non‐political tools to attack a political foe, and in so doing his action resembles what had happened in Tunisia when secularists used the concept of civil society as a sword to fight Islamic foes.”24 On the question of supporting violence in Algeria, Ghannouchi accused Hassan of having taken out of context a remark made by him in an article where he describes the general situation in Algeria as revolutionary.25 Nowhere in Ghannouchi's writings or speeches is the violence in Algeria condoned or justified. However, like most other observers of the Algerian affair, he does indeed call attention to the root of the crisis and condemns the military coup, which in his opinion has led to “anarchy, carnage, and mayhem.”

On the sympathetic position adopted by Islamists toward Iran and Sudan, Ghannouchi contends that here too the expression of sympathy is taken out of context. He warns that his discourse on this matter is not to be construed as one of unconditional support for the government in either country. He calls attention to his distinction between what would be his assessment of the human rights record of either government and his condemnation of what is seen as an unjust Western campaign, involving economic sanctions against not only Sudan and Iran but also Libya and Iraq, the consequences of which are deprivation and suffering by millions of ordinary people who may have little say in the policies of their governments. In other words, the context of Ghannouchi's statement of sympathy is not one of condoning policies of undemocratic regimes but of denunciation of a selective American policy of imposing sanctions against “unfriendly” regimes.

Although one would not expect Ghannouchi to pay the same level of attention to the domestic policies of Sudanese and Iranian governments as he does to the government in his own country, as an Islamic leader he would be expected to criticize violations of human rights or lack of democratization just as he would in the case of any other Arab or Islamic country. But has Ghannouchi been commenting on the human rights situations in Arab and Islamic countries other than Tunisia? Has he really been selective in this regard? There is no evidence that he has. Or is it the case that he should not comment on the violations perpetrated against his colleagues in his own country unless he equally comments on the violations perpetrated by every other Arab or Islamic government against its opponents? Violations of human rights are perpetrated, as reported by regional and international human rights groups, by many Muslim governments from as far in the east as Indonesia to as far in the west as Morocco. Had Ghannouchi been a leader of a human rights monitoring organization he would definitely (p.206) have been blamed for failing to report, or comment on, all such violations. But he is a leader of a Tunisian political organization that has its local objectives and pressing priorities. Furthermore, even though as a thinker he may be expected to raise and respond to issues of more general interest than just Tunisian affairs, he is continually pressed by his colleagues in the movement, being their leader and official spokesman, to take every care in dealing with issues of concern to third parties so as not to earn additional enemies or incur further restrictions on the movement and its members. This is an area that requires delicate calculation. The outcome of any such political calculation is always bound to be a source of discomfort for some supporters as well as for some opponents. For instance, some of Ghannouchi's ex‐colleagues now tell us, as shall be discussed below, that they were not pleased with his strong denunciation of the American‐led international alliance against Iraq in the Gulf War in 1991. Such a position, they argue, earned him and his movement the dislike of Kuwaiti Islamists upon whose financial support many less fortunate Islamists relied until Iraq invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990.

Ghannouchi maintains that in both Iran and Sudan there are Islamic projects that are far from complete. Both experiments fall well short of an aspired modern Islamic democratic state. Nevertheless, he credits both regimes for having shown signs of flexibility and tendency toward slow and gradual democratization. In the second edition of his Al‐Hurriyat al‐'Ammah Fid‐Dawlah al‐Islamiyyah (Public liberties in the Islamic state) he is particularly critical of the ruling Islamic elite in the Sudan for having relied, in just the same way as ruling secularist elites did before, on the state apparatus in order to change the structure of society.26

The ongoing [political] project in Sudan seems to be based on the idea of deconstructing the traditional sectarian structure of society in prelude to re‐constructing it on a modern national Islamic foundation. In doing so, the ruling elite in Sudan joins Arab modernist elites which consider that the state has a mission that justifies the use of violence and the curtailment of freedom in order to guarantee the success of this project. In this case, the state's primary mission is not to express public will but to find it, even to create it. If such a mission is legitimate, and it is as far as I am concerned illegitimate, then the prospects of its success in pulling people with chains to paradise is, in my understanding, rather weak simply because God has created the children of Adam with a natural disposition for the love of freedom. Any project of salvation that comes through this route, irrespective of the amount of good it alleges to carry to the people, is invariably met with rejection. This has been the experiment of modernization in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and the Soviet Union.27

However, Ghannouchi finds hope in what he calls the Islamic pragmatic culture of the Sudanese Islamic Movement, a culture that is bound to “make it in the near future, once more, accept political pluralism as a true expression of diversification within Sudanese society.” He is encouraged by the fact that the government in Khartoum has recognized the political parties of the south and believes it would be impossible for the parties of the north to remain banned.

The Sudanese Islamic project's chances of success in lasting, growing, and changing the current balance of power are realistic but remain very limited if its [leaders] do not reduce the ceiling of their ambitions and if they fail to interact well with the components of their society, with their surroundings, and with their age. They should not count on the state (p.207) as a source of their existence and a guarantor of their future. They should accept the notion of power sharing, pluralism, and open contestation. It should not be their objective to possess power irrespective of the cost.28


Ghannouchi's thoughts have been criticized by Arab secularist writers who claim that it is inconceivable that Islam can be reconciled with what is deemed to be strictly secularist values such as democracy and modernity.

A typical work in this regard is the recent book by Haydar Ibrahim Ali entitled At‐Tayyarat al‐Islamiyah Wa‐Qadiyat ad‐Dimuqratiyah (Islamic currents and the question of democracy). Ghannouchi suspects that the book was published by Markaz Dirasat al‐Wahdah al‐'Arabiyah (Arab Unity Studies Centre) in Beirut “under pressure from certain quarters to atone for its earlier publication” of Ghannouchi's book Al‐Hurriyat al‐'Ammah Fid‐Dawlah al‐Islamiyyah (Public liberties in the Islamic state). When Al‐Hurriyat was first published the Tunisian government and some radical Arab secularists expressed dismay and outrage at the publishers.

In his book, Ali, an ex‐Marxist and prominent figure within the self‐exiled Sudanese opposition, seeks to discredit Islamist democratic discourse in two ways: first by proving the impossibility of reconciling Islamic values with democracy, and second by proving that Islamists are pragmatists who do not really believe in what they profess. In dealing with Ghannouchi, Ali starts with praising his intellectual aptitude and unique contribution to Islamic political thought. He quotes him at length only to conclude that his thought is based on an attempt to reconcile two distinct ideas irreconcilable by virtue of the difference in their historical development and their vision of the world. Such duality between the Islamic heritage and modernity, he argues, is the source of weakness, and hence contradiction in Ghannouchi's discourse.29 Ghannouchi is criticized for searching for an Islamic humanism, one that stems from a religious frame of reference, which to the conviction of the author is a paradox, for it is an attempt to reconcile between the ilahi (divine) and the insani (human).30 Referring to what he calls the predicament of Islamic humanism, Ali points to a contradiction between humanism and the concept of al‐istikhlaf (vicegerency).31

Ali attributes Ghannouchi's Islamism to a feeling of deprivation and trivialization because he comes from the rural provinces, which did not enjoy the privileges of the urbanized provinces.32 The idea that Ghannouchi was driven toward Islamism by economic factors was first put forward by Tunisian writer Abdelqader Zghal, who suggests that social conditions of production and socio‐professional factors were at play in the development of Ghannouchi's political thought.33 Associating the phenomenon of Islamism in Tunisia with the process of decolonization and the construction of the nation‐state, Zghal argues that two important developments took place following independence: the first was the urbanization of the Tunisian countryside and the ruralization of the cities; and the second was the expansion of the education network throughout the whole country, including the most remote rural regions from the urban centers. These changes, he goes on, produced a new social periphery coming essentially from the many graduates and school‐leavers who have been blocked in their social promotion and from a (p.208) large sector of what he calls the new petite bourgeoisie coming mainly from the rural or semi‐urban parts of the country and destabilized by the rapid changes and the new requirements of modernity and, as a result, downgraded in comparison to the new bourgeoisie. The conspicuous consumption of the latter and its slavish imitation not of Western values but of external manifestations of Western behavior are two of the factors that created the feeling of frustration of a large part of the new petite bourgeoisie and of the mass of educated people prone to unemployment or professional disqualification. He further argues that the feeling of frustration of the new social periphery could not express itself in terms of class struggle because of the broad diversity in the socio‐professional status of its members. They could express their frustration politically only through moral judgment that would delegitimize the existing political system.34

This analysis is contradicted by the details of Ghannouchi's upbringing and development. As shown in chapter one, Ghannouchi grew up as a Nassirist and did not convert to Islamism until he became disenchanted with nationalism during his years of study in Syria. It would have been more accurate to suggest, on the basis of the facts of his life history, that his rural background—especially as he moved to the city to join az‐Zaytouna for his studies—drove him in the direction of skepticism and lack of religious commitment.

Like Ali, Zghal finds ambivalence in Ghannouchi's endeavor to build a contemporary Islamic society that would dip into the Western culture without losing itself. He also describes him, though not without expressing an understanding on the ground that Ghannouchi is a politician, as one who speaks two languages. He even likens him to Bourguiba, who is said to have spoken two languages during the struggle for national liberation. For this reason Zghal declares Ghannouchi the illegitimate son of Bourguiba.35 But the most serious accusation Zghal levels at Ghannouchi is that democracy and political pluralism for him, as well as for all Sudanese and Tunisian Islamists, are not values in themselves:

The goal is still al‐islam din‐wa‐dawla, that is, the fusion of policy and religion and the strict application by the state of the religious law, or Shari'ah. Political democracy and multi‐partism are for them just a less costly means than armed struggle of putting pressure on the political decision makers and the first step in conquering the state machinery. The final goal is not a state under the laws of a constitution voted by the representatives of the citizens but an Islamic state following the precepts of the motto al‐islam dustourouna (Islam is our constitution).36

Arab secularists and radical Islamists, in spite of the hostility they exhibit toward each other, share the conviction that democracy and Islam are irreconcilable, and that if you accept one you would have to renounce the other. Ghannouchi's secularist critics, however, accuse him of ambiguity and evasiveness on the question of democracy. He is accused of failing to come up with a procedural definition of democracy that would help contrast it with shura. Instead, he is said to deliberately “float” the concept of democracy in order to deny its attractiveness or ability. He is also criticized for speaking of different models of democracy, so as to indulge in criticizing the liberal model “as if it necessarily leads to corruption, moral decay, deviation, and exploitation.”37 It is suggested that liberal democracy, as it is, should either be accepted as a whole or rejected as a whole. Ghannouchi's arbitrary distinction between the concept of democracy and (p.209) its liberal model is said to be a reflection of the confused treatment of the notion of democracy in the minds of Islamists.38

Indeed, Ghannouchi does not believe liberal democracy to be the ultimate model of democracy and is very keen to highlight, as has been shown in chapter three, what he regards to be liberal democracy's points of weakness. He is also unequivocal about his conviction that an Islamic model of democracy, which would be born out of a marriage between procedural democracy and Islamic values, is possible. He does not consider it to be a contradiction with this conviction to accept liberal democracy as a working model until an Islamic model is developed and proven workable. This theory may not be convincing for some secularists and Islamists alike, but it is becoming increasingly popular within the ranks of mainstream Islamism and among some secular academics. As for the claim of irreconcilability, the assumption that ideas are rigid systems that cannot interact, nor allow for any exchange, is indefensible. In fact the originality of Ghannouchi's thought stems from the fact that he searches, in both Western and Islamic cultures, for points of agreement that allow Muslims, while adhering to the principles of their creed and value system, to benefit from, and integrate into their own culture, valuable inventions that might help establish an Islamic democratic system of governance.

Silent Witness

An ex‐member of Ennahda, and a former defender and close associate of Ghannouchi, Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, has recently joined the club of Ghannouchi's detractors. His critique appears primarily in his Ph.D. dissertation at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. Ghannouchi and other Ennahda members were hoping that Hamdi's research, which started in 1990, two years before he decided to leave the movement, would be the first academic work in English to vindicate Ennahda and provide an objective analysis of its history and convictions. However, from Ennahda's point of view, it turned out to be worse than anything they feared the most hostile of their critics would say about them. In spite of his dismay at the result, Ghannouchi has an explanation for what he considers to be a rather disappointing testimony. Hamdi, who had until the early 1990s been well‐positioned and especially favored by Ghannouchi, was growing restless as he saw his role as spokesperson for the movement diminish. He had previously been asked to represent Ennahda abroad and to establish links, which he successfully achieved, with the media and political circles in Europe and in the Arab world. In the early 1990s, Ghannouchi left Tunisia and settled in London. Scores of senior Ennahda members joined him in his London exile or settled elsewhere in Europe. The movement started reorganizing itself and restructuring its offices, apparently minimizing the role previously assigned to Hamdi.39 The straw that broke the camel's back and convinced Hamdi that he had no reason to remain in the movement was his loss of a bid to be appointed as chief editor of a newspaper the movement was contemplating publishing in London.40 In May 1992, Hamdi announced his withdrawal from the movement. In a statement published in the London Arabic press he declared that he resigned because of disagreement over the priorities of Islamic and national work in the current period and over the methodology pursued by the movement. He further explained: “I have tried to keep the debate over these issues within the internal legitimate (p.210) circles, and have called for the necessity of equal opportunities for all different views without discrimination. However, these attempts have failed and I felt that my affiliation to the movement was a mere formality that has no spirit and no meaning.”41

Hamdi expressed confidence that the Islamic work in Tunisia was in need of serious and fundamental revisions regarding the vital issues that constitute its general strategy. In a remark interpreted by Ennahda as an attempt to distance himself from acts of violence the regime in Tunisia accused Ennahda of, Hamdi denounced violence, stressing that “no party will benefit from embroilment in violent conflict because no one, except the enemy, wins a battle waged against one's own brother and fellow citizens.”42

Hamdi's former colleagues believe that this development necessitated a change in the purposes of his Ph.D. thesis. The purpose was now to retaliate from the movement that failed to appreciate his talents and that seemed ungrateful for his services. He set out to prove to his adversaries within the movement that he was capable not only of succeeding on his own, but also of damaging the movement by discrediting its leader, the very same person who always lent him a helping hand and promoted him in the face of strong opposition from other leading members who felt uncomfortable working with him. To some of them, he was an opportunist who was more interested in self‐serving maneuvers than in safeguarding the interests of the movement.43

Entitled “An Analysis of the History and Discourse of the Tunisian Islamic Movement al‐Nahda: A Case Study of the Politicization of Islam,” Hamdi's Ph.D. arrives at a conclusion that reinforces the claims already made by Tunisian government agencies and Arab secularist critics of Ghannouchi. He accuses Ghannouchi of “double‐talk and double‐agenda” and of embroilment in violence. Despite having been active within the ranks of the Tunisian Islamic movement since 1978, Hamdi suddenly changed his convictions not only about Ghannouchi and Ennahda but also about the entire concept of Islamic activism. Hamdi now assumes that Islam as a religion is non‐political. He regards Islamic movements, including Ennahda, to be opportunist political groups that use Islam to serve their ends and to conceal the hidden agenda of planning to seize power through violence.44

Throughout his dissertation, Hamdi remains a silent witness. He divulges very little of his own experience, of his own findings, or of his own assessment of what others, on whose writings he relies, say about Ennahda or Ghannouchi. The issues he raises in his dissertation and uses as indicators of how disastrous Ghannouchi's leadership of Ennahda has been, are the very same ones he strongly defended and skillfully explained just before he started having disagreements with Ghannouchi over the post of chief editor. In his introduction to the first volume of a collection of Ghannouchi's writings, published just before he withdrew from the movement in 1992 under the title Minal‐Fikr al‐Islami Fi‐Tunis, Hamdi highlights the features of excellence in Ghannouchi's thought and in the Islamic Tunisian experiment.45 Contrary to the way he depicts him in his Ph.D. thesis, Ghannouchi here is one of the greatest Islamic thinkers of our time. He is hailed as a great leader whose struggle along several fronts never ceased, a defender of human rights, women rights and workers' rights, a strict adherent to shura, a leader respectful of his colleagues and insistent on assessment and self‐critique.46

I find myself fully convinced that the new epoch of Islamic work, present and future, requires new symbols and new trends in terms of thinking and methodology. We must (p.211) contribute, everyone in his own way, to effecting this change. For each battle has its men. I can feel the currents of aspired revival blowing here in the Maghreb and there in the Sudan. They are accompanied by rightly‐guided voices in the Occupied Territories, in Egypt, in Lebanon, and within expatriate communities. This is not to mention the lessons we have not yet derived from the revolution of Islam in Iran. All prospects are there for a real and necessary renaissance within the Islamic movement. So let these winds blow in every direction. It is within this framework that these writings of teacher Rachid Ghannouchi are presented. For he is one of the symbols of the new epoch in whose struggle and contribution we have great hope.47

No less devout is Hamdi's emphasis of the distinctiveness of Ghannouchi in his own documentation of the history of Ennahda in a book published in 1989. Nowhere in this book or in any of the literature Hamdi produced before his desertion is he seen to criticize Ghannouchi or the movement, or even demand revision or reform. All seemed well, and it was the Tunisian government to blame for everything.48 In contrast, Hamdi now has no hesitation to claim the exact opposite. In his dissertation, Hamdi is found to err in no less than seventy‐five positions. In a bid to discredit Ghannouchi, both as thinker and leader, he excludes historical facts, disregards texts, distorts some of Ghannouchi's remarks, relies on police reports based on confessions extracted under duress, and relies on forged political statements attributed to Ghannouchi, who strongly denies ever making them.

In the first category one may cite Hamdi's total silence with regard to the influence of Bennabi on Ghannouchi and on the movement as a whole. The trips made by the founders of the movement for three years to Algeria to meet and listen to Bennabi, and Bennabi's treatise on democracy translated by Ghannouchi in prison, are non‐existent in the dissertation. What Hamdi sets out to prove is that Ennahda has been influenced by three main factors: the tabligh, to give an impression of radicalism in appearance; the Ikhwan (and Qutb in particular), to give an impression of radicalism in thinking; and Iran, to give an impression of radicalism in methodology. The clash with the Marxists on campus is analyzed in such away that it adds to the perception of the movement as a violent organization.49

Although his Ph.D. thesis is on the politicization of religion, Hamdi provides no definition of politicization and leaves it to the reader to conclude that it means using religion as a motivation and as a justification of the desire to seize power. Nor does he say what he understands Islam to mean, although it is apparent that his conception of Islam has now become a secularist conception of religion. This probably explains why he sees as a major defect in the Tunisian Islamic movement that its leader is not a professional religious scholar.50

Hamdi reduces the imprisonment period of Ghannouchi and several of his colleagues in the early 1980s to a period marred by disputation, especially between Salah Karkar and Ghannouchi, over who should run the movement and how. At the time when Ennahda members discount the reported dispute as insignificant, they accuse Hamdi of deliberately maintaining silence in his dissertation regarding the significant activities that took place within prison. The most important of these was the writing up of a draft of a comprehensive assessment of Tunisian society, which the movement felt was necessary prior to proposing its own Islamic alternative. The importance of this assessment document, entitled “Al‐Mujtama' at‐Tunisi: Tahlil Hadari” (Tunisian society: A civilizational (p.212) analysis), is that it belies some of Hamdi's allegations including the claim that Ghannouchi had no interest in the Arab reformist school of the nineteenth century or in Khairuddin at‐Tunisi, and his claim that there were no attempts to formulate a political or social theory because the leaders of the movement only reacted to events around them.51

Hamdi relies exclusively on sources known to have been staunchly opposed to the Islamic movement, and at the same time closely tied to the regime, to indict the leadership of the movement of setting up a secret military wing about which most members had no knowledge.52 He himself, as a member, apparently was unaware of the existence of this wing. Had there been a military wing, why didn't the movement ever resort to using it in order to respond to persecution, and why had all forms of protestation been peaceful as admitted by Hamdi himself?53

In another category of errors one may cite the distortion of statements made by Ghannouchi so as to discredit him and to portray him in the image of an exclusionist who looks down upon others. Ghannouchi is accused of attempting to rewrite history and misrepresent the present.54 Ghannouchi is quoted as saying: “We are the leading elite of the one million Muslims yearning for progress, civilization, and world peace under Islam. If we are to be mocked and insulted, our enemies should be clear and frank enough to mock and insult Islam itself. Only Islamists provide the real vision.”55

We are told that this quote is taken from Ghannouchi's Maqalat. The quote is actually taken from part of a dialogue that Ghannouchi envisages taking place between him and another person who asks about the ikhwanjiyah, a derogatory term used by the government‐sponsored media to describe the Islamists. The reason this dialogue is taking place is the rumored preparation by the government to crack down on Islamic activists. Ghannouchi asks: What is the danger? He is told it is the ikhwanjiyah. But who are the ikhwanjiyah? he asks. He gets this answer:

They are those reactionary rigid persons, who do not drink wine, nor do they fornicate, nor do they gamble or steal or lie or swear. They perform prayer at its assigned times, they attend in the mosques praising the Lord, reciting the Qur'an and learning the din (religion). For them, din is neither mere utterances by the tongue nor mere geographic affiliation; it is faith, worship, conduct, and a way of life. Worship for them perfects one's conduct in the mosque, in the road, in the market, in school, and in the house. They call to prayer, to righteousness, and to renouncing superstition and bigotry wherever they may be. Imagine, they do not even smoke.56

The dialogue continues with the following:

If such are the ikhwanjiyah, then they are not a misguided gang in the Ummah as you say. To the contrary, they are an enlightened group of Muslims, they are the vanguard of the one billion Muslims who aspire for progress and civilization in the shade of Islam, which is peace for the entire world. It would have been better, instead of condemning them and calling them names they have not called themselves, that you be clear and frank. It is Islam you should be prosecuting, condemning, describing as reactionary, and accusing of collaboration. For they are only its dynamic image (or they are trying at least to be so).57

There are several other examples of such distortion in Hamdi's Ph.D. thesis. One particular flagrant distortion is seen in the way he plays with the text of an interview conducted with Ghannouchi by Qusay ad‐Darwish on the concept of Muslim and Islamist.58 The twisting, omitting, and out‐of‐context quoting is aimed at proving that (p.213) Ghannouchi believes that his movement is the sole representative of faith.59 In fact, nowhere in Ghannouchi's writings or statements is he found to claim, implicitly or explicitly, what Hamdi attributes to him.

To prove his point that Ghannouchi is not sincere about his claim to democracy, Hamdi relies heavily on two pieces of evidence, both of which were obtained from the files of the Tunisian government and both of which are vehemently denied by Ennahda and Ghannouchi. The first is the claim that Ennahda had a military wing that was preparing to seize power. The second is a document entitled “This Is the Day on Which the Truthful Will Profit from Their Truthfulness, This Is the Day Which You Were Promised.” The document, which Hamdi attaches as an appendix to his thesis, is said to have been issued by the Ennahda leader and distributed within Islamic circles but never published in a magazine or a book.60 In the alleged document Ghannouchi praises Saddam Hussein's wise and courageous leadership and declares that the man who dared attack Israel and resisted in the face of united international aggression deserves to be obeyed by Muslims in whatever he orders, and has the right to their money and lives.61 This is the same document that was used by the Sunday Telegraph's lawyers in the London case lodged against the paper by Ghannouchi to prove its allegation that he was a terrorist. Denying any connection with the document, which strangely appears nowhere in any published Islamic book or periodical, but not denying his opposition to the American‐led alliance against Iraq, Ghannouchi insists that this document was fabricated by the regime in Tunisia in an attempt to discredit him.62

Reservations and Apprehensions

Ghannouchi's enthusiasm for democracy and his anxiousness to prove that liberal democracy can be a good starting point en route to achieving an Islamic model of democracy has been a source of concern to some Islamic observers. The anxiety stems from the apprehension that the borrowing of what may be considered a mere set of tools and measures, from a specific cultural environment to another that is culturally and historically different, and perhaps contradictory, may involve serious risks. Some of Ghannouchi's own friends have argued that previous attempts, within the context of reform, to borrow European administrative systems have had disastrous consequences. On the one hand, they constituted a bridge across which secularism crossed from Europe over to the Muslim world. On the other, such borrowing has led to the establishment of deformed systems of governance that are neither based on tradition nor on democracy. The deformation, they argue, has been the result of a combination of the worst elements in both the traditional system and the Western model to the effect of producing oppressive dictatorships throughout the Muslim world.63

The above line of critique emanates from Islamist thinkers who express reservation about what they see as Ghannouchi's overconfidence in democracy. Their position does not stem from the belief that democracy is incompatible with Islam, but out of their conviction that a sound system of governance would have to evolve out of the local, and within the specific historical, context. Their main concern is that Ghannouchi's ideas may be construed as implying that democratic procedures and tools can be borrowed without bringing with them what may be deemed as unwanted components of philosophy (p.214) or ideology. Although Ghannouchi does make an effort to distinguish between philosophy and procedures, this seems insufficient to some Islamic thinkers who expect more concentration on cultural specificity. One of the most radical opinions in this regard is expressed by Abdelwahab Elmessiri, who considers it impossible to disengage procedures from their philosophical origins. He is particularly critical of what he calls Ghannouchi's “oscillation” between procedures and concepts, an oscillation that emanates from Ghannouchi's double role as a thinker and as a political leader.64

Furthermore, Ghannouchi is criticized for not addressing the changes that would be necessary for a truly pluralistic environment to prevail in the Arab world. In the Western case major economic, social, and political transformations took place over a long period of time prior to the restructuring of political life in a manner that permitted democratization and pluralization. The question is what sort of transformations, if any, are still to be seen in the Arab world. Since the beginning of the colonial era, through the struggle for independence, and finally the era of territorial statehood, no comparable transformations have taken place. For instance, the Sudanese experience has shown, and in this regard it may be considered representative of most Arab societies—perhaps excluding Tunisia—that tribal and sectarian factionalism impedes Western‐style democratization and political pluralization. The point here is that democratic governments in Sudan have continually been controlled by one of the two major Sufi orders (functioning as political party) in the country, the Mahdi or the Mirighni, with the inevitable consequence of monopoly of power, rampant corruption, and disenchantment with democracy. Would pluralist democracy work in such an environment? Ghannouchi himself has expressed an opinion in support of the current attempts by the Sudanese government to introduce a new system of “popular democracy” based on representation in regional, ultimately progressing to national, congresses. Having trivialized the tribal factor as an obstacle to democratization, the failure of the democratic process in Sudan is attributed, in Ghannouchi's analysis, less to local factors than to foreign intervention, the most notable manifestations of which are the repeated coup attempts instigated by international and regional powers, and the war of attrition in the south, which, it is argued, could not have continued this long had it not been for the role played by intervening foreign powers. Still, Ghannouchi may be blamed for not addressing the “topography” and “geology” of the terrain to which democratic tools and procedures are to be transferred. Had his theory been applied exclusively to Tunisia, whose traditional social structure had seriously been mutilated, his ideas would have been less questionable.65


(1.) See also the annual reports published by Amnesty International, Human Watch, the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, and the U.S. State Department's Country Report. See for instance Amnesty International's report “Tunisia: Incommunicado Detention and Torture,” March 1992; and The Lawyers Committee's document Promise Unfulfilled: Human Rights in Tunisia Since 1987, New York, October 1993.

(2.) Ghannouchi, “A Letter to Lord Avebury,” in The Renaissance: A Civilizational Project. Ghannouchi's letter to Lord Avebury is dated 25 August 1993.

(3.) Edited by John Rudy and published in 1994 by Macmillan Press in association with the Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University.

(4.) Dunn, “The al‐Nahda Movement in Tunisia”, 160.

(5.) Ibid. 154–58.

(6.) Ghannouchi, “A Letter to Lord Avebury.”


(7.) Ibid.

(8.) See for instance Burgat and Dowell, The Islamic Movement in North Africa; Esposito, The Islamic Threat, Myth or Reality?; Esposito and Voll, Islam and Democracy; Jones, “Portrait of Rashid al‐Ghannoushi,”; and R. Wright, “Islam and Liberal Democracy: Two Visions of Reformation,” 72.

(9.) Ghannouchi, “A Letter to Lord Avebury.”

(10.) This was made to a reporter of the London Arabic daily Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat, published on 24 January 1992.

(11.) Lord Avebury's letter to Ghannouchi, London, 28 September 1993.

(12.) The Sunday Telegraph (London), 14 November 1993. The articles were titled “Victims Fury at Asylum for Bomber” and “Fanatic in Our Midst.”

(13.) The apology was published in the 26 July issue of The Sunday Telegraph and repeated once more on 28 July 1996.

(14.) Ash‐Sharq al‐Awsat (London), 15 November 1993.

(15.) Ibid.

(16.) The Sunday Express (London), 6 August 1995. The article was titled “Shameful Deal Lets a Fugitive Terrorist Enjoy Life in Britain.”

(17.) From a press release issued by Peter Carter‐Ruck and Partners, Ghannouchi's solicitors, London, 2 October 1997.

(18.) B. Hassan, “Toward Human Rights Enforcement in the Arab World: A Comprehensive Strategy,” in Islam and Justice (New York: Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, January 1997, 147–63.

(19.) Ibid.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Esposito, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World.

(22.) This was the Political Islam and Human Rights Symposium organized in London by the New York based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights in May 1996.

(23.) R. Ghannouchi, “The Islamists and Human Rights: A Comment on Bahey Eddin Hassan's Paper,” in Islam and Justice, 165–70.

(24.) Ibid.

(25.) The article was published in Ash‐Sha'b (Cairo) on 23 August 1994.

(26.) R. Ghannouchi, draft of amendments to be incorporated in the second edition of Al‐Hurriyat.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Ibid.

(29.) H. Ali, At‐Tayyarat al‐Islamiyah Wa‐Qadiyat ad‐Dimuqratiyah [Islamic currents and the question of democracy] (Beirut: Markaz Dirasat al‐Wahdah al‐'Arabiyah [Arab Unity Studies Centre], 1996), 236.

(30.) Ibid., 238.

(31.) Ibid., 247.

(32.) Ibid.

(33.) A. Zghal, “The New Strategy of the Movement of the Islamic Way,” 206.

(34.) Ibid., 212.

(35.) Ibid., 216.

(36.) Ibid., 205.

(37.) Ali, At‐Tayyarat al‐Islamiyah, 249.

(38.) Ibid., 250.

(39.) R. Ghannouchi, interview by the author, London, February 1998.

(40.) L. Zeytoun, interview by the author, London, June 1997.

(41.) Mohammed Elhachmi Hamdi, “Press Statement,” Al‐Quds al‐Arabi (London), 13 May 1992.


(42.) Ibid.

(43.) L. Zeytoun (senior Ennahda member), interview by the author, London, June 1997.

(44.) Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, “An Analysis of the History and Discourse of the Tunisian Islamic Movement al‐Nahda: A Case Study of the Politicization of Islam” (Ph.D. diss., School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, July 1996), 245–58.

(45.) Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, “Malamih at‐Tamayuz Fi‐Tafkir al‐Ghannouchi Wafi at‐Tajruba al‐Islamiyah at‐Tunisiyah” [Distinctive features of Ghannouchi's thought and of the Tunisian Islamic experiment], in Minal‐Fikr al‐Islami Fi‐Tunis, vol. 1 (Kuwait: Dar‐ul‐Qalam, 1992), 5.

(46.) Ibid., 22–27.

(47.) Ibid., 30.

(48.) Mohamed Elhachmi Hamdi, Ashwaq al‐Hurriyah: Qissat al‐Haraka al‐Islamiya Fi‐Tunis [Longings for freedom: The story of the Islamic movement in Tunisia] (Kuwait: Dar al‐Qalam, 1989).

(49.) Hamdi, An Analysis, 47.

(50.) Ibid., 54.

(51.) Ibid., 54.

(52.) The allegation is made quoting Abdallah Imami, Tanzimat al‐Irhab Fil‐'Alam al‐Islami: Unmudhaj al‐Nahda [Terrorist organizations in the Islamic World: The model of Ennahda] Tunis: Al‐Dar al‐Tunisi li‐l‐nashr, 1992.

(53.) Hamdi, An Analysis, 86.

(54.) Ibid., 126.

(55.) Ibid., 128.

(56.) R. Ghannouchi, “Da'watun Ilar‐Rushd,” in Maqalat, 71. This was an article first published in Al‐Ma'rifah (Tunis), 8 January 1979.

(57.) Ibid.

(58.) ad‐Darwish, Hiwarat [Dialogue] (London: _Khalil Media Service, 1992), 14–19.

(59.) Hamdi, An Analysis, 129. Compare for instance the quotation given by Hamdi here and the original text of the interview in ad‐Darwish, Hiwarat, 14–19.

(60.) Ibid., 286.

(61.) Ibid., 183.

(62.) R. Ghannouchi, interview by the author, London, February 1998.

(63.) See for instance the debate among a group of Islamic thinkers in Tamimi, Ash‐Shar'iyah as‐Siyasiyah Fil‐Islam.

(64.) A. Elmessiri, interview by the author, London, 26 October 1996.

(65.) Nur‐ud‐Din al‐'Waididi, “Taqdim Kitab al‐Hurriyat al‐'Ammah Fid‐Dawlah al‐Islamiyah,” Al‐Insan (Paris) 3, no. 13 (December 1994).