The most prominent voices in the news media are heralding the victory of the “moderate Islamist” Ennahda (Renaissance) Party in Tunisia. The BBC wrote,
Originally inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ennahda advocates a more overtly Islamic identity and society for the country. … To its supporters it is an example of how a balance can be struck between modernity and Islam.
The New York Times shares that optimism, reporting,
Tunisia’s moderate Islamist political party emerged Monday as the acknowledged leader in elections for a constitutional assembly and began talks to form a unity government with a coalition of liberals in a rare alliance that party leaders hailed as an inclusive model for countries emerging from the tumult of the Arab Spring.
The Washington Post featured an Associated Press report on the election results with the headline “Tunisian authorities say moderate Islamist party won 90 of 217 seats in landmark elections.”
The media has raised questions about the real goals of the Ennahda Party. A Times piece on May 15, 2011 gave voice to the concerns of Tunisian secularists that once in power the Islamists would shed their tolerant image. But Western news organizations have paid scant attention to the Islamist party’s stance towards Israel. In Tunisia itself, however, Israel has been a major topic.
In July, there was discord among the drafters of a new Tunisian constitution because supporters of Ennahda (along with others) wanted to include a provision banning normalization of relations with Israel (Ansamed, Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata). On July 18, 2011, The Jerusalem Post‘s Oren Kessler reported that Ahmed Kahlaoui, who chairs a committee opposing the restoration of diplomatic ties, threatened “Death to all Tunisians attempting to normalize relations with Israel.” Many news sources did briefly report on this controversy, but quickly let it drop and have steered clear of it in their recent election coverage.
Consistent with the media portrayal of Ennahda as a moderate, progressive Islamist party, mainstream news organizations have praised Ennahda’s leading figure and icon, Rachid Ghannouchi. The BBC wrote: “Now back in Tunisia, he is now widely viewed as a moderate, reform-minded Islamist.”
A Lexis-Nexis search on Ghannouchi turned up 19 pieces published by the The New York Times in the past year discussing the Tunisian Islamist icon. These pieces depict him as relatively moderate and avoid discussion of his hardline stance towards Israel. In its coverage of the Tunisian elections, The Times assured readers that
The party’s founder, Rachid al-Ghannouchi, often says that Ennahda is not a religious party and claims no special authority in interpreting Islam. Instead, he says, the party’s members merely draw their values from Islam.
But according to The Jerusalem Post (Oct. 25, 2011) Ghannouchi is “rabidly anti-Israel.” The Jerusalem Post article describes how following the end of the Gaza War in January 2009:
Ghannouchi praised Allah who “routed the Zionist Jews,” and labeled the Israeli withdrawal/disengagement from Gaza in 2005 as “the first step in the complete victory of all of Palestine and the holy places of the Muslims.”
Noted Middle East historian Martin Kramer differs in his view of Ghannouchi from The Times, The Post or the BBC. Kramer posted on his facebook page translations of comments reportedly made by Ghannouchi in May 2011:
I bring glad tidings that the Arab region will get rid of the germ of Israel. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, leader of the Hamas movement, once said that Israel would disappear before 2027. That date may be too far off; Israel may disappear before that.
Kramer has a longstanding familiarity with the Tunisian Islamist hero. In 1994, he wrote about Ghannouchi in an article titled, “A U.S. visa for an Islamic Extremist.” Kramer described how the initial impression of Ghannouchi as a moderate soon gave way to the reality of a hardline anti-American Islamist who applauded Iran and supported Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. According to Kramer,
Ghannouchi not only denounced King Fahd of Saudi Arabia for the “colossal crime” of inviting the U.S. to deploy forces, he also fully justified Saddam’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait… According to Ghannouchi, the Muslims now faced “Crusader America,” the “enemy of Islam.”… Ghannouchi also threatened the United States. Speaking in Khartoum during the crisis, he said, “There must be no doubt that we will strike anywhere against whoever strikes Iraq … We must wage 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
Kramer further elucidated Ghannouchi’s particular perspective, writing,
U.S. is not the enemy of Islam, he now argues. It is the hapless victim of a “Jewish strategy” for “waging war against Islam…” Ghannouchi has been a supporter of the Iranian revolution ever since his first visit to the Islamic Republic in 1979… he was the most prominent Sunni Islamist at an “Islamic Conference on Palestine,” which included the leaders of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Addressing the conference, Ghannouchi said “the greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.”Ghannouchi urged Palestinians not to compromise in their objective to liberate “Palestine from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea,” asserting “The truth cannot be divided.”
The Ennahda Party’s attitude toward Israel may not be monolithic. A Web site called Tunisia-live.net reported that party spokesman, Saeed Ferjani “called Israel ‘a legitimate state’ while avoiding an answer to the question as to whether Ennahda would work to penalize any normalization with the Jewish state.” Many commentators too are reassured by the moderate statements of Ennahda Party leaders with regard to social policies in Tunisia and are confident that the party has shed the radicalism of its 1980s precursor, the Islamic Tendency Movement. Ennahda Party candidate for Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, has been acclaimed as “a man of compromise and the moderate face of Tunisia’s Ennahda Islamist party.”
Nevertheless, it is important for news media to pay attention to the Islamist party’s attitude toward Israel, as this could be a sign that the currently popular label of moderate conceals a more extreme core. Hostility towards the Jewish state, like hostility towards Jews as individuals or a minority group, may well signal opposition to religious, ethnic, gender, national and other types of equality central to Western-style democracy.