President of Al-Nahda Movement Tunisia, Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi (pix by NURUL SYAZANA ROSE RAZMAN)

Tunisian leader Rached Ghannouchi’s mild demeanour belies the political storm he had weathered in his country for decades. Upon returning from exile in the United Kingdom, Rached remained a firm believer in democracy and understood the sacrifices needed to uphold peace.

Here on an official invitation from Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and an interview organised by the Global Movement of Moderates, he expresses admiration for Malaysia’s success in upholding Islam and unity, writes SYED UMAR ARIFF

Question: Please tell us Tunisia’s experience post-Arab Spring.

Answer: I am glad to be in Malaysia again. It is a beautiful and successful country. I am here on an official invitation from the prime minister and International Islamic University of Malaysia.

On the Arab Spring, it began in Tunisia and later, many Arab countries were influenced by this “flame”. The revolution could not achieve its goal atthe beginning as it had to go through hardships and challenges.

Tunisia’s successful transition into democracy is due to the commitment to keep the flame’s objectives. We had drafted our constitution and organised more than one election, fair and free. Today, Tunisia is ruled by democracy by an elected government, assembly and president. We are planning to hold local elections by the end of the year.

Hence, in (terms of) strengthening our democracy, Tunisia is on the right path towards proving that Islam and democracy are compatible, and that democracy is possible in the Arab world as it is possible in Tunisia.

It is only a matter of time before other Arab countries recover their projects and itineraries on democracy. They are facing problems in making transitions, and that is normal.

Q: Why is Tunisia different from other Arab countries when it comes to making such
a transition?

A: The difference between Tuni-sia and other Arab countries lies in Tunisia’s composition of people.

We are a homogeneous people; we are of the same race, speak the same language, practise the same religion. But, other Arab countries are more pluralistic in that sense.

So, it will take more time, more sacrifices. But, I believe that the Arab world has entered a new era since 2011.

Our success in Tunisia also centres on efforts to avoid polarisation. We adopt the concept of consensus.

(For example) as Muslim demo-crats, we (the Ennahdha Party) withdrew from (holding positions in) government without holding elections or a coup d’état because we considered the interest of de-mocracy, which is more important than on) holding on to power as a party.

The period of transition needs (to be administered by) a consensus, not overruled by 51 per cent (majority seats of a party).

Ruling based on the latter is good, but only for a country with a stable democracy. We choose to rule through a consensus, not through a simple majority.

Q: What is your opinion on Malaysia in terms of democracy?

A: Malaysia represents the best example before the Arab world. In a time where Islam is linked to terrorism, Malaysia showcases a beautiful image of Islam based on the Quran.

Although Malaysia is multireligious and multiracial, Muslims and non-Muslims coexist peacefully. This is important to prove that Islam can manage and survive plurality. It is an example that Islam can stand firm against a complicated situation.

Thank you, Malaysians, for this beautiful image of contemporary Islam.

Q: You have had a meeting with Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak earlier. What was discussed?

A: We met for three hours and discussed issues concerning Muslims, such as the Arab Spring, happenings in the Arab world and issues on Palestine.

We appreciate what Malaysians have done for the Palestinians, Rohingya Muslims, Muslims in southern Thailand and southern Philippines, as well as your prime minister’s visit to Gaza. It is not easy to carry out such endeavours nowadays. Muslims are indebted (to Malaysia) for its courageous policies.

We also talked on ways to strengthen ties between Malaysia and Tunisia. We had visited Malaysian companies, including Tabung Haji (TH) and Felda. We are urging Malaysia to further invest in Tunisia.

Perhaps the prime minister can advise (TH and Felda) to do so by participating in the development of Tunisia, Northern Africa or even Africa itself. Tunisia can be a platform for Malaysia’s investment.

(For example), the prime minister can provide opportunities for Tunisian students to study in Malaysian universities. We also encourage Malaysian students to study the Arabic language and Islamic science in Tunisia. (This cooperation can) be expanded into tourism. There are many (opportunities) and similarities between Malaysia and Tunisia.

Q: If we are to look at the political partnership between Islamic and nationalist parties that form the Tunisian government today, do you think Malaysia can take a leaf out of its book?

A: We encourage the sharing of power between Muslim demo-crats, moderate Islamists and nationalist movements. The Tuni-sian regime is based on the cooperation between Ennahdha Party, the Muslim democrats and (secularist coalition) Nidaa Tounes, which represents the nationalist movement.

We believe that it is a concept that can work in many Muslim countries, especially ones with clashes between Islamists and secularists.

It is a framework that can be implemented in Arab and Muslim countries to prevent civil wars, confrontations, polarisation between Muslim and non-Muslims, and between Islamists and secularists. I think it can work in Malaysia, too, but it is something that only Malaysians can decide.

Q: In your coalition government, your Islamist identity comes second after national interest. Can you elaborate?

A: The nation is our priority. Despite holding the lion’s share in Parliament, we (the Ennahdha Party) chose to let go of governmental positions in order to ensure peace and national unity. We decided to implement the sharing of power. The government is being led by Nidaa Tounes.

We avoid polarisation and elements from the former regime. We tolerate and cooperate with citizens and all parties in our country.

Q: You make it sound easy despite the different ideologies adopted by each party.

A: It is possible. If it works in Tunisia, it can work in other countries, too. We had to avoid any sort of hegemony even if it is reflected in the election results. Our democracy demands consensus, not polarisation.

In Malaysia, the situation is more complicated than in Tuni-sia. But, despite the plurality, Malaysians have succeeded in its search for a common ground, which is the national identity. It complements and guarantees peace and coexistence.

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