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'Who can prove ISIS is popular?'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
December 20, 2016 10:35 IST
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'If ISIS was popular, they don't need to use violence.'
'The strategy of violence is a false interpretation of Islam.'
'The main victims of ISIS violence are Muslims.'

Islamist State fighters parade the streets of Iraq in 2014. The terrorists have since been driven out of most of their strongholds in Iraq. Photograph: Reuters

IMAGE: Islamist State fighters parade the streets of Iraq in 2014. The terrorists have since been driven out of most of their strongholds in Iraq. Photograph: Reuters

When Mohammad Bouazizi, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor burnt himself to death in protest against the humiliation by municipal authorities in 2010, the world didn't took notice.

But within a week of his death it was forced to, as subsequent events so rocked Tunisia, and the rest of the Arab world, that things can never be the same again.

The Arab Spring, as the revolution sparked off by Bouazizi's death was called, quickly spread to Egypt, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, shaking every dictatorial regime in the region.

Even as Tunisia itself transitioned to a democracy, the other countries are still struggling to emerge from a cycle of murderous violence and civil wars that set Egyptian against Egyptian, Syrian against Syrian, Libyan against Libyan, Yemeni against Yemeni, Shia against Sunni.

Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi, left,, is credited with peace prevailing in Tunisia.

President of the Ennahadha Party, Sheikh Rached spent several years in prison fighting dictatorial regimes in his country. He lived for nearly two decades in exile in Europe, returned to his country after the Arab Spring and brought about a peaceful democratic transition.

In recognition of his courage and his spirit, he was awarded the Jamnalal Bajaj International Award for promoting Gandhian values outside India last month.

During his brief visit to Mumbai, Sheikh Rached spoke to's Syed Firdaus Ashraf.

You were influenced by Mahatma Gandhi in your struggle. What did you learn from him?

I learnt from Mahatma Gandhi that violence as a strategy need not be used against a dictator.

Using violence as a reaction is not the solution, but a problem. It does not mean that we should accept dictatorship.

Non-violence is a very courageous strategy. The dictators in the beginning can laugh at it, but finally we will win the battle.

Why is Tunisia the only successful democracy after the Arab Spring? Why did democracy not succeed in other Arab countries?

I feel the Arab world after the Tunisian revolution has entered a new era and new history, which is the history of liberty and freedom.

Tunisia proved that democracy is possible, then why not in other Arab countries?

It is a matter of time, but finally freedom will win the battle against dictatorship.

There is no future for dictators in the Arab world.

Tunisia has succeeded because there were many factors -- the level of education among Tunisians was high.

There is a large middle class in Tunisia.

There is a strong civil society.

There is a moderate Islamic movement.

Also, Tunisian society is less complicated compared to other Arab societies like Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Libya or Yemen.

They are more complicated societies, people in those countries are not unified and they are not homogeneous, so this fact complicates matters and creates obstacles to change.

Finally, change will happen, but it will take more time and more victims.

IMAGE: Anti-government protesters celebrate at Tahrir Square in Cairo after they learn of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's resignation, February 11, 2011.
Furious protests swept Mubarak from power after 30 years of one-man rule, sparking jubilation on Egyptian streets and sending a warning to autocrats across the Arab world and beyond.
Photograph: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

You have said that Islam is not in contradiction to democracy, but why does the rest of the world believe that Islam and democracy don't go together?

A small minority among Muslims believes that democracy is not compatible with Islam.

They are an extremist minority, but a majority of Muslims believe that the main enemy of Islam is dictatorship.

There is a real lack of freedom in the Muslim world. We cannot stop from bringing democracy (in Islamic societies) by saying it is not a Muslim concept because it is a fact that Islam is a revolution against dictators.

Look at Firon (the pharaohs of Egypt). If you read the Holy Quran, then you can discover easily that Islam is a revolution against anyone like Firon. It is against individual tyrannical regimes.

So we have to democratise Muslim society, free it from any sort of dictatorship.

In Islam there is no sort of church or any kind of theocracy. Islam does not have a supreme religious legitimacy.

No one can pretend that he is the spokesman of God on earth.

No one can say he is the spokesman of the Holy Quran.

So there is real free interpretation of holy texts and it is guaranteed in Islam.

(It is) society which can decide who will be the ruler and no other legitimate authority can decide who will govern Tunisia or Egypt.

It is the Tunisian people who are the only source of legitimacy to decide who will rule them.

They have a right to change them and criticise them as it happens in democracy. 

Egptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi

IMAGE: Egyptian strongman, President General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to New Delhi.

Do you see any historic reason why democracy failed in Islamic societies while it succeeded in Europe and India?

You have to see the historical background and understand the historical backwardness.

It is time for the Arab world and the Muslim world to liberate themselves from tyrannical regimes.

There is also the outside element.

For example, democracy in East Europe has been supported by Western democracies, but in the Arab world tyrannical regimes were supported by these Western democracies.

You can see what happened in Egypt when the Muslim Brotherhood came to power through elections which was accepted by all sides.

They (the West) sent missiles to the Muslim world and said democracy was not needed.

Do you think Western powers destabilise the Muslim world?

Muslims are responsible for their future, not the West, and they have the responsibility to change their tyrannical regimes.

The West has some responsibilities also, but Muslims have to take their destiny in their own hands.

Why has ISIS gained popularity in the Muslim mind? Why do Muslim youngsters worldwide find it so appealing?

ISIS has no mass popularity.

The strategy of violence is false violence.

It is a false interpretation of Islam and the main victims of ISIS violence are Muslims before others.

What is the reason for ISIS' popularity?

Who can prove ISIS is popular? They are against democracy.

If ISIS was popular, they don't need to use violence. To use violence is not popular.

Only hundreds of Muslims have joined them, and that does not mean they are popular.

One or two young Muslims joining them out of thousands of Muslims (is not popular)

Islam had such a glorious past. Why do you think the downfall came about in Islamic society? Where did it go wrong?

It is a circle. Like our life, you cannot remain young forever.

But now there is a real Islamic awakening in the Muslim world.

We can see that Muslim democrats are becoming more popular and Muslim democrats are the future of the Muslim world.

What mistakes did Muslim society make? Like not adopting a scientific approach to life, you think?

The Muslim world is in a learning stage.

There is a spread of science in the Muslim world. There is a spread of foreign language. They are discovering their heritage and trying to absorb new technology and science.

It is a matter of time before the Muslim world recovers its history and civilisation.

'Freedom does not mean chaos,' you have said. Why do people misunderstand freedom and create chaos in its name?

Some people feel that freedom means to come out of the law.

But freedom means to obey the law, accept the reality and execute the law.

Freedom is not chaos. It is not anarchy.

You lived in exile for 20 years. What was life like then?

I have been forced to be in exile, not by intention (as I was against a dictatorial regime).

I was imprisoned for five years. Many times I was sentenced to prison and then set free.

I went to Europe and fought my struggle from outside the country against dictators.

What is your message for youngsters who are disillusioned with the system?

The message is that youngsters must have patience.

Dictators are very weak and the people are strong, so we need to make people aware of their rights.

We need to encourage them to not to resort to violence, but work for the unity of the people.

That is what Mahatma Gandhi did against colonial powers.

Indian Muslims number 170 million and live peacefully in co-existence with the majority Hindus.
Why do you think this has been possible in India?

The Indian subcontinent is a pluralistic society and is like a small museum of religious believers.

Even when Muslim Mongols (the Mughals) ruled the Indian subcontinent, it was a plural society.

People were living peacefully and therefore this kind of tolerance in this country has to be preserved and respected.

Our creator has created us to be pluralistic and no one can be against this nature of creation where we have to learn how to live peacefully, how to cooperate, how to manage and live peacefully in a democratic way.

Democracy is the only solution.

IMAGE: Syrian women protest against Syria's President Bashar al-Assad outside the Syrian embassy in Amman, Jordan, May 15, 2011. Photograph: Muhammad Hamed/Reuters

But critics of Islam say that Islam does not believe in pluralism.

I said pluralism is the nature of creation.

In the Holy Quran, Kuliya Al Kafirun, at the end of a sura says Laqim di nakum Wali Din (for you is your religion, and for me is my religion), and in another sura, Al Baqra says 'No compulsion in Islam.'

So plurality is guaranteed by the text of the holy Quran and no one can pretend (to say) all mankind has to be Muslim.

If you are not a Muslim you have to be excluded is an extremist view, it is not an Islamic view.

This creates a real danger for the Muslim minority in (other parts of) the world, and Islam itself.

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