U.S.-Islamic World Forum, a join project of Brookings and Qatar, gets underway in Doha tomorrow. I attended the forum last year (and the two previous years), and found it a splendid opportunity to meet people. There are also people who should be studiously avoided. I’m not attending this year, but if I were, I’d be sure to avoid one man: Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi.
Ghannouchi is the head of the Tunisian Islamist organization Al-Nahda. He’s been been living in exile in London since 1991. In the early 1990s, I followed Ghannouchi’s various doings and sayings, at a time when Georgetown’s John Esposito was retailing him as a great Islamic reformer. I read and listened, and concluded that Ghannouchi’s anti-American extremism far outweighed whatever commitment he had to “reform.”
In May 1994, Ghannouchi was scheduled to visit the United States, to speak at a roundtable organized by a then-obscure institute at the University of South Florida. (A flyer for the event later became exhibit 222 in the Sami al-Arian trial.) The U.S. government hesitated to issue Ghannouchi a visa, because the Tunisian government opposed it. Still, the visa debate went back and forth, because Esposito and some of the people in the State Department thought (as usual) that it would be a splendid idea to have an authentic Islamist on the line.
So I spent a weekend putting together this compendium of Ghannouchi’s worst statements. It wasn’t hard work; there was a lot of material. Ghannouchi’s gems included this one, on the eve of the Kuwait war: “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… Muslim youth must be serious in their warning to the Americans that a blow to Iraq will be a license to strike American and Western interests throughout the Islamic world.” And this, on a visit that year to Tehran: “The greatest danger to civilization, religion and world peace is the United States Administration. It is the Great Satan.” Read the compendium yourself—it hasn’t been available on the web until today—to savor the flavor of Ghannouchi’s “moderation.” My weekend’s work, published by The Washington Institute, was enough to kill his chance of a visa then, and I don’t think he’s tried again since.
Still, Ghannouchi is a temptation. Like Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who keeps him in London, Ghannouchi condemned the 9/11 attacks. He’s gotten the occasional plug, most notably by Noah Feldman in his book After Jihad. And as it happens, Ghannouchi is also something of a guru for UK-based adherents of the Palestinian Hamas. One of them, shahid–wannabe Azzam Tamimi, even wrote a biography of Ghannouchi. So Ghannouchi is still the sort of guy the State Department would love to engage, if only no one were looking.
Well, I’m looking, and it was with some alarm that I saw his name on the participants’ list for the U.S.-Islamic World Forum. With Karen Hughes and other U.S. officials scheduled to participate, it’s almost as bad as bringing Ghannouchi to Washington. And with all those warm and fuzzy feelings about faith-based comity in the room, anything could happen. Remember, too, that when TIME recently asked Hughes what she’d been reading on Islam, she said she’d read a lot of Esposito. In Esposito’s unfortunate book The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?, he describes Ghannouchi as someone who has moved “from a militant Qutb-inspired activism to more pragmatic, moderate, accommodationist activism.”
Don’t be so sure. “Ghannouchi’s assertions never match his thinking. Like most double-faced Islamists, he rarely says explicitly what he believes and rarely thinks what he says.” That’s Lafif Lakhdar, a courageous secular liberal who’s kept the heat on Ghannouchi. (More here and here.) Ghannouchi was apparently so put out by Lakhdar that he falsely accused him of authoring a defamation of the Prophet. Liberal intellectuals rallied around the endangered Lakhdar, and Ghannouchi backed down. Ghannouchi also couldn’t help himself at the height of the second intifada, appearing on Al-Jazeera to sing the praises of the mothers of Palestinian suicide bombers.
The organizers of the U.S.-Islamic World Forum haven’t put Ghannouchi on a panel, and that’s a good thing. Now it’s the job of U.S. officials to avoid Ghannouchi in the banquets and elevators. He’s not hard to identify. That’s why I’ve put his picture on this entry.