A U.S. Visa for Rachid Ghannouchi?

Martin Kramer, “A U.S. Visa for an Islamic Extremist?” Policywatch, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, no. 121, June 29, 1994.

FOR NEARLY A YEAR, Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi has been seeking an American visa. Ghannouchi, the most prominent Islamist in the West, is the leader of Al-Nahda (The Revival), Tunisia’s major Islamist grouping. Al-Nahda is now banned in Tunisia, and Ghannouchi resides in Britain. He would like to visit the United States this summer, where he hopes to address religious and academic audiences. Until now, the U.S. government has denied him entry, because of his political views and the opposition of the Tunisian government. But Ghannouchi’s visa application is currently under active review.

Last week, Tunisia apparently indicated it would regard a U.S. decision to admit Ghannouchi as “a hostile act.” Still, there are some who believe Ghannouchi’s visit to the United States would send a positive signal to “moderate” Islamists everywhere, and provide an opening for a dialogue with them. But is Ghannouchi a “moderate”? In the past, Ghannouchi has urged violence against U.S. interests, and he continues to demand Israel’s destruction. Might an American visit send precisely the wrong signal?

Who Is Rachid Ghannouchi?

Rachid Ghannouchi was born in 1941 in the south of Tunisia. As a student in Damascus and Paris, he embraced the doctrines of the Muslim Brotherhood, which he disseminated on his return to Tunisia. His writings and activities against the government during the 1980s led to his repeated arrest. Ghannouchi chose voluntary exile in 1989. In 1992, a Tunisian court sentenced him in absentia to life imprisonment, for plotting to overthrow the Tunisian government.

Ghannouchi arrived in Britain in November 1991, and requested political asylum. The Tunisian government objected, but members of the Muslim community in Britain took up Ghannouchi’s cause, and he was granted asylum in August 1993.

America: “Enemy of Islam”

Ghannouchi visited the United States in December 1989, when he attended Islamic conferences in Chicago and Kansas City. At the time, he impressed some as a “moderate” Islamist, amenable to dialogue. But this reading of Ghannouchi was completely overturned by his reaction to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.

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. Ghannouchi compared Saddam to Yusuf Ibn Tashfin, the 11th-century Almoravid ruler who forcibly unified the Muslim principalities of Spain in order to wrest them from Christian domination. According to Ghannouchi, the Muslims now faced “Crusader America,” the “enemy of Islam,” and Saddam had taken a necessary step toward unity, “joining together two Arab states out of twenty-two, praise be to God.”1 Although other Islamists criticized Saudi Arabia, none embraced Saddam as fervently as Ghannouchi.

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… 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.” He also called for a Muslim boycott of American goods, planes and ships.2

After the war, Ghannouchi requested a U.S. visa. His request was denied. Since then, he has angled for a review of his application by praising former Assistant Secretary of State Edward Djerejian’s speech on Islam, made at Meridian House in June 1992. He also wrote to Djerejian, professing his willingness for dialogue. The 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.”3

Connections with Iran and Sudan

The worth of this overture to America must be weighed against two truths: Ghannouchi remains a constant ally of Iran and Sudan, and an avowed opponent of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Ghannouchi has been a supporter of the Iranian revolution ever since his first visit to the Islamic Republic in 1979. More recently, he worked to thaw relations between Sunni Islamist movements and Iran, visiting Teheran twice for this purpose in 1990. During the second of these visits, 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.”5 Ghannouchi did not hide his disappointment with Iran’s restrained reaction to the “American occupation” of the Gulf in 1990. (“Has no one succeeded Khomeini?” he asked.)5 But Ghannouchi still maintains contacts with Iran, and last October he received a Hezbollah parliamentary delegation visiting Britain.6

Ghannouchi also has many links to Sudan and its Islamist guide, Hasan al-Turabi, whom he has known and admired for fifteen years. After Ghannouchi went into exile, he visited Sudan, which provided him with a passport. (Tunisia lodged an official protest with Sudan, and Ghannouchi finally returned the passport in December 1991). Ghannouchi included Turabi among the dedicatees of his latest book, and Turabi vouches for Ghannouchi, assuring the West that Ghannouchi “can be trusted to draw up a program for Tunisia.”7

Robert Pelletreau, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, recently indicated that Washington is concerned “over Sudan’s role in supporting Islamic extremist groups in North Africa, either in its own right or as a cat’s paw for Iran.”8 Ghannouchi’s ties with both Sudan and Iran have long made him a linchpin of this “exploitation.”

Opponent of the Peace Process

Ghannouchi also has been one of the most vocal Islamist opponents of the Arab-Israeli peace process. He believes that “any organization, any voice, any state that extends a hand to the Zionist enemy warrants complete condemnation, isolation and the waging of war against it.” Ghannouchi urges Palestinians not to compromise:

I think that the approach of Palestinian Islamists must be the liberation of Palestine from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean sea. Any part that is liberated is a gain, provided the price is not the sale of the rest of Palestine. Palestine belongs to the Muslims and must be liberated in its entirety. The truth cannot be divided.9

Ghannouchi has called the Israel-PLO accord “a Jewish-American plan encompassing the entire region, which would cleanse it of all resistance and open it to Jewish economic and cultural activity, culminating in complete Jewish hegemony from Marrakesh to Kazakhstan.”10 Since the accord, Ghannouchi has reiterated his support for Hamas, “which we believe has taken the right stand,” expressing his confidence that “the Muslim nation will get rid of the Zionist cancer.”11 Ghannouchi’s rejection of the Israel-PLO accord has been shriller than even that of most other Muslim Brotherhood leaders.

The Wrong Signal

Assuming a valid distinction can be made between Islamists who are “extremist” and “reformist,” Ghannouchi clearly belongs to the first category. Since his last visit to the United States, he has openly threatened U.S. interests, supported Iraq against the United States and campaigned against the Arab-Israeli peace process. Indeed, Ghannouchi in exile has personified the rejection of U.S. policies, even as he dispatches missives to the State Department. A visa for Ghannouchi would signal that the United States has become so confused by Islamist artifice that it can no longer tell friend from foe–and not just in Tunisia.


1. Ila Filastin (Culver City, CA), November 1990.
2. Ila Filastin, November 1990.
3. Al-Alam (London), 24 April 1993; Filastin al-Muslima (London), May 1993.
4. Al-Islam wa-Filastin (Nicosia), February 1991.
5. Ila Filastin, November 1990.
6. Voice of the Oppressed (Ba’labakk, Lebanon), 16 October; FBIS Daily Report, 21 October 1993.
7. Libération (Paris), 17 March 1993.
8. Pelletreau speech, Middle East Policy Council, 26 May 1994.
9. Ila al-Imam (Damascus), 11-17 January 1991.
10. Filastin al-Muslima, October 1993.
11. Cassette tape of telephone conference with Islamic centers in the U.S., 25 March 1994, distributed by the Islamic Association for Palestine.