LONDON -As the debate is heating up on the shape of Tunisia's nascent democracy, reformist Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi believes that the British version of secular democracy will be more compatible with the Muslim country, while secularists prefer the French model, where religion has a small role to play in the society."The type of state we want is one that doesn't interfere in people's private lives," Ghannouchi told the BBC on Sunday, February 12.
"The state should not have anything to do with imposing or telling people what to wear, what to eat and drink, what they believe in, what they should believe in."
Ghannouchi's Ennahda party won 41.7 percent of votes in last October's election, the first poll since the ouster of president Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali in a popular revolution last year.
The election resulted in an assembly that will draw up the country's new constitution.
In the new constitution, many Tunisians want religion to be the basis of the country's law, while others want to see a strict division between religion and state.
"His views have always been considered quite liberal," Maha Azzam of the Chatham House think tank in London said.
"He was able to return after over two decades in exileâ¦ and still win the hearts and minds of the young."
Ghannouchi was forced into exile in Britain for 22 years because of harassment by Ben Ali's police.
He used the time in exile to complete a series of writings arguing that Islam and modern, secular democracy are compatible.
Ghannouchi says he has no plans to ban bikinis on the beach or the sale of alcohol, for example.
"His vision for the model of an Islamic nation is built heavily on the idea of values," said Anas Altikriti, a British Islamist intellectual whose father led the Muslim Brotherhood in Iraq.
But Ghannouchi's views are contradicting with Tunisia's elite, who prefer the French secularism.
"Tunisia's elite is very closely connected to French secularism - the idea that society and state have to be secular and religion has very little role to play in that society," Azzam said.
Though the majority of Tunisians welcome Ghannouchi's liberal thoughts, secular-minded people simply distrust the Islamist politician.
"He's [Ghannouchi] just playing on words," Ibtisam, one of a group of Tunisian feminist law students, told the BBC.
"The danger is that yes, they say you can go to the beach in a bikini. But at the same time when women on the beach are attacked [by Islamists], they are doing nothing to protect them," she said.
Others in both the Arab World and the West accuse Ghannouchi of double-talk when it comes to Islam and democracy.
Some say that while Ghannouchi encourages Islamists to work in a secular system, he has also written that "secularism is turning the West into a place of selfish beasts".
But Ghannouchi argues that he meant a criticism of how religious and moral values were fading away.
"This leads to threats to family values, to values of solidarity," he said.
Others accuse the leading Tunisian politician of using democracy as a way to impose theocratic states by the back door.
But these accusations are strongly refuted by Maha Azzam of Chatham House.
She said that Tunisians and other Arabs have now lost their fear of tyrannical dictators, and so Islamic parties have no option but to remain democratic.
"The struggle of those that came out on to the streets of Tunisia is for accountable government," Azzam said.
"Within that context, they still want respect for Islamic values, but I don't think that there is a desire for an Islamic system of government that throws away democracy."
Other intellectuals opine that Ghannouchi's theories were helping Islamists address the tough questions; such as how to create jobs, instead of talking endlessly about ideology.
"For the past 30 years the Muslim Brotherhood has been raising the slogan, 'Islam is the answer,'" Anas Altikriti said.
"Well now they really need to answer many, many tough questions."
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net