What’s behind Ghannouchi’s praise for Malaysia?

AUGUST 6 — Tunisian statesman Rachid Ghannouchi was effusive in his praise of Malaysia in an interview with his country’s Nessma TV earlier this week. He had, after all, just officially visited Malaysia last month and had even called on Prime Minister Najib Razak.

His remark, naturally, was picked up by state news agency Bernama who reported him as being “in awe of Malaysia’s success.”

“Malaysia has only 30 million people, but is able to be among the top 20 countries in the world economy.

“The situation in Malaysia is more complicated than in Tunisia, because Malaysia only has a population of 60 per cent Muslims. Tunisia has to learn from Malaysia,” he reportedly said.

Putting aside the absurdity of correlating the percentage of Muslims with how hard it is to be economically successful, it is interesting to ponder the reasoning behind a respected thinker like him picking that specific data.

Going by the size of economy — the Gross Domestic Product — we are not there yet either by nominal value or Purchasing Power Parity, although fast catching up. Based on the International Monetary Fund’s latest projection for this year, we would be ranked 36th and 26th respectively.

Of course, we used to be in the top 20 in several measures for the most competitive economies last year, but have slipped off the rankings this year.

The leader of Islamist party Ennahda was even more generous with his praise during his July visit, with cringeworthy remarks that raised eyebrows among even his supporters.

“In a time where Islam is linked to terrorism, Malaysia showcases a beautiful image of Islam based on the Quran,” he was quoted saying in an interview with New Straits Times.

“Although Malaysia is multi-religious and multi-racial, 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.”

He also made a similar comment to the media after a closed-door meeting with Najib.

So, what drove Ghannouchi to such tributes? Except his honorary PhD in Islamic Civilisation from the International Islamic University Malaysia during the same visit, of course.

Founder and Chairman of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rachid Ghannouchi. — Bernama pic
Founder and Chairman of Tunisia’s Ennahda Party, Rachid Ghannouchi. — Bernama pic

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There is no denying that Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had once sparked new life into the Islamist movement, after autocrat president  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown in 2011. Compared with other nations post-Arab Spring, Tunisia had fared much better, leading to renewed faith over the so-called Muslim Democrats.

When it comes to human rights, there were pros and cons. Late last month, its parliament approved a landmark law to shield women from violence. And yet, another law is being drafted that would potentially restrict the public from ever criticising or seeking recourse for injustice from security forces.

But critics have pointed out that Tunisia is struggling to get its economy off the ground ever since the revolution. Terrorist attacks in 2015 have made things worse, especially for the tourism industry.

Youth unemployment last year was nearly 36 per cent, and although was a steady fall from peak 42 per cent after the revolution, was still higher than Ben Ali’s time — a little below 30 per cent in 2010.

Ennahda itself has been accused by some of mismanaging the economy — a common argument against Islamist parties, even local party here PAS — although arguably the unity government and the parliament since the 2014 legislative election has been dominated by secularists Nidaa Tounes.

Nonetheless, the economy might have been high on Ghannouchi’s priorities during his Malaysia visit; he spoke of visiting pilgrims’ fund Lembaga Tabung Haji, and government agency Felda.

“We are urging Malaysia to further invest in Tunisia. Perhaps the prime minister can advise them 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,” he said in his NST interview, referring to the two firms.

Ghannouchi also suggested for Najib to provide opportunities for Tunisian students to study here, in return for Malaysians studying Arabic language and so-called “Islamic science” there.

But perhaps, Ghannouchi was just being an Islamist, and the remarks were an attempt to offer a salve as Ennahda’s popularity and influence across the Muslim world wane over the years.

By offering Malaysia instead as a role model, an example of the best the Muslim world can offer, Ghannouchi could kill two birds with one stone: convincing the global Muslim community that Islam’s involvement in politics can still reap rewards, while distracting outsiders from the absolute mess of Muslim-majority countries in recent times.

After all, he brought up similar sentiments during his visit with PAS president Abdul Hadi Awang during the same period. Party mouthpiece HarakahDaily reported that the two had blamed religious extremism on failure to understand Islam instead, while shifting the focus to the always convenient “enemies of Islam” by crying Islamophobia.

There is not much beautiful with the Muslim world these days. Saudi Arabia and Iran have held the region hostage through their proxies, locked in a geopolitical race for influence, with the former possibly sparking a cold war after calling for a virtual sanction on Qatar.

Amid the two puppetmasters, Turkey is trying to assert its own power as the country slides into an Ottomanic decline after a failed coup. Indonesia is grappling with the rise of hardliners that threatens to drown its moderate and liberal factions.

All the while, the strife in Syria and Yemen continue with no end in sight. As the Islamic State imploded, nobody seems to have a clear idea on how to deal with thousands of jihadists who will now have to look for a new home.

As for Malaysia, Ghannouchi should know better than proclaim it as the best the Muslim world can offer. If he were sincere, he would have admitted that the Islamist lobby here has no intention to manage our glorious plurality, nor to even to let it survive.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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