ISTANBUL — Tunisia's main Islamist party, eyeing gains in upcoming elections, supports a moderate form of Sharia law that would combine "democracy, which is a Western product, with Islam, which is our own heritage," the party's leader told McClatchy.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Ennahda party, also said that he backed new election laws mandating that political parties run equal numbers of male and female candidates, adding that Ennahda was running a large number of women in the Oct. 23 elections for an assembly that will draft Tunisia's new constitution, including even some who don't wear the traditional Islamic veil, or hijab.
"We have challenged many of the parties who claim to be liberal and who claim to respect women to (allow women to) wear what they want. We challenge them to put as part of their list women who wear the hijab," Ghannouchi said on Friday, on the sidelines of a conference here on the Arab Spring protests.
The upcoming elections are the first in the North African nation since popular protests forced the resignation of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January, sparking anti-government uprisings across the Arab world. Ennahda's expected strong showing — it is projected to win a plurality of assembly seats — has alarmed some Western nations as well as secular parties in Tunisia, a small but relatively well off nation of 10 million where devout Muslims and cosmopolitan, French-influenced secularists have sometimes clashed.
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In a sign of the pre-election tensions, police in the capital, Tunis, used tear gas on Sunday to disperse Islamists who were protesting against a ban on veiled women enrolling in college. Protesters also tried to storm the offices of a private television station that had broadcast a French-Iranian animated film called "Persepolis," which they said denigrated Islam, and dozens were arrested, according to the Tunisian news agency TAP.
The attackers were "Islamic fundamentalists and women wearing the niqab," or full-face veil, and some were armed with sticks and knives, the Nessma television station said in a statement.
Nabil Karoui, the station's director, condemned what he called a "dictatorship of violence" through which "some people are trying to silence free speech," TAP reported.
Speaking before the weekend unrest, Ghannouchi tried to dampen fears over Ennahda, long pushed to the margins under the Ben Ali regime, describing it as "a moderate party." He argued that Tunisian society was familiar with Sharia law and that some aspects of it are already enshrined in the country's legal code.
"Sharia is not something that is alien or strange to our societies... For example in Britain we have Islamic finance and Islamic banking, and Islamic family law can be applied for marriage and divorce," Ghannouchi said. "We don't see Sharia interfering in people's private lives or in their freedom to wear what they want. Personal freedom is very important for us."
Ghannouchi said secularism in the Arab world had "been linked for the last decades with dictatorship and with oppression," a reference to, among others, the former regimes of Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who suppressed Islamist parties, often violently. He argued that Turkey, a majority-Muslim nation that sees itself as a progressive blend of religion and modernity, could be "a model" for the new Tunisia.
He said that he wouldn't be a candidate for political office, saying he wanted "to give the opportunity to young people, because this revolution was made by young people."
"My dream is to see Tunisia free, democratic, developed and at peace with its own identity and at peace with modernity," he said.
(Yezdani is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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