Modernity Starts Here - Tunisia
Middle East Times
August 19, 2008
East scholar Daniel Pipes has
argued for years that the solution to Islamism/radical Islam is moderate Islam.
But the question is still, who are these moderates and where can they be found.
As Pipes states, "Islamism [is] a radical utopian version of Islam.
Islamists, adherents of this well funded, widespread, totalitarian ideology,
are attempting to create a global Islamic order that fully applies the Islamic
Using this definition,
moderation requires rejection of jihad to impose Muslim rule and the rejection
of suicide terrorism. No more second-class citizenship for non-Muslims. No more
death penalty for adultery or "honor" killings of women. And No more
death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy.
Ultimately, it means embracing
the same modernity that Jews and Christians have adopted whereby there is no contradiction
between being an observant individual on the one hand and living in a modern
society on the other. The headlines from Afghanistan,
Iran, Sudan and a
host of other places suggest this moderation is simply not feasible, and that
Islam at its most basic and aggressive always wins.
I recently traveled to Tunisia to explore this small and beautiful
country located in the heart of North Africa between Algeria
has quietly and successfully developed in recent years an environment of
co-existence amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslims where modernity serves as a
common denominator and religion does not get in the way of one's day-to-day
is hardly perfect but its political stability, Western-Arab synthesis, and
economic vision could serve as a paradigm for other Middle Eastern states.
As Oussama Romdhani the
director general of the Tunisian External Communication Agency told me,
"Cultural and religious tolerance is part of Tunisia's patrimony. The display of
religious harmony that one witnesses on the Ghriba celebrations is possible
because of Tunisia's social
history and because the changes and reforms introduced in Tunisia
especially during the last two decades have anchored the values of tolerance
and acceptance of religious and cultural differences."
The Tunisian people are warm,
friendly and educated as well as open to the West. The 10 million citizens of Tunisia today
show a great appreciation of the centuries of Phoenician, Roman, Jewish, Arabic
and European influences that still impact their culture.
Tunisia was rated by the World Economic Forum as the most
competitive economy in Africa, and is known
for its low level of poverty, high rate of literacy and the number of
opportunities available to women.
But critics also contend that
it is a place where the political leadership controls the press and routinely
Many of my one-on-one
conversations with academics and others involved world politics, American
foreign policy in the Middle East as well as
the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic.
What I found interesting is
that Tunisians, like Europeans, are proud of their Jews and their Jewish
heritage but hate Israelis, who are perceived as the embodiment of evil.
However, this animosity does
not prevent Tunisia
from seeing its model of co-existence as a mechanism for helping establish
peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
One obvious reason Tunisians
differentiate between Jews and Israelis is the proximity to France. Another
issue is the Tunisian position on the problem Europe
faces as a whole with new Muslim immigrants, who despise the Jewish state
because of the Palestinians' situation.
Europe is seeing a slow but steady growth in anti-Semitism
under the guise of anti-Zionism which is spreading back to its Muslim neighbors,
themselves no strangers to Koranic anti-Semitism.
There has not been such a level
of concern, anxiety, even depression, among European Jews since 1945. One
reason for this is the loose official definition of anti-Semitism in places
where, until it prompts an act of violence, there are enough legal loopholes to
allow perpetrators to avoid consequences.
Robert Wistrich, a historian of
anti-Semitism, notes, "Europe cannot fight anti-Semitism if it appeases
terrorists or blackens Israel's
name. We need to insist that a linkage exists between blind Palestinophilia,
being soft on terror and jihad, defaming Israel, and the current wave of
Tunisia has indeed had its share of anti-Semitism and Islamist
activity. In April 2002 an al-Qaida homicide bomber drove a truckload of
propane up to al-Ghriba, the oldest synagogue in North
Africa. Nineteen people, mostly German tourists, were slaughtered.
anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism rose in the wake of the Six-Day War, but it was
former Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba (1903-2000) who acted precipitously
to quell such violence and ensure Jewish safety.
Bourguiba was known for being a
shrewd politician who often preferred to outmaneuver adversaries like French
officials and Islamic conservatives rather than confront them. His tactics
became known in the Paris press as Bourguibism, and they helped him retain his
position as Tunisia's leader after the rulers of other Muslim nations -- the
shah of Iran, the king of Libya, strongmen in Syria and Iraq -- were
overthrown. When Tunisia
became independent it was Bourguiba who worked for women's rights and pushed
through a "personal status code" that ran counter to traditional
Muslim jurisprudence and custom in enhancing women's rights.
Years of study in Paris during the 1920s had imbued Bourguiba with a
blueprint of logical and Western thought, and during his three decades as
president he found it only logical to advocate restraint toward Israel, even
after the Israeli victory in the 1967 war, when other Arab leaders were
In addition, he also called on
the Arab/Muslim world to face the fact that Israel is a reality that had to be
acknowledged and worked with.
This realism had political
consequences; in a backdoor conversation with Nasser in 1965 Nasser commended
Bourguiba for his statement about Israel then publicly denounced it.
And thanks to the way Nasser ridiculed Tunisia they severed diplomatic
ties in 1966.
Some months before the Yom
Kippur war in 1973, Bourguiba called for a "just and lasting peace,"
right "not to be exterminated and thrown into the sea." But in 1973
as in 1967, he sent a token military force to show his support for the Arab
When the Palestine Liberation
Organization left West Beirut in 1982 after
the Israeli invasion, despite many misgivings he took them in. And
approximately, 1,100 active PLO members arrived by sea at Bizerte to a tumultuous welcome. The chief
greeter was Bourguiba waving from the dock and allowing the PLO to set up shop
Fast-forward to 1987, and one
of the quietest coup d'états in all history, when Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali took
power. Ben Ali had been prime minister and intelligence chief under Bourguiba.
And given Bourguiba's poor health in 1987 the transition was remarkably
Under Ben Ali the leaders in Tunis have adopted a
tough stance on separation of religion and state. Enforcement of the
constitutional prohibition on political parties formed along religious lines is
swift and silent, as are crackdowns on individuals suspected of the slightest
inclination of advancing Islamic political movements. This helps explain why
men with Islamist-style beards are a rarity in Tunisia. The authorities firmly
quelled the leading Islamist organization, An-Nahda ("Renaissance" in
Arabic) Movement, under the leadership of the renowned exegete Rashid
All of this has engendered much
support for Ben Ali and Bourguiba for moving Tunisia in the direction of
moderation and modernity in a region that is constantly threatened by Islamism
And this is indeed the
impression I got as I traveled throughout the country that is that Tunisians
are happy with their lifestyles and are not looking to carry their religion on
a flag in the name of an ideology.
However, maintaining this
balance is dependent on Tunisia
promoting its model in addition to Algeria
and Libya seeing Tunisia as a
gateway for modernity. Then if we can successfully replicate this practice of
religion there is a chance that we will see change.
Without a doubt anyone
concerned about the future of Islam should be harnessing Tunisia's
This hidden treasure in the
Muslim world was illustrated to me by my friend Jerry Sorkin a Philadelphia
based entrepreneur with many years of experience in Tunisia.
He described to me his first
visit to Tunisia
25 years ago saying: "I got into a taxi, the driver instinctively put on
the meter, drove within the lanes and upon my paying the fare, gave me my
change and thanked me. I knew I was experiencing something I had never
experienced in my many prior visits to many other countries in the Middle East
and North Africa! This was the first of what
has been a perpetual stream of dichotomies I have witnessed and experienced in Tunisia that has allowed me to say that Tunisia breaks
the image that most people in the West have of the Arab and Muslim world. We in
the West, particularly our present administration, should look to Tunisia as a
country that, while far from perfect, can be a wonderful bridge between
Americans and the Arab and Muslim world and whose many achievements within the
socio-economic realm can be the barometer to which other countries in the
region can aspire."
The above truly highlights what
has to offer and what we should be embracing. As the next U.S. president looks on the one hand to win the
war on terror and on the other to find those moderate Muslims who can and will
speak out against radical Islam,
help. It could deliver individuals desperately needed in the public eye to show
that the Islamists are not the majority.
Asaf Romirowsky, an
associate fellow at the Middle East Forum, is manager of Israel & Middle
East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia