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Modernity Starts Here - Tunisia

by Asaf Romirowsky
Middle East Times
August 19, 2008

Middle 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 law (Shari'a)."

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 and Libya. Tunisia 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 life. Tunisia 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 jails opponents.

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 like Germany 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 anti-Semitic violence."

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.

Historically, 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 demanding revenge.

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," citing Israel's 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 side.

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 in Tunis.

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 unremarkable.

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 al-Ghannushi.

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 instability.

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 pro-Western sentiments.

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 Tunisia 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, Tunisia could 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


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