MODERNITY STARTS HERE -- TUNISIA
By Asaf Romirowsky
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 imposition of the death penalty for adultery. No more "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, modernity whereby there is no contradiction between being a religiously 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, an environment in which 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:
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:
Tunisia has indeed had its share of anti-Semitism and Islamist activity. In April, 2002, an al-Qa'ida 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 and 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 militants 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 of Tunisia, 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, the impression 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 to Algeria and Libya seeing Tunisia as a gateway for modernity. Then, if the Tunisian model can be successfully replicated elsewhere in the Muslim world, 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:
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.
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The foregoing article by Asaf Romirowsky was originally published in the Middle East Times, August 19, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a foreign policy think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-ŕ-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat. (Article URL: http://www.meforum.org/article/1972)
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