How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis

How Arabs Fight Islamism: A Letter from Tunis


If there is one foreign leader whose views were validated by the painful events of September 11, 2001, it is Tunisia's President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. For years he has conducted a no-holds-barred battle against Islamism in Tunisia. And unlike in Algeria, Tunisia's neighbor to the east, Ben Ali has largely won.

One price of the extirpation of Islamic militants in Tunisia prior to September 11 has been an incessant barrage of foreign (often French) press criticism for various human rights violations. Watchdog NGOs like Human Rights Watch piled it on as well. While he kept up the heat at home, Ben Ali often found that Islamist exile leaders had been given a pass, finding comfortable perches in London or Frankfurt. Ben Ali chided Western countries as early as 1994 for "serving as rear bases for fundamentalist terrorists", pointing to laissez faire attitudes toward the political activities (and worse) of Islamic exiles in London, Frankfurt and Paris.

September 11 swiftly softened the public criticism. French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine was dispatched to Tunis soon after September 11 to express solidarity with Tunisia's efforts. Shortly thereafter, French President Jacques Chirac visited to praise Ben Ali's long-term struggle against terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism, underscoring that Tunisia's position of "refusing religious intolerance and fundamentalism is completely exemplary." In November 2001, the French magazine L'Express repented its targeting of human rights violations in Tunisia, pointing out that "democracy is not built in a single day." In the United States, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns spoke of Tunisia's "record of moderation and tolerance in the region."

The Tunisian approach to combating terrorism has taken three forms. First, the country has refused to cede ground on Islamic theology to fundamentalist clerics. Second, since 1990 the country has conducted a "war" against Islamic fundamentalism, an approach that America only began after September 11. When it comes to the security aspects of fighting Islamic fundamentalism, the Tunisians, to borrow an Algerian term, are éradicateurs. Third, Tunisia has understood that economic development is vital to the task of drying the pools of fundamentalist support in the country. And it has remembered a vital corollary as well: for the sake of social stability, attention must be paid to the social well-being of those temporarily left behind by economic rationalization.

Cooperation of Church and State

Tunisia sees itself as a state of Muslims, but not an Islamic state. At the same time Tunisia offers its own vision of Islam--one based on strict limits on the public role of religion and a strong focus on tolerance as part of Islam itself. While the constitution describes the country as a predominantly Muslim nation, this empirical fact of demography does not lead to the conclusion that Tunisia is an Islamic state.

True, Tunisia does not follow a Western model of strict separation of church and state. Habib Bourguiba, the country's first president, dropped state support for Islamic seminaries and institutions. After his ascension to power in 1987, Ben Ali tempered this course somewhat, giving more prominence to the rituals of faith. Thus, the call to prayer could once again be heard on state-run radio and television. Furthermore, while in Tunis some years ago during the Prophet's birthday, I discovered that the entire cabinet was expected to join President Ben Ali at Zeitouna, the country's main mosque.

Tunisia's divergence from a model of strict secularity is designed to promote a form of Islam consistent with tolerance and respect for religious difference. Jalloul Jerabi, Minister of Religious Affairs and former head of the Tunis Zeitouna University (its religious university), has suggested that the traditional rule requiring the reconquest of dar al-Islam (lands of Islam) lost to the dar al-harb (lands of darkness) is no longer applicable. This rule, he told me over lunch in a Tunis Kosher restaurant, was applicable in the 7th century, when Islam was a struggling religion, but not today, when it is a growing religion of over one billion adherents. Zeitouna, in the words of its President Muhammad Toumi, stresses the Quran's "125 verses that insist on religious freedom and that ask Muslims to respect others." Thus, Tunisia rejects the view of Islam as a religion that ineluctably captures all of a society's social and political space, a principle further reflected in its ban on Islamic parties.

Because graduates of Zeitouna staff the state's Islamic institutions, the faithful of Tunisia hear a very different message at Friday prayers than their co-religionists in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or East Jerusalem. So do secondary school students in religious classes taught by Zeitouna graduates. As Mohammad Charfi (himself a critic of Ben Ali) has underscored,

"Religious matters, programs and textbooks emphasize the thinking of the scholars influenced by the best of our late-medieval thinkers, like Averroes and Avicenna. Such writers have developed new readings of the Quran and given Islam a content that allows for discussion of sexual equality, human rights, and the development of democracy."

These subjects, as well as modern science, are all taught as part of--not in contrast to--the values of an enlightened Islam.

This past November, Ben Ali announced creation of an "International Prize for Islamic Studies" in order to enrich interpretive (ijtihad) thinking that believes in dialogue and openness and rejects exclusion and fanaticism. This focus on Islamic values of tolerance may be not only Tunisia's most important weapon against Islamic fundamentalism, but also its greatest contribution to a Western counter-terrorism policy designed to win "hearts and minds."

Further evidence of Tunisia's efforts to influence Islam include its actions overriding sharia law in the matter of the status of women. When Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956, the new republic's first major social reform was the Code of Personal Status, banning polygamy and establishing basic equality. Most recently, a 1998 presidential decree created a national fund to protect the rights of divorced women whose husbands refuse to pay alimony. Women are fully integrated into the workforce and compose 52 percent of students enrolled in university. In terms of women's rights, Tunisia is a rare phenomenon in the Arab world.

Les Eradicateurs

The rejection of Islamic fundamentalism is total. President Ben Ali first reached out to the Islamists directly after coming to power in 1987, but after Rachid Ghannouchi's Al-Nahda (Renaissance) Islamist party turned to terrorism--placing bombs in tourist hotels in the late 1980s, attacking the ruling party office in the Tunis suburb of Bab Souika in the early 1990s and conspiring during that time in an Islamist coup--Ben Ali cracked down. Since then, Tunisia has been unwavering in its approach toward Islamists, outlawing its institutions and jailing its followers (such as they are).

In the late 1990s, many foreign analysts felt that the Al-Nahda threat had been stanched. Indeed, some, like Professor John Entalis of Fordham, have called Al-Nahda a "mainstream group" (together with the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and in Egypt!) and labeled its exiled leader Rachid Ghannouchi "a moderate voice." This is the same Ghannouchi who signed a 2002 call "to end any discourse with Israel" and described Operation Iraqi Freedom as "a war against Islam", arguing that "struggling against this war is a compulsory duty for every Muslim."

Still, Tunisia did not wait until September 11 to strike hard against Islamic terrorism. Between 600 and 1,000 Islamists are currently imprisoned for extended terms. The Tunisian state has used military courts to give prison terms to 34 Tunisians found guilty of recruiting for Al-Qaeda. In November 2002, Muhammad Saidani received a twenty-year jail sentence for leading an Islamist cell in Italy. Not surprisingly, Amnesty International has complained about the use of military courts to levy these and other harsh penalties.

Recent years have witnessed an increasing concern over joint activity between Al-Nahda and the secular Left. A London satellite television station that broadcasts to Tunisia provided these strange bedfellows airtime to attack the regime. And for a time, Al-Nahda and Mouvement des Démocrates Socialistes (MDS) representatives (one of the seven legal opposition parties) joined to create a "demonstrative front" against Ben Ali.

The April 11, 2002 bombing deaths of 21 people at the El-Gribba synagogue in Djerba makes clear that the danger of Islamism in Tunisia has not dissipated. At first, the government claimed the explosion, caused by a gas truck driving directly into the synagogue, was an accident. But after a reality check, the Ben Ali government moved with great dispatch. German investigators (many of the dead were German tourists) were invited to cooperate. Further, Ben Ali moved to shake up his anti-terror apparatus, removing from office both the interior minister and Djerba's police chief. The Tunisians will not brook failure in the fight against terrorism.

Economic Growth

In contrast to most Arab states, you cannot visit the cities of Tunisia (big cities at least) and not be aware of its economic progress. New skyscrapers, bustling stores and privately-owned automobiles abound. Objective statistics also tell the tale. GDP growth reached 4.3 percent in 2002 and is forecast at 5.89 percent in 2004 (world recession and tourist drought notwithstanding). Inflation has stabilized at under 3 percent. Only 4.2 percent of the population falls below the poverty line (the number was almost one third in the 1960s). Tunisia's per capita GDP already equals that of Eastern European countries like Bulgaria or Romania.

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