Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Symbolism in Tunisia


Tunisia's fringe albeit vocal Salafi movement seeks to compensate for a lack of broad following by staging orgies, pardon the French, of fanaticism. They need no "provocation"(an absurd proposition for their rampages and death threats), they chant, heckle and pounce for lack of anything useful to do. Many have become religious fundamentalists after failing to find employment, burdened with a sense of humiliation and turned to opportunist clerics for solace with plenty of free time to assimilate the oratory of extremism. 

Since the January 2011 revolution, Tunisia's Salafis have publicly attacked a leftist film maker, burnt the house of a TV station owner after the airing of a film that depicted God, and ran mayhem at a cinema that screened the irreligious documentary "No God, No Master" - attacking attendees and destroying property. 

Most recently, in a scene that outraged most Tunisians, one Salafi (later arrested for his act) head butted a Tunisian lawyer defending the aforementioned station owner at a trial pertaining to the broadcast:

Salafis also like to boast their own flag - a black parchment with white inscription. And they defame the Tunisian flag as the emblem of secular-nationalism standing in the way of their asinine and delusion aspiration for a pan-Islamic state or Caliphate.

Recently, at a university a Salafi climbed the main gate and removed the national flag. A female student at the campus went up and sought to stop him only to be pushed down by the Salafi demonstrating his idea of "protecting" women (Salafis often take up the mantle of "defending" Tunisian women: like minded individuals have caused disruptions in universities through their [sometimes violence] protest in support of a handful of female students who have been denied registration for wearing the niqab). 

That young student - Khaoula Rachidi - has now become a national hero among Tunisia's secular middle class inspiring a new found pride in the national flag. This latest act in a continuum by Salafis with a vulgar insistence of imposing their stamp on an unwilling nation far removed from the former's sensibilities has only served to further galvanize public opinion, this time by raising the national flag - exhibiting a battle for national identity through flags and their respective meanings in different communities:

The Salafis do not pose any consequential threat to Tunisia's secular and liberal order. Their numbers are too small and they need attention garbing displays or else no one would bother noticing. In addition, the security situation remains tenuous with many police still busy restoring order in restive interior towns - a reality Salafis exploit in organizing their spectacles. But their acts do not go without rebuttal. In the press, on blogs, and on the street many Tunisians register their abhorrence for such extremism and declare their commitment to the values the revolution was fought for: freedom, liberty and democracy. A liberal rally in Tunis after the head-butt incident was one of the largest since the revolution.

It is not just sloganeering, but reflects a determination to ward off extremist voices. It is now being dubbed a cultural war. But it is hardly that since the phrasing suggest an equal sided conflict. Salafis are simply trivial in the long run. 

Ultimately, I believe, that while it is vital to speak out against Salafism: argue and protest against, ect... that this is at heart a socioeconomic phenomenon. Why have some Tunisian youth turned to an extremist ideology that had no traction just a few years back? This question is best answered looking at the levels of unemployment, frustration, anger, resentment and - crucially - a feeling of humiliation that has bred a search for some vague notion of authentic identity and belonging to a larger community, hence a rock bottom convert's zeal toward Islam and the desire for a global Umma.

It is by addressing this inequities will the fanaticism exhibited in the videos above be slowly unraveled. 

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