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

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Courage to Think in Tunisia

On Monday, April 9, NYU's Center for Dialogues hosted an event co-sponsored by Human Rights Watch and Scholars At Risk titled "Courage to Think: Intellectual Freedom in Tunisia and the Arab Spring" moderated by the center's director (and American of Tunisian heritage) Mustapha Tlili and featuring four Tunisian academics.

Tlili gave the opening remarks, which I will briefly summarize:

Is the "Jasmine revolution" at risk? The protesters who brought an end to Ben Ali's regime are the educated sons and daughters of the state built by Habib Bourguiba, the independence leader among a generation of intellectuals who looked to Europe and the Enlightenment. Tunisian identity has been shaped by this history and an education valuing individual liberty, openness, and women's rights. It is this transmission of values from Bourguiba that has built a modern Tunisia.  
The so-called spring did not last, however. The Islamists have ushered in the Winter. Their rhetoric had been tactical and measured but after their October 2010 electoral victory has become harsher and forceful.  
One of history's darkest trends is when a minority hijacks a liberal revolution and gains control through any possible means, including violence. Will Tunisia follow that example?  
The world's liberal democracies need to influence the Islamist government in Tunisia to adhere to a free democratic society and to enforce the law against violent ultra-conservatives as opposed to allow them carte blanche in the name of  "freedom of expression". The ruling interim government must change its course to save Tunisia's "honor and image in the eyes of the world".  
If we are not vigilant and Tunisia's revolution is hijacked then the Arab world may witness a long (decades even) winter as Tunisia serves as a warning for the region. In other words, if liberal democracy cannot prevail in Tunisia, what hope is there for (allegedly) less propitious landscapes (such as Egypt)?  
Arabs will pay the price in backwardness and poverty, and the West will not be spared either: an explosive mix of backward, poverty, and fanaticism will lead to terrorism. 
I thought this presentation was problematic for several reasons, one I voiced in the Q&A: The speaker collapses the ultra-conservative Salafis with the more moderate and amendable ruling Islamists of al Nahda into one essentialist bloc that isn't useful for purposes of political distinction and also inevitably undermines what I believe to be the crucial task of compromise between secularists and Islamists (no matter what we may think, they exist, are prominent, and have to be part of the equation) during a transitory period toward the institutionalization of democracy when political polarization is a perilous path that may retard democratic gains. 

Tlili responded with what I thought was a fair answer: There isn't a blurring of lines between Salafis or al Nahda but a continuum. al Nahda is not the instigator of violence, but its passivity in the face of it makes it complicit. Why has it allowed, or failed to properly prosecute, acts of vandalism against a Christian cemetery, violence against Jews and the Russian Orthodox community, a radical cleric who on the main thoroughfare in Tunis called for the killing of Jews, and the beating up of artists? al Nahda is either managing its electoral base or allowing the Salafis to run wild in order to intimidate Tunisians and even maintain Salafis as a potential tool of violence. Is there then a blurring between the two? 

Fair enough, but I still contend that al Nahda is more varied and diverse in outlook, even though admittedly there are pro-Salafi currents in the party. One criticism of the party I do share is their weak-kneed, at best, approach to Salafi violence (sometimes arresting them, but no public prosecutions to date) while forcefully going after a newspaper editor for alleged indecency and recently arresting, charging and sentencing two young men for posting images of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook. al Nahda may be wary of going after Salafis because they do serve part of their base (one member of the panel suggested Nahda was hedging its bets), but the party cannot just be indiscriminately lumped in with the former. 

I also strongly contest the idea that Bourguiba had raised "sons and daughters". This is a paradigmatic statism that imagines Tunisians as less agentive, idealizes Bourguiba's authoritarian years, and may be conflated with a pinning for a return to the old system of charismatic, self-aggrandizing politics. Let us not forget that Bouguiba once stated, "I am the state". This mindset produced the president-for-life in Tunisia. And we should qualify what constitutes "modernity" since many secularists believe that only a Western way-of-life is "modern". Many al Nahda voters are education and ambitious professionals with all the commercial modern amenities, and their commitment to their faith and vote for a party they believe represents their values does not make them less "modern". Tlili, I believe, uses "modern" in an exclusive manner; a modernity that is a political project. 

And backwardness and poverty, even mixed with religious zeal, (a point made by others as well) is not the cause of terrorism. 

The other speakers, I believe, offered a more measured presentation. 

Professor Hamadi Redissi (al Manar University - School of Law and Political Sciences) spoke about the hopeful post-revolutionary turn from uncertainty toward the building of stable democracy. But he criticized al Nahda for refusing to govern in a more conciliatory manner befitting a transition period. Instead its efforts to monopolize the process, after its electoral victory, has resulted in tension and polarization: secularists and Islamists, state and society. 

He also noted how the "newcomers" (Salafi) have put al Nahda in a bind: it cannot repress them given the reality of democracy but as the same time these "newcomers" are highly aggressive and even challenge the party's understanding of Islam in Tunisia. How al Nahda navigates this moment will determine whether this period will be a moment for democratic consolidation or a portent for a bleak future. 

Then Professor Fawzia Charfi (Professor of Physics, University of Tunis and former cabinet secretary for higher education in the first post-revolutionary interim government) spoke about one of the hopeful signs in the constitutional draft proposals. A draft written by the former head of the electoral commission has been tabled; one that includes the liberal rights enshrined in the UN's Declaration of Human Rights. 

These aspirations for a liberal constitution are shared by civil society in a reflection of Tunisian gains and the history of liberalism and secularism in Tunisia, and if the nation succeeds it will be another example for the Arab world. 

Professor Ikbal Gharbi (Professor of Anthropology at Zaytuna University, the premier center for Islamic jurisprudence in the nation) spoke about how the revolution has presented an opportunity to live through the ecclesiastical debates she had been teaching for years. 

Gharbi went on to detail the history of religiosity and co-existence in Tunisia. The Jewish minority has lived for a millenium and Christianity has been present since Roman times. There are sects of Islam, ex. Shi'a, in the south. And Tunisia Islam has been heavily influenced by Sufi trends emphasizing balance, love of life and a convivial atmosphere. But this reality is threatened by the Salafis who have acted aggressively against the Jewish and Christian minority, along with Shi'as. A monastery of a Sufi saint in Tunis has been attacked, for example. Tunisia's history of religious tolerance - codified in a pact in 1861 - compels us to be vigilant. 

The Salafis are promoting the false idea that there are those pro and con Islam. The truth is that Tunisian Islam is centuries old and a faction has kidnapped it in the name of Wahhabi and a unilateral reading. But Gharbi is not without hope: Tunisian youth, in particular, have brought a new sense of unity: We should overcome this clash between religion, identity and freedom. 

Well said! 

For the record, she has been a personal victim of Salafi thuggery in the form of an apostasy accusation because she dares to teach religion as a subject of study as opposed to preaching it as infallible truth. 

Lastly, there was Habib Kazdaghli (University of Tunis-Manouba and Dean at the humanities school). Mr. Kazdaghli has been at the center of a months-long drama at his university when a collection of Salafis (not students, but "outsides" in Kazdaghli's word; and some dressed in "Afghan garb") violently took hold of the university after their 'sisters in Niqab' were denied admission to class on the grounds that a full-face veil obstructs the communicative aspect of higher education. His office was turned into a Salafi camp until they were forced out by riot police. Kazdaghli expressed gratitude for the secular and liberal President Moncef Marzouki (the head of the center-left CPR, one of two secular parties in a governing troika with al Nahda) for criticizing the Salafis and conveying his collegial support as a former academic, but had less than enthusiastic words for the way al Nahda handled the affair by being, in his view, less than forceful in defending the university. 

The universities in Tunisia can play a crucial role in creating a space for education and debate in the nation's future and he touched on the already promising changes: Deans and university boards used to be appointed by the ancien regime, but the revolution enabled all schools and colleges to have elected board of directors and trustees. Last June elections were held at 195 institutes. The revolution rid the universities of the police. On every major campus there was a police center that reported to the Interior Ministry. And student prisoners, of course, have been freed. 

Academic freedom, the concern of the panel, is still a cause calling for its courageous fighters. Every single one of the guests has been targeted by Salafis for insufficient piety or "un-Islamic" ways. And they have had to contend with ultra-conservative voices. Ms. Charfi, for instance, relates how from the beginning of her tenure as a cabinet secretary she was being petitioned by Salafis calling for gender segregation. But, as Gharbi noted, take a look at the intermingling of sexes at the hajj: Islam is a not a faith of segregation. 

In the end, the panel concluded, what is needed is a constitutional provision securing academic freedom. The Salafis may protest. That have that freedom, but freedom also needs law and order to ensure freedom for all. 

A snapshot of post-revolutionary life in Tunisia. 

No comments: