The Curious Case of Tunisia

Islamism is not a threat in Tunisia if the secularists play their cards right

A specter is haunting the Middle East—the specter of radical Islamism.

In the midst of the chaos currently engulfing the Arab world, many commentators have invoked this specter to describe the region’s future. The possible rise of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has many in Israel worried that such a government will effectively obliterate the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. A pro-Hezbollah prime minister is now firmly in control in Lebanon. And anti-government protests in Yemen are interfering with American efforts to crack down on Al Qaida’s presence there.

But what about Tunisia, the country whose revolution sparked this wildfire last month? Most of the Middle East is wildly unpredictable at this point, but there is a very strong possibility that this country won’t turn into a theocracy as long as the new government doesn’t make the same mistakes as the old one.

With little historical precedent to analyze an upheaval of this caliber in the modern Middle East, some analysts have appealed to the 1979 Iranian Revolution—a revolt that resulted in a repressive, anti-Western, theocratic government—as a possible model. There are, to be sure, a number of superficial similarities between the Iranian Revolution and the Tunisian Revolution. One of the highlights of the former, for example, was the return of the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini—a charismatic leader banned for his religious preaching—whose return was met with much fanfare. And recently, Rashid Ghannouchi, the exiled Tunisian Islamist leader of the Ennahda party, also returned with much fanfare, and his party will almost definitely be included in any future democratic election.

But any analysis of Tunisia’s religious future must answer one basic question: what, exactly, does the religious Muslim population of Tunisia want?

Chaima A. Bouhlel ’11, a Tunisian expatriate currently living in Saudi Arabia, wears a hijab—an act that caused her much anguish in her native country. “I started interning at a hospital,” she explained, “and one day they locked all the girls who were wearing [head-coverings]” in a room because a government official was touring the hospital. Chaima also recounted how all mosques were monitored by a secret police force that kept tabs on how often citizens attended prayers. “They count the number of people who show up to the mosques, their ages, their affiliations,” she said.

Chaima’s experience reflects the profound tension that Tunisia has had with religion since its independence from French rule in 1956. Tunisia’s official religion is Islam according to its constitution, but under the guise of stifling “sectarianism” and subversive religious ideologies, successive secularist governments have ruled over the country’s religious population with an iron fist. And the liberties that the Tunisian people were willing to give to their government to curb dissent soon created a police state that impacted everyone. Indeed, Tunisia was suffering from tremendous economic malaise and skyrocketing levels of unemployment when a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire last December, and the revolution that he triggered was itself primarily secular. “Everyone knew that if there was any change to happen, it would be through revolution,” Chaima told me, and Tunisia’s religious population dovetailed with the secular population to bring down the government.

And in the wake of its corrupt governance, Tunisia will once again need to deal with the question of its Islamic identity. “I don’t think [the Islamists] resonate with any of the people in Tunisia,” Chaima estimates, because the religious Muslim population “is going to be allowed their religious freedoms anyway” under the new government.

But then she adds a crucial caveat: “unless they aren’t.”

This goes to the heart of the difference between the Iranian Revolution and the Tunisian revolution. Aside from Ghannouchi’s stated disinterest in running for office—as well as his vocal support for women’s rights—Ayatollah Khomeini had managed to co-opt the ideology of the Iranian revolution even before the Shah fled the country and transformed it into something profoundly fundamentalist and anti-Western. In contrast, the wave of anger that brought down the Tunisian government was based in individual liberty and democracy—a cause that resonated with both the religious and secular Tunisian populations. As a result, many religious Muslims in Tunisia have less desire to bring an Islamist to the government’s forefront than they do to acquire the religious freedoms that they were denied under the previous government. The onus, then, falls on the secularists to protect the religious population’s rights. Indeed, the secularists are more likely to bring about the outcome that they dread the most if they fail.

This won’t be easy. With Islamism having been completely absent from the public eye in Tunisia for the past few decades, secularist hesitancy to allow religious Muslims to practice their religion freely is understandable. But whatever government forms from the ashes of the previous one cannot afford to take the same missteps. Indeed, the best way to exorcise the specter of radical Islamism in Tunisia is to remember that most religious Muslims in the country don’t want it either.

Avishai D. Don ’12, a Crimson editorial writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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