Thursday,21 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)
Thursday,21 February, 2019
Issue 1392, (3 - 9 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Tunisia’s path to heaven

Safwan M Masri, Tunisia — An Arab Anomaly, New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. pp416 - Reviewed by Dina Ezzat

Tunisia’s path to heaven
Tunisia’s path to heaven

Tunisia – An Arab Anomaly is its author the Jordanian-born vice chair of Columbia University Safwan Masri’s attempt to demonstrate how Imam Malik, Habib Bourgiba and Rached Ghannouchi each played a part in making it possible for Tunisians to have a relatively soft path through the Arab Spring, a journey that proved rougher in other Arab states after its initial takeoff in the winter-spring of 2011.

Written by a scholar who is not a political scientist, the book is a detailed socio-historic explanation of the tale of Tunisia’s embedded tolerance and coexistence of religiosity and secularism – something, Masri argues, that has been overlooked by researchers and commentators who have been trying to find a way to do the impossible: make the Tunisian experience of slowly, even if at times roughly, embracing democracy an example to be followed by other Arab states.

Masri, who will give a lecture-seminar on his book at the American University in Cairo this Monday (7 May), argues that the Arab Spring all but begins and ends with the Jasmine Revolution. He suggests, in a book based on direct interviews with leading Tunisian decision-makers and considerable go-through history accounts, that this is a function of the fact that the demonstrations calling for the ouster of Tunisian dictator Zein Alabdeine Ben Ali were eventually followed by a peaceful transition to a functioning democracy. Without step two, Masri firmly argues, step one could have generated different kinds of chaos or counter-revolution inconsistent with the true call of the Arab Spring.

This, Masri argues, while repeatedly suggesting that the call of democracy is not yet fully acknowledged; there are no guarantees that even Tunisia won’t slip off its path.

Masri, a systems engineer by training, has taught business for most of his career. It was visiting Tunis in the aftermath of Ben Ali’s ouster (for both business and pleasure) that inspired the book, which outlines the idea that Tunisia operates on a “system” different from other Arab Spring states’. Slowly Masri guides the reader through a dissection of Tunisia’s different and hybrid trajectory. He starts not with the firmly secular Tunisian President Habib Bourgiba, who ruled Tunis for three decades starting with its independence from France in the mid-1950s, but with Imam Anas Ibn Malik who established an accommodating school of Islamic thinking that projected tolerance and modernity as early as the eighth century, “in what helped defining Tunisia’s Islam”. Also credited by Masri for his role in defining Tunisian modernity is the 14th-century philosopher Ibn Khadoun. Other modernity-committed Muslim scholars and thinkers, Masri explains in the section he dedicates to the history of Tunisia, kept the trend alive through the centuries.

This long embedded and evolving interest in the practice of modernity, Masri suggests, did not subside under the coercive rule of Ben Ali. It is perhaps this particular Tunisian sense of modernity, he suggests, that made the Arab Spring start there rather than elsewhere. Indeed when all is said and done Tunisia’s experience is based on its “irregularity” within a wider context to which it nonetheless subscribes.

Masri is careful to assert at the outset that Tunisia’s success story is not just the outcome of its secular legacy but also a function of Tunisian Islamists (unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the Arab world, even in a long established state like Egypt, which enjoyed its own hefty modernity) were willing to bow to the norms of modern governance.

Tunisia, Masri reminds his readers, is the first and so far the only Arab country to see an Islamist party, Ennahda, drop its traditional Islamist label and redefine itself, as early as March 2016, as a party of “Muslim democrats”. Ennahda thus shifted its focus to the country’s economy, away from religion, going so far as to ban its leading members from participating in religious organisations or preaching in mosques.

Ennahda acted in line with the predominant Tunisian style of inclusiveness as it decided to join its political rival, Nidea Tunis, in a process of political cooperation aimed at consensus, displaying the ability to abide by the requirements of realpolitik.

Masri argues that Tunisia’s small and homogenous population is a factor that cannot be overlooked in assessing Tunisia’s success in pursuing a functioning democracy.

But of all the factors — an embedded taste for modernity, progressive political Islam and a small, homogenous, Mediterranean population — Masri stresses the second, perhaps in view of the fact that it was the failure of political Islam in other Arab Spring states that precipitated derailing consensus-building and democracy.

And yet Masri attributes the nature of political Islam in Tunisia to the country’s reformist history, which allowed for a distinct sense of modernity and so secured the coexistence of religiosity and secularism.

This is certainly not he case in other Arab Spring countries where the physical symbols of religious piety, which were made very visible as of the 1980s, evolved into intolerant practices against those who do not align with the same code. 

Masri contrasts the integrated and un-presumptuous state of the mosques in the city of Tunis with that of mosques in other Arab cities to underline his argument about this fundamental difference between the nature of religion in Tunisia as an essentially private and spiritual exercise to that in other Arab capitals where it is more of a visible, public demonstration that is at times overwhelming.

And unlike other Arab countries where there is only one strict and narrowing path to heaven, Masri argues, Tunis finds an alternative path of religious spirituality, with Sufism being easily embraced there, and a sense of the compatibility of religion with both modernity and tolerance.

This choice of the place and space of religion even within the context of political Islam, Masri argues, was demonstrated by the choice of Rached Ghennouchi, the leader of Ennahda, to disassociate his party from the radical views and choices of the Salafi group of Jabhat Al-Islah. Ghannouchi in fact acted to contain rather than to succumb to the Salafis – a clear contrast to the choices made by Islamist parties in other Arab Spring countries.

In short, Masri credits Ghannouchi for realising that Ennahda could not “Islamise” Tunisia and his willingness to “modernise” more radical groups. This realism, the author adds, is also adopted by younger leaders of Ennahda.

It is therefore significant, Masri says, that while 99 percent of Tunisians are Muslims, Islam, even in the 2014 constitution to which Ennahda contributed and of which it approved is the religion of the state and not the state religion – as is the case in other Arab countries where neither societies nor Islamist groups would have tolerated the question.

In his book, Masri acknowledges with considerable appreciation the keen interest in and dedication to promote quality education in Tunisia before and after independence, with Bourgiba allocating close to one third of the state budget to education, and the long established influence of civil society, especially through white-collar and blue-collar syndicates. These two, he suggests, made it possible for Tunisians to have a political compromise mechanism that produced a consensual path to follow in the wake of the ouster of Ben Ali.

In fact, Masri goes so far as to argue that it was the UGTT (Union générale tunisien du travail) “adopting the Jasmine Revolution” from the beginning that promoted the inter-societal consensus-building process through the Quartet du dialogue national, which was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 2015 for its role in peacefully managing the revolution of Tunisia.

Masri’s book offers a holistic account of the story of Tunisia through the ages; its limited association with the Ottoman Empire and subsequent limited affiliation with pan-Arabism – even during its pursuit of independence from French occupation; its resilience, and that of its Islamists, in standing up to the influence of Wahhabism, which reinvigorated Ibn Taimiya’s vision of a “harsh and intolerant” Islamic society; its success in promoting women’s rights; and its ability to have its own identity, amalgamating the diverse influences of Europe, Africa and the Arab world.

Above all, as Masri states, in many ways, this book is “an attempt to reconcile conflicting narratives of what is right and what is wrong” in the unique case of Tunisia.

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