Notes from the Field: Tunisia

I have now traveled to half the Arab World, and 1/3 of the Old Muslim World. And of these countries, Tunisia has won my heart. It might be that everyone I meet speaks at least conversational French here. It might be that I can eat street food basically anywhere and not keel over. It might be that although I am in Africa and Sahara, the hot days are tempered by cool sea breezes and that the gelato is 75 cents and damn better than anything at home. Or it might be that, even with over-regulation, institutional ineptitude, and low-level corruption, the start-up scene here is more vibrant than anywhere I have been. But frankly, it is the people, whose faith in democracy is shaken, but whose commitment to it has not been deterred. 

For the past few days, I have been in the land of Tunisia, a country the physical size of the entire Mid-Atlantic seaboard, but with a population scarcely equal to that of Ohio. An ancient land, it was once home to Carthage, the anti-imperial holdout whose General Hannibal once brought elephants through the Alps for a sneak attack on Rome. It is also home to Zaytuna, one of the oldest Islamic seminaries in the world (founded in 737), which produced the modern father of sociology, economics and historiography, the scholar known as Ibn Khaldun. Unlike Eastern Arab traditions which focus largely on conquest, hegemony and the subjugation of non-Arab peoples, Zaytuna is one of the schools of Western Arab thought, more in line with Islam’s commitment to pluralism and tolerance. It has fostered a near-Jesuit mentality in some ways, in part because of both Andulusian and Ottoman influences—whereas the Eastern Arab world embraced Nasserism and Kawakibism, two cultish traditions that emphasize Arab racial supremacy over non-Arab peoples, and a sense of Manifest Destiny to politically subjugate those not belonging to that loose racial categorization. Tunisia, small though it is in population, represents perhaps the last, best hope for the Arab World to embrace a path of political and socio-cultural pluralism, thanks in no small part to Zaytuna, Ibn Khaldun, and the country’s founder, the Kemalist-influenced Habib Bourghiba.

While tension exists between Islamists, Islamic, Secular (“Laic”) and Modernist political and social cleavages, the country is one of the few places I have witnessed a willingness to engage one another in civil debate without the resort to declarations of Takfeer, a device invented originally by Arab extremists to excommunicate and apostatize all dissent against the Arab-centric Ummayad Dynasty whose policies against non-Arab Muslims led to the rebellion of the founding saint of Shia Islam, the Imam Husayn. In this, Tunisia resembles the Omani Islamic tradition of the Ibadi sect, which considers schism over political matters to be gravely sinful. Therefore, while challenges to political pluralism continue to plague Tunisia as a transitional democracy, there is a stronger sense that freedom of expression and conscious should be valued than not.

No Country for Old Men

From across the world, ex-pat Tunisian Millennials with degrees from Sciences Po, Georgetown, the dreaded Ivies and the like have all returned here to devote themselves to an experiment to ensure that democracy survives in the Arab World. With bated breath, crestfallen democrats from Islamabad to Ankara and beyond are praying, hoping and (sometimes) drinking themselves into a stupor in the hopes that somehow, perhaps Tunisia will prove the critics, dash the casted doubts and perhaps somehow emerge with its head held high. "We too, sing of freedom --- and carry it in tune."

Yet a wretched and debauched "Baby Boomer" class of anti-democrats and ancien regime players lurk in the shadows. Their fangs drawing ever closer to the neck of Tunisia's Lady Liberty as she sings the first lines of the Opera of Democracy. Will her millennial saviors cast sunlight and transparency on their misdeeds? Or will the forces of evil suck the life force not only of Tunisia's vibrant hope of democracy but that of 1.3 billion tired, broken yet still devout Muslim souls, yearning for freedom? Evidence suggests that statist and remnant forces from the ancien regime still play a role in castigating and intimidating civil society and political discourse. However, this seems to be far less the case than what was found, say, under J. Edgar Hoover’s tenure as head of the FBI. Ben Ali loyalists have began to try and capitalize on the economic downturn of Tunisia’s exhaustively state-owned/controlled economy in the post-revolution electoral climate. However, many people seem to prefer to utilize democratic means to achieve change, meaning they’ll just keep voting until they elect a governing parliamentary coalition that will actually serve the people.

In other words, this is a land of cautious hope. Young people have tasted freedom for 8 years, and just as Obama's election (more than his lackluster presidency) galvanized a new generation to fight for a country without the indignities of corruption, inequality and the like, so too is it in the land of Zaytouna (the ancient seminary that is home to Islam's progressive legal religious tradition). There is a sense of exigency--and the mixing of cultures, ideas, moralities, and social norms has produced a people as vibrant in spirit as they are tired of status quo acquiesence. For this is the land that Skywalker war born: the planet Tatooine is a real place, and it's where the original Star Wars was filmed. 

Only time will tell if democracy congeals in the land of Ibn Khaldun. But there's always A New Hope in the land that Star Wars was filmed in. Rebellions always find their heroes in Tatooine.