TUNIS, Tunisia. — As I stood last week in front of the world’s oldest minaret in the great mosque of Kairouan, Tunisia, I felt more frustrated than ever about the talk of “clash of civilizations.” Here, the columns of the prayer hall were Roman and Byzantine — Christian — structures. The Star of David was even incorporated into the inside decor. A mosque is obviously a most holy place for Muslims. But those who are intolerant and isolationist would be very uncomfortable in this environment, which is a monument to how much the Abrahamic religions share, and a reminder of how wrongly they have been used in politics for centuries.
The presence of that mosque speaks volumes about the melting pot that is Tunisia, a homogenous but open and moderate society. Tunisia is unlike any other Arab country. For those troubled by the lack of democratic values in the Middle East, it is proof that it is not the Arab Muslim identity but the mindset of the people that is the key to whether democracy can thrive.
Whether democracy takes root undeniably relies upon the willingness of people to accept change, which creates a dilemma about how they perceive their own identity. “Someone said vegetables have only roots, human beings have legs,” says Mounir Khelifa, an advisor to Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education. “So there is movement and change within the human condition.” Identity is not a static state, he tells me, but rather a movement. “Education, teaching and research are engaging parts of a philosophy that precisely defines identity as an ongoing process.” Tunisians are proud of their emphasis on education. They allocate 33 percent of their budget to education, which equates to 7.5 percent of their GDP. The country’s one and only natural resource is its investment in its citizens’ education. And they absolutely believe there is no antagonism between the idea of progress and their Muslim identity.
Tunisia is not, indeed, a true “democracy.” There remain many milestones to achieve. Although opposition parties exist — even one led by a woman — it is difficult to imagine a totally free political debate. The state limits freedom of speech and opinion. Although more than 8,000 non-governmental organizations exist, none of them is political. Tunisia has, however, made many decisions that foster its burgeoning democracy — and thus, it has an irresistibly promising future.
First and foremost, Tunisia is secular. It does not allow any political party to be based upon religion. Tunisians are practicing Muslims who are not in conflict about their Muslim identity, but they oppose the fundamentalists who threaten their way of life.
The war in Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict distance Tunisians from U.S. foreign policy. Many believe that Americans have no idea what their country is doing; therefore, the prevailing thought is not anti-Americanism but opposition to the policies of the Bush administration. None believe democracy can be established in a country via military means. None understand the American mistakes in Iraq, like the fiasco of an execution of Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi dictator.
Given that environment, it was extraordinarily impressive to hear Oussama Romdhani, Tunisian External Communication Agency Director General, talk about the saddening challenge of the region. “Normally in this stage of history, we should be dealing with neither clashes of religions nor with clashes of factions within each religion,” he said. “We should be in the business of encouraging dialogue between civilizations and people from different religious and cultural background. That kind of dialogue and intercultural understanding is a prerequisite for human progress. No one should be in the business, either, of using religion as a political platform nor of establishing religious faith as the basis for the formation of any political party… Political formations and extremist groups are not entitled to monopolizing or exploiting religion for their own ends.”
Officials in other Arab Muslim states don’t go that far in condemning the sectarian violence. By stopping short of condemnation, they continue to politicize religion. Even more insanely, they think they use the sectarian violence as a catalyst against Iran’s expanding influence in the region. Tunisia is therefore exceptional in the way it fights radical Islamists: investing in its people’s education and trying to create satisfactory job opportunities for those highly educated human resources.
The people who live in democratic and secular societies have a responsibility toward the moderate Arab Muslims who they believe are not heard enough. There is nothing more powerful than building bridges between people, and no better investment than that capital.
This newly emerging Arab democracy is being threatened by the waves of Islamists, and the difficult situation in Iraq is prone to take a toll on common sense. We must not abandon the floor to the demagogic radical Islamists. They also threaten Tunisia. If moderate Arab Muslim voices are needed, we must support their cause in helping them invest in their country and create job opportunities. The example they will set in time with a strong economy and already established moderate mindset will be invaluable and irreversible.
Tulin Daloglu is a free-lance writer.