مستقبل العلمانية في تونسية (The Future of Secularism in Tunisia)

An undergraduate research group from Tufts has been in Tunisia for the past several weeks, and last night I accompanied them to a meeting with a steering committee member of Afek Tunis (roughly, “aspiration”), a secular political party formed after the Revolution. Yesterday’s headlines were dominated by the news that Afek, PDP (Progressive Democratic Party), the Tunisian Republican Party, and potentially Tajdeed (a left-wing socialist party) had formed a coalition to combat Ennahda (the leading Islamist party) in the newly-elected legislature.

The party representative was unsurprisingly political: he immediately proclaimed that there was no competence to be found in Ennahda, and that only the secular parties were equipped to govern. He explained that he was compelled to enter into politics after the Revolution, because “we cannot allow another dictator to take power — this is the crucial moment.” Especially if the coalition of secular parties holds, he predicted an Ennahda upset in the next elections. He also asked us not to publish any pictures of him drinking beer, anticipating slander from the Islamists in the press.

After the meeting concluded, one of the undergrads incisively remarked, “I learn more about these parties based on where we meet them and what language they speak in than by what they say.” The Afek Tunis member met us in the Plaza Hotel in La Marsa, a moneyed coastal suburb, and spoke to us only in French. A PDP member had met them in the Sheraton (one of the nicest hotels in Tunis) and spoke only in English. And Ennahda met them in a classroom in an interior, underdeveloped town, and spoke to them in Arabic. My initial impression of the Afek representative (and perhaps broader movement) as being elitist was reaffirmed when he shared what he felt was the party’s biggest struggle: to communicate their message to the masses. Partially, this can be attributed to the fundamental lack of political experience of most of these parties, none of whom have ever participated in elections before. While there were opportunities to participate in the ruling party under Ben Ali (RCD), he admitted to me after pressing him on it that, this wasn’t “real” politics (ie, you didn’t really have to try to campaign well because whatever the ruling party decided would in reality be enforced).

More broadly, however, this observation cuts to an underlying reality of current Tunisia that presents a significant challenge to the democratic transition process. Namely, the lack of national unity and wide disparity in sociocultural orientations and belief structures. Though I think he often oversimplifies things, Tom Friedman’s NYT column touches on this phenomenon, with specific reference to Egypt. As with all Arab Spring uprisings, a key component of the grievances driving what Tunisians consider to be an ongoing revolution are economic. In the Tunisian case, the vast majority of economic development and opportunity occurred in Tunis, on the coast, and the rest of the country — separate from tourist sites — was left to fend for itself (readers will remember that Tunisia’s revolution started with the self-immolation of a 24-year old vegetable seller in the interior town of Sidi Bouzid). The functional impact of this policy is that many Tunisians, for their entire lives, have been living starkly different existences, have not necessarily been part of a shared national community, and as a result, will likely want exceedingly different things when it comes to governance, besides the obvious catchphrases of freedom and democracy.

From a political standpoint, creating this type of social division in order to prevent the emergence of a public consciousness is a frequent tool of authoritarian governance, so in viewing the outcome of Arab Spring revolutions, it is often helpful to look at how the former dictator regulated the public sphere and inter-communal relations in order to understand the challenges of political consolidation. In this regard, I think Tunisia has it much better off than what can be seen in post-regime change Libya and Iraq, for example, where tribalism was purposely kept alive and well by Gaddafi and Saddam, respectively. Disparities aside, Tunisia is still fairly developed and highly educated, and the presence of things like a public transportation system (at least in Tunis) creates a different type of community dynamic from what I experienced in Amman, for example, where people are much more siloed within their immediate family and social networks, and civil society is extremely limited.

At the CSID lecture yesterday, John Esposito highlighted the difference between “liberal secularism” and “hard-line secularism” — an important distinction for analyzing the true democratic quality of new political parties. First, he explained that although the “secularism” term is widely used, people often mean different things by it. For example, the European conception of laicite suggests a secularism wherein expression of any faith in the public sphere is strictly condemned. This is traditionally, “the type of secularism that the US has been ok with in the Middle East,” such as in Turkey prior to the rise of the AKP party. This stands in contrast to liberal secularism, as seen in the US, where there is a general tolerance towards the pursuit and expression of any faith (or none at all) by citizens in both the public and private sphere, framed by an overarching belief in the separation of church and state.

Given the all-out repression of Islamic observance under the Ben Ali regime (see anecdote in prior post for an example), can we really support the mission of current secular parties if they believe in hard-line, and not liberal, secularism? I do not know definitively if Afek espouses a hard-line brand of secularism, but am merely raising the question. Afek recognizes that their core ideology does not resonate with a large number of Tunisians — the representative acknowledged that some accommodation needs to occur because, “we have to accept the facts on the ground.” Whether or not they will be able, and more importantly, willing to do that if they do in fact regain majority control of the government in the future, is the key question. To some extent, this is ironic in that the majority of the discourse in US foreign policy and academic circles lately seems to center around the idea that elections will moderate the Islamists. Clearly, the notion of moderation through democratic politics applies to both sides of the aisle.

Since the Revolution, the international media is frequently awash with news stories on Tunisia that highlight displays of “extremist” Islamic sentiment (the jist of the story inevitably asking, does this represent Ennahda’s true colors? Are the rights of secular Tunisians being trampled by the new Islamists in power? Is this 1979 Iran part II?). Two that come to mind are a protest and property damage done to a TV station that aired Persepolis, a movie depicting God in physical form and otherwise insulting to Islamic beliefs), and a series of armed sit-ins at Tunisian universities whereby Salafists have attempted to force the right of women in niqab to enroll at Tunisian universities, long forbidden under Ben Ali (neither incident resulted in any serious physical harm, to my knowledge). To be sure, it is no less correct for the religious to use violence against secularists to assert their beliefs than it is for secularists to use violence to suppress the religious practices of Muslims. For now, however, I (tentatively) see these incidents more as an assertion of the right of Muslims to practice as they believe, as opposed to an attempt to enforce their beliefs on the Tunisian body politic as a whole. These actions are largely a response to decades of top-down, hard-line, and not liberal, secularism.

In the view of a Tunisian friend of mine here, most incidences of citizens attempting to enforce their beliefs on others (I am not aware of any directly, but heard someone make a reference to a Tunisian man telling a Tunisian women she should be wearing a veil) can be understood as a result of a sense of individual empowerment after the victory of Ennahda on the part of citizens whose views were previously violently suppressed by the state. One of Ennahda’s biggest tasks, he explained, is now to educate its followers.

Some initial food for thought on a topic that surely cannot be covered in one post…I look forward to everyone’s comments.