Showing posts with label Religion and Culture. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Religion and Culture. Show all posts

September 10, 2016

Saudi Mufti used ISIL's favorite weapon, takfir, to declare Iranians non-Muslim

    Saturday, September 10, 2016   No comments
Proving the point raised by critics of Saudi religious figures who often use religion to silence dissenters, the Grand Mufti of the kingdom took a page from ISIL's book and issued a fatwa declaring all Iranians kuffar (non-Muslim) after the leader of that country accused the rulers of the kingdom of negligence when managing Hajj. More than 450 Iranian pilgrims died last year-2015, among thousands more mostly from Africa and Asian countries, and no credible investigation was conducted to reassure pilgrims and punish those found guilty of negligence. The Kingdom established a committee headed by the crown prince, who is also the interior minister, the institution that is overseeing Hajj. In a sense, the rulers established an investigative committee headed by the same person accused of incompetence. Even so, the committee, still, has not published its findings.

Instead of addressing the issue, the Mufti, Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, used religion and issued the exclusion decree, takfir, labeling Iranians "non-Muslim, majus, who worship fire."

Perhaps realizing the gravity of this practice, the kingdom announced that the Mufti will not be giving the sermon in the pilgrimage this year, a first in more than 30 years.

September 7, 2016

Grozny Conference: The first international conference dedicated to answering the question: Who are the Sunnis?

    Wednesday, September 07, 2016   No comments
On August 25-17, more than 200 Sunni Muslim scholars from around the world convened in Grozny, Chechnya, to answer the question: who are the Sunnis? Representing the most prominent Sunni institution of learning and religious guidance, al-Azhar, the Grand Imam, Ahmed al-Tayeb, opened the international conference with a statement stressing the importance of reclaiming the true teachings of Sunni Muslims (Ahl al-Sunna wa-‘l-jama`a), which, he argued, have been corrupted by extremists and terrorists. This important event did not receive wide coverage because of the coordinated attack by religious and political leaders of Saudi Arabia who contended that the conference was meant to exclude Wahhabi Salafism
The conference is important because it started a conversation within the Sunni community about issues made taboo by Wahhabi Salafists and their political patron—the Saud family that rules Saudi Arabia. The kingdom used its huge wealth to redefine Islam by building religious institutions that preached Wahhabism disguised as Sunni Islam and publishing books on Islamic traditions that are derived exclusively from Salafism.

Saudi religious clerics accused the organizers of the conference of “dividing Muslims” and placing Salafism outside Islam. It is important to note, however, that the scholars attending the conference did not define who is “Muslim” and who is not. The conference's stated aims was to define Sunnism and religious groups that historically shaped Sunni Islam. Wahhabi Salafist scholars, on the other hand, preach that only Sunnis are Muslims and all other groups are deviant, heretic, and/or apostate. Scholars attending this conference, however, reject conflating Sunnism with being Muslim to the exclusion of all other religious groups:
Sunnis [Ahl al-sunna wa-‘l-jama`a] are the Ash`arites and the Maturidites in terms of theology (i`tiqad), the Hanafites, Malikites, Shafi`ites, and Hanbalites in terms of law (fiqh), and Sufis who adhere to Imam al-Junayd’s path in terms of ethics and practices.
This definition excluded Wahhabi Salafists from being Sunni simply because Wahhabi scholars disagree with it: Wahhabi Salafists consider Sufis (and followers of all other sects that are not Sunni) to be deviant, heretic, non-Muslim. It is that belief of exclusion (takfir) that is fueling and justifying the killings, beheadings, and civil wars. 

Saudi Arabia worked its sources to discredit the conference internationally. The Secretariat of the International Islamic Fiqh Academy(IIFA), part of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) (formerly Organization of the Islamic Conference), which is controlled by the Saudi rulers, released a press release defining Sunnis, in meaningless broad terms to appear inclusive: 


The IIFA Secretariat also believes that the Ahlu-s-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaa‘ah is anyone who testifies that there is no deity except Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, who respects the companions of the Messenger of Allah, who has high regard for members of the Prophet’s household and loves them.

The IIFA affirms that Ahlu-s-Sunnah wa-l-Jamaa‘ah is anyone who believes in the articles of faith, who is certain about the pillars of Islam, who does not deny any information that is self-evidently part of Islam,  including making lawful what is prohibited by religious law such as killing.

For the first time in nearly 50 years, Sunni Muslims are challenging the ideology that sustains the genocidal wars waged by groups like al-Qaeda and its derivatives who are waging wars with the intent to purge countries from people who are not followers of “true Islam” as they define it.

Islamic societies, including Sunni and Shia ones, need to interrogate some of the sources of modern Islamic teachings and practices. A conference like the one held in Chechnya is a good start. It constituted a legitimate voice directed at those who want to monopolize Islam in the name of orthodoxy and other labels of exclusion and racism.



Conference communique and recommendations:



June 9, 2016

Will hubris bring the end of the Saudi regime?

    Thursday, June 09, 2016   No comments
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Saudi Arabia’s bizarre behavior was on display, again, during the last two weeks. The recent actions reveal how Saudi Arabia’ rulers leverage the kingdom’s oil-generated wealth, Wahhabism, and religious sites and institutions to exert unmatched control in world politics--unmatched even by the superpowers of today.
Here is the chain of events.
On Thursday, June 2, the United Nations released its blacklist of states and armed groups that violate children's rights during conflict. In it, Saudi Arabia--and its coalition partners but mainly Saudi Arabia--was found responsible for “killing and maiming children in Yemen.” The report concluded that the coalition led by Saudi Arabia “was responsible for 60 percent of child deaths and injuries last year, killing 510 and wounding 667… The coalition carried out half the attacks on schools and hospitals.”

April 24, 2016

Saudi Arabia is a not great American ally; it is a liability

    Sunday, April 24, 2016   No comments
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

At the same time President Obama was meeting with the rulers of the GCC member states, Foreign Policy magazine published an article by Michael Pregent arguing that “Saudi Arabia is a great American ally.” Responding to the increased number of critics of Saudi Arabia, the author ignored all the facts and relied instead on two logically flawed arguments: (1) Iran is worse than Saudi Arabia, and, (2) Saudi Arabia has long been at war with al-Qaeda. Saudi Arabia, too, used these two specious arguments to cajole its Western economic partners into ignoring its appalling human rights record, its role in the perversion of Islam, its bulling of poor Arab and Muslim countries, and its support for brutal authoritarian regimes in Islamic societies.

Great allies are not default allies. Yet, that is exactly the author’s argument: Saudi Arabia is great ally because Iran will make a very bad one, as if Iran and the U.S. are actually wanting to be allies. Given the U.S.’s publicly stated commitment to human rights norms, representative governance, and rule of law, it is in the interest of the American people and their administrations to distance themselves from all regimes that do not share a commitment to these principles.

The author repeated Saudi Arabia’s claim that it has its own war on “al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates” and therefore, it is a reliable ally. All evidence point to the fact that Saudi Arabia has used al-Qaeda and its derivatives as strategic tools abroad. The Saudi rulers had targeted al-Qaeda members only when they threatened the rulers' hold on power at home. The origins and ideology of al-Qaeda and its derivatives also show the undeniable connection to Saudi Arabia.

November 16, 2015

The Genealogy, Ideology, and Future of ISIL and its Derivatives

    Monday, November 16, 2015   No comments


Abstract: The organization known today simply as the “Islamic State,” or by its Arabic acronym, Daesh (English, ISIL), has historical and ideological roots that go beyond the territories it now controls. These deep roots give Daesh confidence that it will succeed in dominating the world, but give others reasons to believe that it will fail in controlling even a single nation. Mixing puritan religious and political discourses, ISIL managed to dominate all other armed opposition groups in conflict zones (Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya) and has inspired individuals in many other countries (Egypt, Pakistan, France, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia) to carry out brutal attacks in its name.
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Dogmatic Origins: Traditionism

January 12, 2015

Where is the Outrage?

    Monday, January 12, 2015   No comments

Europe’s hypocrisy and latent racism displayed after the Paris attacks


On January 11, 2015, an estimated 1.6 million people walked the streets of Paris as part of a “unity march” in reaction to the recent attack in the French capital. Some 40 world leaders joined the march. Other high-profile individuals also recognized the attack and the march—for instance, George Clooney and other actors referred to the events as they received awards on January 11. “Paris is the capital of the world today,” declared Francois Hollande. 

September 17, 2014

ISIL cannot be defeated militarily without addressing the roots of its genocidal creed and confronting its sectarian backers

    Wednesday, September 17, 2014   No comments

Less than a year after the start of the crisis in Syria, I warned that militarizing the Syrian uprising is a dangerous step. Picking sides and arming them would amount to  launching a new proxy-war similar to the one that took place in Afghanistan in the 1970's and 1980's. The danger, I reasoned, comes from the necessary outcome of using non-state actors as tools to destabilize other nations and adopting violence to escalate the confrontation with international political adversaries. Such escalation, generally, produces groups that cannot be kept under control as happened with al-Qaeda. Today, it has become evident that Syria is indeed a proxy-war zone that produced ISIL, an upgraded version of al-Qaeda, which was the byproduct of the proxy-war in Afghanistan. Such a new proxy-war will not be limited to Syria's border. Indeed, all countries involved in such a war, especially the ones sharing borders with Syria like Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan, will face serious political and security challenges.

August 3, 2011

The Foundation of Supremacy: Racializing Human Acts

    Wednesday, August 03, 2011   No comments

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*


I vividly remember the day of the Oklahoma bombing. Not because of the news reports—I was too busy working and with school to watch the news. Consequently, I was not aware of what had happened that day until late in the afternoon. But as I walked into my workplace after a long day of school, I felt the stares and tension from almost all my co-workers. Many ignored me when I greeted them. While waiting for my shift to start, I entered the break room where a friend sat reading the newspaper. It took him a moment before awkwardly asking me what I thought of the “terror attack on the Murrah Building in Oklahoma.” I thought, “Terror? Murrah? Oklahoma?

July 12, 2011

The Politics of Religion

    Tuesday, July 12, 2011   No comments
by Ahmed E. Souaiaia
The so-called Arab Spring is a watershed for learning for those interested in religion and politics. In no other modern uprisings has the relationship between religion and politics been put to the test as it has been during the Arab revolutions.
In Western countries, generally, uprisings rebelled against religion. It has rarely been a platform for launching revolutions, let alone the foundation for establishing a state. Secularism became the acceptable platform that governed the place of religion and politics.

January 26, 2011

Clinton’s lack of diplomatic acumen diminishes US foreign policy

    Wednesday, January 26, 2011   No comments

by A. E. SOUAIAIA*
It is true that Obama, as president, is the person responsible for foreign policy initiatives. However, it is the secretary of state who implements the vision of the administration and communicates it to foreign leaders in nuanced language that, at times, would seem as if it were a code. Hillary Clinton, the top diplomat in charge of the state department, is either lacking proficiency in that language or is ignoring it. Since taking over from Secretary Rice, Clinton traveled the world lecturing almost everyone using the language of a blunt activist, stubborn ideologue, and idealist advocate putting her past and beyond the limits of diplomatic role. Two years have passed and I am not sure that she can point out a single success story that could be used in a campaign ad or to justify her paycheck and the hefty per diem and travel expenses. In fact, just in the last six months, US foreign policy suffered serious setbacks that rendered the Obama administration’s role seem second to other countries’. The examples are numerous and it should suffice to cite just several to make the case that US foreign policy is indeed in decline.
First, it should be recalled that over summer the administration called on the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Jordanians, and the Egyptians to work for a framework that would result in resolving key issues between the Palestinians and the Israelis within one year. With the Israelis refusing to freeze settlements in the occupied territories and the Palestinians refusing to negotiate unless the Israelis do so, the Obama administration decided to abandon its efforts. Consequently, the Palestinian Authority asked individual nations to recognize a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. Brazil was among the first countries to heed the call and the rest of South American countries followed. The US sudden disengagement depicts it as a nation that is no longer capable of working for peace or allow others to do so. The draft resolution just tabled in the UN Security Council on behalf of the Palestinians and co-sponsored by 122 nations may end up being supported by all Security Council current member states—except the US; and that is just one example of bypassing US previously dominant role in the Middle East.
In early January of this year, president Obama met with the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri. By the time the meeting was over, Hariri’s government collapsed. That dramatic event further exposed the weakness of US diplomacy. It is further evidence that the administration is uninformed and out of touch with the realities of the Middle East. To make things worse, the outgoing Lebanese government filed a protest when US ambassador there violated protocols and met with a swing parliamentarian to convince him to vote with Hariri’s block when deciding on the formation of the new government. The interference in internal affairs may have backfired revealing the US has favorites and as supporting one Lebanese faction against the other. Hardly an achievement for which any reasonable diplomat should take credit.
Even if we were to entertain the idea that the US administration needed to take side to protect its interests in the Middle East, we cannot escape the fact that it is taking the wrong side. The Egyptian leaders and the Jordanian leaders, just like the Tunisian leader, govern without a public mandate, they are corrupt, they are authoritarian, and they lead regimes that are doomed to collapse. The Tunisian revolution that brought down Ben Ali should be a cause for re-evaluation of US relations with Arab regimes. All indications show that the US foreign policy makers are slow adapting.
For more than three weeks, the State Department (and national media) ignored the violent treatment of protesters by a Tunisian regime that is repressive, cruel, and utterly corrupt. The riots spread across the country and with dozens of people dead, fear as a tool with which Ben Ali has ruled was permanently broken. On January 14, 2011, Ben Ali fled the country and the leaders of his repressive party were left struggling to keep things under control and preserve their rule. It is very likely that a pluralistic, democratic Tunisia would emerge after this uprising, but it is unlikely that the US administration (and other Western countries) will be seen as a friend of the people for its support of a brutal authoritarian who oppressed them for 23 years.
For twenty-three years, one US administration after another ignored the oppressive measures taken by the Tunisian regime. Even when the regime exceeded all bounds of civility and tortured political prisoners and crushed peaceful demonstrators, US administrations were satisfied by gentle rebukes calling on the regime to “act with restraint.” When Ben Ali fled, Obama referred to him in his state of the union address as a “dictator” when he said, “we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.” The administration should have used that label before January 14, not after.
On January 25, 2011, thousands of Egyptian protesters filled the streets of Cairo and other major cities. They chanted, “Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you,” in reference to the destination of the fleeing Tunisian dictator. Jordanian opposition figures are urging the King and his regime to learn from the Tunisian revolution. Algerians, Moroccans, Mauritanians, and Yemenis are all inspired by the Tunisian revolt and in time they will all bring their authoritarian regimes down. In other words, the Arab masses were moved and motivated by the Tunisian people to overcome their fear and change the regimes under which they have lived since independence. In this fast changing environment, the US administration cannot afford to be slow-acting or reactionary. It must be proactive, not by interfering in internal affairs of these countries, but by choosing to eschew authoritarian regimes--not after but--before they fall. Doing so will put America on the right side, the only right side, the side of the people.
* Professor Souaiaia, teaches classes in the department of Religious Studies, International Programs, and College of Law at the University of Iowa. Opinions expressed herein are the author’s, speaking as a citizen on matters of public interest; not speaking for the University or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

January 24, 2011

The Tunisian revolution matters, even in the USA

    Monday, January 24, 2011   No comments
BY A. E. SOUAIAIA | GUEST OPINION | The Daily Iowan | JANUARY 24, 2011 7:10 AM

During the first day of class, I asked students enrolled in my survey course on the Islamic civilization to think of an important event from around the world. The first student to speak pointed out the return of a dictator to Haiti. The second student said that China flying its first Stealth airplane was a very significant event. Three other students spoke, pointing out various events, before a student mentioned the ongoing Tunisian revolution.

I asked how many students had even a vague idea about what has happened in Tunisia since Dec. 18, 2010; around 10 percent of them raised their hands.

Sure, there is no shortage of significant events that have taken place in the last month or so.

However, a revolution taking place in Tunisia ought to be compelling even for those with benign interest in international affairs. So why is it, then, that only 10 percent of students taking a course on the Islamic world were aware of this revolution?

The answer is simple: lack of media coverage — or, should I say, selective coverage — and therein lie serious ethical, political, and security problems for the United States.

I am sure that more than 10 percent of students and the public remember that, a year and half ago, elections were held in Iran, and supporters of the losing candidates protested violently against results that gave the current president a second term in office. Then, cable-news channels, major television networks, and the print and online press provided around-the-clock coverage. The Obama administration, too, came out in support of the Iranian people. It was all done in the name of supporting democracy and human rights in the Islamic world.

In Tunisia, thousands of people revolted against one of the most brutal dictators of the Arab world, Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali, and his corrupt regime.

For 54 years, two despots ruled the country with iron fist. They banned credible political parties, tortured political prisoners, exiled opposition figures, curtailed the freedom of the press, limited access to the Internet, embezzled state funds, and increased poverty to subhuman levels. An unemployed youth was so unbearably desperate that he set himself on fire in protest, an act that triggered the revolution that forced Ben Ali out and put the country on a path to the unknown.

So, why should students and the American public care?

Ethically, they should care because the killing of 78 innocent people, wounding of hundreds, and imprisonment of many more by a dictator’s security forces is a big deal. The shared humanity, the common aspiration to pursue life and happiness, and the universal capacity to mourn the loss of innocent life should move anyone to sympathize with the Tunisian people.

Politically, if the suppression of protest in Iran was deplored by the U.S. administration and reported as a lead story by the US media, the killing of people who rise up against oppressive rulers in Tunisia should receive the same attention. Short of that, it becomes a double standard, exposing the West to allegations of selectively highlighting human-rights issues to achieve political goals.

Tunisians feel that the West’s affinity with Ben Ali’s regime made it ignore the plight of people fighting corruption, brutality, and usurpation of national wealth.

When Western media and governments stand by regimes at the expense of the freedom-seeking peoples, global security is compromised. Supporting dictators and ignoring the people’s right to self-rule puts the lives of Americans abroad at risk and builds walls between nations. Countries of the West ought to recall their ill-advised support of the shah of Iran or the apartheid regime in South Africa to grasp the long-term implications of misplaced support.

In today’s interconnected world, what happens on the other side of the planet can and will affect the way we live at home. When civilian lives are lost at the hands of dictators, the least we can do is to follow their news and sympathize, instead of ignoring the shameful brutality of rulers who happen to be serving our short-term interests.

Ahmed E. Souaiaia is a UI associate professor who teaches courses in the College of Law, International Programs, and the Religious Studies Department.

January 20, 2011

What shall we call it?

    Thursday, January 20, 2011   No comments

by AHMED E. SOUAIAIA

By now, anyone who has followed the news coming out of Tunisia knows the timeline of events that culminated in Ben Ali fleeing the country and leaving his party struggling to regain control. But the end of Ben Ali’s era did not create a definite alternative. There is no consensus among those opposed to the old regime, and the discord is evident in the struggle to give the revolution a name. The only point of agreement is that Mohamed elBouazizi’s act ignited the protest that evolved into a revolution, which could be very useful in understanding the impetus of this revolt.

Immediately after the departure of Ben Ali, those with access to media and tools that shape public opinion rushed to romanticize the uprising by calling it “the jasmine revolution.” While jasmine is Tunisia’s national flower, that name hardly represents the context and aspiration of the uprising and certainly could not have been on the mind of the person who sparked it, Mohamed elBouazizi.

elBouazizi represented the class of people who needed an immediate and urgent change in the country. Educated young men and women living in the systematically deprived region and economically marginalized communities of the inner provinces. These people struggle to keep up with the pace of development that has split the country into many Tunisias: the filthy rich, the middle class, the poor, the very poor, and the destitute. 

elBouazizi faced two forces: an oppressive, out of touch, oblivious ruling elite and ambitious cultured soul dreaming of a dignified future. The elite stripped him of his dreams and his dignity and above all, reminded him of his utter weakness before the brutality of a paternalistic regime. His livelihood was confiscated, his dignity was destroyed, and his manhood was erased by Ben Ali’s security forces. Is it possible to say that, during the very same moment this was happening to him, he thought of a jasmine revolution? I doubt it.

What could have been on his mind then and in other times is how to live with dignity and without fear. During the confrontation with the police officers, he would have been thinking of ways to conquer his fear, a fear that paralyzed the Tunisian society since independence from the French colonizers. The stories of individuals who followed his footsteps in Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, and Egypt speak to the same issues: the brutality of poverty, the inhumanity of oppression, the value of human dignity, and the determination to defeat fear. These events point to the fact that what happened in Tunisia was a revolution to preserve that which is more important than life itself: dignity. elBouazizi’s act, the mechanism igniting the revolution, cannot and should not be interpreted as a suicidal impulse seeking escape into the unknown from a frightening reality. Rather, it is about overcoming fear and telling the world about it. After all, if the aim of suicide is to die, then there are many other less painful ways of dying than to burn oneself alive.

The act undertaken by Mohamed elBouazizi defies logic, transcends religious teachings, and exceeds all expectation. It acquired the uniqueness and the significance of singular events that give meaning, that communicate a particular state of mind, that become paradigmatic by and in itself. With that said, the act in itself cannot (and should not) be replicated to produce the same results, for it was meant to ignite, kindle, awaken, and provoke—and it has done so beyond anyone could have imagined; but it was not meant to solve. It was a spark, not a solution.
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*Photo: Mohamed el-Bouazizi visited by Ben Ali after demonstration intensified.
**SOUAIAIA is an associate professor teaching for International Programs, Religious Studies, and College of Law at the University of Iowa.

January 13, 2011

Citizens of western countries killed in Tunisia as Ben Ali dismisses a general

    Thursday, January 13, 2011   No comments

As the number of people killed by Ben Ali’s security forces rises, victims’ family have reported that some of the fallen are citizens of European nations.

The French Foreign Ministry announced on Thursday that one of the victims killed in the central Tunisian town of Douz during Wednesday clashes was a dual French-Tunisian citizen. "We are continuing to investigate to confirm this fact, and his death,” Radio France Internationale cited the ministry.

Switzerland also said one of its citizens who has also Tunisian nationality was killed in Wednesday clashes in the north of Tunisia, Daar Chaabane.

"The Foreign Affairs Department (DFAE) confirms the death of a citizen with double-nationality in Tunisia. The embassy of Switzerland in Tunis is in contact with her close ones," the ministry said in a statement to AFP.

In a dramatic development, the Tunisian president was reported to have quietly dismissed his top military general, Rachid Ammar. This action may have been triggered by the latter’s refusal to use lethal force against demonstrators. In fact, it was reported that military officers aimed their guns at police officers who were shooting at protesters in the city of Raggab, state of Sidi Bouzid. It is believed that Rachid Ammar was replaced by the head of the military intelligence, Ahmed Chebir.

The number of people shot dead by security forces, up until now, has surpassed 66. Such a large number of civilian deaths could be ground for legal actions against current government officials, police officers, and any individual found guilty of ordering or committing these murders. In addition to UN organs responsible for documenting and taking actions against people who commit crimes against civilians, the International Criminal Court (ICC, ArabicC) too, provides a new path to pursue violators.



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January 11, 2011

Delusions of Grandeur: Tunisian leaders and the loss of civil society institutions

    Tuesday, January 11, 2011   No comments

By A. E. SOUAIAIA•

On cold winter days, Mohamed al-Bouazizi, a resident of Sidi Bouzid, loads his cart with fruits and vegetables and pushes it along the dusty streets of the town hoping to make enough money for himself and his family. One day, like many other days, town officials harassed him and then confiscated his produce: he did not have the proper licenses to do business.

Many Tunisians his age graduate high school, earn a college education, and then sit in cafés playing cards and waiting for a job. Officially, about 15% of Tunisians are out of work. Unofficially, many economists put that figure at 40%. When the underemployed, the temporary workers, and homemakers are factored in, nearly 60% of Tunisians become affected by the global economic slowdown and the absence of sustainable economic development. Moreover, the uneven distribution of national resources and development programs created two Tunisias. The first Tunisia consists of the coastal cities whose economy thrives on tourism and government services, and the second Tunisia is made out of the interior states that rely on agriculture. The average citizen of the first Tunisia makes nearly $700.00 a month while the average inhabitant of the second Tunisia sustains himself on no more than $100.00 per month.

Al-Bouazizi is from the second Tunisia. He applied for work without success, and when he applied for government grants to start his own business his application was denied. That is very common, too. Government grants and business opportunities are given to individuals associated with the ruling party and those opportunities are generally found in the first Tunisia.

Like many Tunisians, al-Bouazizi wanted a job--any job that would preserve his dignity and that of his family. He figured that selling fruits would help him and that the government should be pleased with his efforts since he is relying on himself, not on it. He was sadly mistaken.

A government like Ben Ali’s does not like people taking initiative or doing anything without its permission. Al-Bouazizi’s entrepreneurship was deemed unauthorized and he was humiliated by the police. He decided to plead his case before the governor, and traveled to see him. When he announced his intention to meet with the governor he was laughed at, humiliated—again, beaten, and thrown out of the building. With the last door closing before him, al-Bouazizi poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire. People rushed to save him, and he was taken to the hospital. The event triggered angry protests across the state which later spread to most interior states. At least four more youths attempted to burn themselves in protest as well. After two weeks of riots that were met by harsh police measures, President Ben Ali made a TV appearance to threaten rioters and to promise that he will do all it takes to restore order. He sacked several ministers and governors, visited the burn victims, and attacked foreign media (primarily Aljazeera) for inciting disorder.

As I write this piece, protesters continue to demonstrate in every major interior city, journalists and lawyers are arrested, and reportedly 50 people have been killed (officials claim only 14 had died). The government insists that the incident was merely a family, isolated dispute. Protesters, however, are threatening a revolution to overthrow a regime that is corrupt, brutal, and without legitimacy.

Despite the bloodshed, the resilience of protesters, and the brutality of the security forces, Western governments and media hardly reacted. In the U.S., major newspapers, such as the New York Time and the Washington Post, did not run any major story covering these events. It took the State Department nearly two weeks before issuing a statement of concern. The European Union and its major news outlets essentially ignored Tunisian unrest. Now, it seems that all of North Africa may experience violent riots to protest the same issues. This week alone, a number of people were killed and many more wounded and arrested in Algeria. Moroccan authorities seem to have launched a pre-emptive strike and arrested an indeterminate number of young people under the epithet “terrorist.” Is the U.S. ill informed about the state of affairs in Tunisia (and the Maghreb) or are there other reasons explaining this lax attitude?

The short answer is this: the US and the E.U. are well informed about the Maghreb because the regimes there, especially Tunisia’s, are Western-made and Western-approved. The silence is complicity not ignorance. In the end, complicity will only threaten the interests of governments that stand with regimes instead of democracy-yearning peoples, especially when such complicity is made obvious by the selective condemnations of certain regimes and implicit support of others. The public ought to know the facts about Tunisia in order to contextualize the recent and other uprisings.

On November 7, 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali overthrew the first Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, under the pretext that the latter was no longer fit to govern because of his old age. Bourguiba was a self-declared mujahih akbar (the Great Struggler) whose work helped Tunisia earn its independence. In recognition of his achievements, he was anointed president for life; by whom, we don’t know.

In nearly one quarter of a century, instead of becoming an advanced nation as Ben Ali promised, Tunisia was on a path to social and economic collapse. In the first half of the 1980s, bread riots, labor strikes, and students’ protests brought the country to the brink of collapse. But instead of addressing the real issues, Bourguiba adopted the band-aid approach: he fired and hired one prime minister after another and imprisoned and executed opposition figures while holding sham elections that did very little to build strong civil society institutions. After all, the ruling party has been in charge since the country’s independence.

When Bourguiba appointed Ben Ali as Prime Minister and Interior Minister, he had made his last appointment. On an early Saturday morning in November 1987, the national radio announced the rise of Ben Ali to power. The new president refused to take the “mujahid akbar” label that the national media was willing to offer him. Instead he gave people the illusion that he would be different from his predecessor: he promised openness, democracy, development, and term-limited presidency. Tunisians thought that they would be able to see a new face in Carthage Palace by the end of the second term of any president; that is what the new constitution Ben Ali amended promised then.

Twenty-three years later, Ben Ali is still president. His supporters started a campaign to amend the constitution, for the second time, to allow him to run again. For many, this is a déjà-vu: another irreplaceable “leader” for whom the rules must be bent so that he continues to govern over subjects treated as immature and helpless. For the West, Ben Ali is a known quantity who can be trusted to keep his people in check; after all, his relations with CIA were well documented.

Through constitutional amendments, new election laws, and a strict code governing the press and the media, the regime reneged on all its promises: the term limit was effectively abolished, opposition figures were silenced, business leaders were co-opted, and civil society institutions were uprooted. This time, he did it all systematically and with the West’s tacit approval.

Illusions of Political Pluralism

Although Ben Ali allowed several political parties to contest elections, such parties lacked the social depth and the ideological platform to be able to compete. The real opposition remained banned under numerous pretexts. The performance of political parties in regional and national elections was so pathetic that the regime instituted in election law a kind of “affirmative action” when it reserved a set number of seats in the parliament for opposition parties. This was thought necessary because the authorized political parties failed repeatedly to win any significant votes. By doing so, the regime gave observers the illusion of political pluralism without opening the door to real opposition movements. Ben Ali learned from his predecessor that opening the door to groups such as al-Nahdah Movement could bring about the end of his party’s rule through democratic means. The regime, therefore, opted for political charity with the “affirmative action” election laws instead of open democratic contestation of elections.

Marginalization and Co-opting

In the 1970s and 1980s, the challenge to the single party rule came from labor movements, students, and members of professional associations. Almost every year students in high schools and universities launched paralyzing demonstrations, labor unions went on strikes, and leaders of professional associations provided support for protest movements.

Today, Ben Ali’s ruling party has absorbed many business leaders. Party activists took over student organizations, and universities were relocated to rural areas in order to isolate students from the rest of the populations. Even the large high schools were split into smaller ones to facilitate monitoring and crushing activists.

Regulation of Free Press and Freedom of Expression

The state of the press today is worse than it was during Bourguiba’s reign. Although a large number of news outlets are run by non-government entities, the rules governing the editorial practices are fine-tuned so that any newspaper veering from the official line of interpretation of event would risk being shut down. The only free voice to which Tunisians have access is Aljazeera Satellite channel and website and those are subjected to repeated de-authorization and shutdowns.

Uneven Development

For many visiting foreigners, Tunisia is safe, clean, and affluent especially when compared to other African nations with similar resources. Indeed, the capital Tunis (or part of it at least) and other coastal cities are built for Western tourists: luxurious hotels, clean beaches, and security forces in every intersection. The conditions of the people living in the interior cities, however, are wretched. It must be noted that the uneven development in Tunisia is not new, as it has been known as jihawiyyah since the reign of Bourguiba. However, the elite have excelled at marginalizing regions and peoples in the interior lands. Specifically, Ben Ali’s in-laws (the Traboulsi family) are seen by many Tunisians as a new mafia, not only controlling the means of production and resources, but using the government institutions to establish monopolies and crush competitors. In fact, the French authorities are believed to have pursued charges against one of Ben Ali’s relatives for illegal business activities.

Education and Religious Freedom

Ben Ali’s regime main threat is the youth and religious groups. He marginalized the youth by offering them a placebo. Before 1987, only 12-15% of high school students graduated. The low percentage was not due to students’ laziness, rather, due to government’s measured control of the job market: since most college graduates expected the government to place them in jobs, the government elevated the level of difficulty of the final comprehensive examinations to regulate the job market.

Ben Ali’s regime altered that practice: now, nearly 80% of high school students graduate and move on to college. The result is an increased number of college graduates being unemployed or underemployed, which frustrated the youth of the country.

In order to control the role of religion in the public sphere, the government “nationalized” religious institutions. In other words, individuals are not allowed to form associations, clubs, or attend religious events unless authorized and run by the government. The only orthodoxy is that identified as such by the regime and the only recognized religion is that of the state.

Global Implications

Tunisia is demographically and economically too small to have an impact on world affairs. It is important, however, given its location and memberships.

Geographically, Tunisia is just minutes away from Europe. From the Tunisian coastline, one could cross to Italy using a makeshift raft or inflated tube. In fact, dozens of African immigrants die every year trying to make the journey to Italy, and the European Union has developed strategies to help these “buffer states” keep African immigrants away. One such strategy is paying off North African leaders to act on their behalf. Another more ambitious strategy to combat illegal immigration is the creation of the so-called Union for the Mediterranean, an intergovernmental organization linking 43 countries. The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, promoted this idea not only to deal with immigration but also to offer Turkey an alternative association given his opposition to Turkey’s bid for joining the EU.

Additionally, Tunisia is a member of the United Nations, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the Arab League, and the Union of Maghrebi States. In other words, Western concern with Tunisian politics is not premised on oil or military matters, but rather on influence. In this way, the West’s alliance with the Tunisian regime differs significantly from Western interest in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Qatar, or even Egypt.

Consequently, Tunisia, despite its relatively average demographic and economic weight within the Islamic world, remains central given its location and its memberships. The ten million citizens of Tunisia want to be respected as human beings, to be given the rights of human beings, and to be treated with dignity. When their government does not afford them these rights, and the West supports the regime and offers lip service to the people, their plight becomes another example of Western double standard and Europe’s willingness to sacrifice its commitment to the promotion of human rights to preserve “friendly” regimes.

For example, the West categorizes a number of Arab and Muslim countries as “moderate,” which is a euphemism for pro-Western. These countries include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco. It is a known fact that all these countries have a terrible record when it comes to human rights: They hold laughable elections, they incarcerate large number of political prisoners, they torture their citizens, they treat minorities with disdain, and they have no concept of peaceful transfer of power.

The credibility of the West is at stake because of this double standard, which diminishes its standing among the Muslim people when it goes after countries such as Iran, Syria and Sudan for violating human rights, but looks the other way when the rulers of whom it approves continue to abuse the rights of their citizens with impunity. This account is meant to make the public in Western societies aware of reality in places such as Tunisia since the media is effectively practicing self-censorship. It is not an invitation for the US and its allies to interfere in the affairs of sovereign nations, but it is an appeal for their leaders to stop dealing with tyrants, giving despots favored status, and/or shielding dictators from legal actions in international systems. It is a wake up call for the media to live up to its professional role as a neutral institution whose main mission is to inform objectively and without prejudice or favoritism.


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