I was interested to see an interview last week with a young female protester who described herself and her friends as "children of Bourguiba." The first president of the country, and the tenacious leader of its independence movement, Habib Bourguiba, was strongly influenced by the ideas of the French Enlightenment. His contribution was to cement, in many minds, secularism as a part of self-government. He publicly broke the Ramadan fast, saying that such a long religious holiday was debilitating to the aspirations of a modern economy. He referred with contempt to face-covering and sponsored a series of laws entrenching the rights of women. During the 1967 war, he took a firm position preventing reprisals against the country's Jewish community, avoiding the disgraceful scenes that took place that year in other Arab capitals. Long before many other Arab regimes, Tunisia took an active interest in a serious peace agreement with Israel (as well as playing host to the PLO after its expulsion from Beirut in 1982).
Not to idealize Bourguiba overmuch—he became what is sometimes called "erratic," and at one point proposed an ill-advised "union" of Tunisia with Libya—but he did help to ensure that Tunisia's secularism and the emancipation of its women was its own work, so to speak, rather than something undertaken to please Western donors. It will be highly interesting in the next few weeks to see how this achievement holds up after the Perón-style tawdriness of the Ben Ali regime has potentially discredited it.
During my stay, I visited the University of Tunis, attached to the "Zitouna" or "olive tree" mosque, to talk to a female professor of theology named Mongia Souahi. She is the author of a serious scholarly work explaining why the veil has no authority in the Quran. One response had come from an exiled Tunisian Islamist named Rachid al-Ghannouchi, who declared her to be a kuffar, or unbeliever. This, as everybody knows, is the prelude to declaring her life to be forfeit as an apostate. I was slightly alarmed to see Ghannouchi and his organization, Hizb al-Nahda, described in Sunday's New York Times as "progressive," and to learn that he is on his way home from London. The revolt until now has been noticeably free of theocratic tinges, but when I was talking to Edward Said, the name of "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" was still unknown, and atrocities like the attack on Djerba were still in the future. We should fervently hope that the Tunisian revolution turns out to transcend and improve upon the legacy of Bourguiba, not to negate it.
Monday, January 17, 2011