May 3, 2011

☫ Tunisia's open arms for change

Correspondents  A political watershed | by Khaoula Mimouni
Tunisia: open arms for change

Former Tunisian president Ben Ali's 23-year rule came to an end on 25th January after weeks of street protests culminated in the victory of a popular revolution. Tunisia was previously portrayed as 'paradise' but in fact it suffered an era marred by numerous human rights violations and acts of torture hiding behind tourism brochures.

Unfortunately the process of the revolution costed many civilians their lives. A massacre unfolded and at least 50 people (aged from 13 to 90) have been shot dead by police during protests against corruption and dictatorship in Tunisia. A number of young men have publicly committed suicide in protest at Government policies, one of which is Abo Aziz, a Tunisian student from Sidi Bouzid. 

Britain and the European Union remained silent; not that we needed their help, but it remains a fact that they allowed the Tunisian authorities to escalate their brutal crackdown with impunity. However, the Tunisan revolution proved that the Arab world does not need support from abroad to achieve liberation.

Though the former Tunisian regime hangs on a bit through the prime minister now, the fact remains that this revolution has succeeded in toppling dictator Ben Ali and, as such, gave hope to the rest of the region on the way for liberation.

The Tunisian people demand a fresh start and till this day they stand strong and will not stop protesting until the old regime is out and no longer holds power over them. Moreover, President Ahmadinejad urged Tunisian politicians to exercise vigilance in face of foreign interference and pay due attention to the needs and choices of their people, and stressed Tunisians want an Islamic government.

The role of Islamists in the political future of Tunisia is now the topic of feverish debate. After Islam was pushed to the sidelines for so many years, one of the biggest changes that the Tunisian people hope for from this revolution is to bring Islam into the light. However, while some fear the establishment of a theocracy, others would like to see political Islam tolerated.

Influenced by the previous regime's propaganda, many women in Tunisia fear a silent Islamization of the country's politics and society.  “We don't want a theocracy in Tunisia, we want democracy.” Every day, demonstrators are still taking to the streets of Tunis. On this occasion, it is the turn of Tunisian women. Most are dressed in modern fashion, in jeans and t-shirts, skirts or business suits. “We want the rights of women to be protected, we don't want Tunisia to go back to the Middle Ages, and we want respect for the role of women in society," lawyer Zouhair Mahlouf says. 

Protestors carry a placard bearing the words: “No to the Islamists, no to Rachid Ghannouchi.” Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Al Nahda (The Renaissance) party, returned to Tunisia a month ago after 20 years in exile in London. If many women had indeed followed the Facebook call to receive Sheikh Ghannouchi at the airport dressed in bikinis, Zouhair Mahlouf would have loved to have been there to witness it.

But then images of Ghannouchi's arrival were for some reminiscent of Ayatollah Khomeini's arrival in Iran. The Tunisian airports were over-crowded with people who wanted to express their joy for his return and show their support for his party. 

Some Tunisians were left unsettled. Their fears, however, are completely groundless. The accusation that the group is anti-enlightenment and violent is a total fabrication. That is an ideological argument that is being used demagogically against Al Nahda party. The Islamists are simply demanding their place beneath the Tunisian sun!

There is nothing wrong with Islam playing a major role in Tunisian politics, especially after Ben Ali’s secular regime proved to be no good. Islamist party leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned home on 30 January 2011 after two decades in exile.

While his party Al Nahda was branded an Islamic terrorist group by Ben Ali, it is considered by scholars to have a reasonable approach to political life. Al Nahda aims to take part in upcoming parliamentary elections and compares itself to the Turkish governing AKP. A party that has, after all, shown that Islam could even have an edge over democracy in terms of popular representation.

Ben Ali used the political system all these years to cement the division between religion and the state. But in society, Islam still plays a major role. If the state is to be reconciled with its people, religion must be respected.

This is a pressurized situation for Al Nahda, because in Tunisia nerves start jangling whenever religious fundamentalism is involved. Even though Tunisia is a Muslim country, religious beliefs and practices have been oppressed for centuries. Women cannot wear a headscarf freely nor are men permitted to grow a beard freely and join religious gatherings without being taken to prison for suspicion of terrorism.

Muslims in Tunisia are fed up with these dictatorial regimes and we will not stop until Islam is back in power. The biggest change the Tunisian people hope for from the revolution of 2011 is for the rebirth of Islam and the total freedom to practice it proudly.

Why is it always assumed that a country is run by Islamists is a threat? Islam is the best path for the Tunisian revolution and the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, not the methods prescribed oversees by the West. Only Islam could bring peace, tranquillity and freedom to Tunisia, not secularism, not dictatorship, or any other secular ideology supported by the West.

This is a huge task, but if a sector of Tunisia continues to behave as though the Islamists don't exist, then there would be no difference between the new Tunisia and the former dictatorship. After all, a man like Ben Ali consolidated his power by saying to the West: 'It's me or the Islamists.' Tunisians are not afraid of the bearded ones. As a Tunisian I want to live in a country that successfully manages a political and religious balancing act.

A nation where people are free to decide whether they want to connect to their Creator and Sustainer in a mosque or spend their time somehow else. The author personally believes that 'Al Nahda' party is the beacon of hope for the Tunisian people, optimistic that Tunisians will prove themselves to be in favour of radical change without being ignorant in their own religion, an ignorance that could lead them to fanaticism.



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