29 October 2015

The Tunisian hope for Islam and the Middle East


The Nobel Peace Prize has not always been attributed fairly. The unrepresentative micro-juries of former Norwegian politicians and bishops have often demonstrated how easily they are influenced by current affairs, trends and personal prejudices. This observation makes the most recent nomination of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet all the more reassuring. The Quartet spared their country from a civil war of Syrian proportions or an Egyptian-style dictatorship, saved democracy in Tunisia and highlighted that, beyond the Tunisian borders, the Arab Spring which had toppled dictators could still lead to healthy political regimes and economic development for the benefit of all. Some may object that Tunisia is a quite singular example.

While certainly an Arab nation, the country is marked by Latin culture, is in economic and cultural symbiosis with Europe, and has generally only hosted moderate forms of Islamism. Tunisia is in fact more “westernised” than Libya, Egypt and Morocco. This did not however stop it serving as a starting point for the Arab Spring, a movement that began after street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi was mistreated by the police, and set himself on fire in protest. While the Arab world saw itself in Bouazizi’s suffering, this event was also proof that Tunisia under the dictatorship of Ben Ali was amassing the same problems that had been crushing the entire Arab world since the 1950s. If the Quartet worked in Tunisia, its influence could potentially spread to the rest of the Middle-East.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a chance to review certain truths about Islam and the Arab peoples, today smothered by violence and fighting. The first of these truths is that disorder, misfortune and exile are less present in Muslim countries than in the Arab spheres within this world. The largest Muslim countries, based on population, are Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Malaysia. Yet these countries are not undergoing the same problems. We should not label the current situation as religious or Muslim, as it is rather born of civilizational difficulties in the Arab world. The world witnessed an Arab Spring, and not a Muslim Spring. Islam is not inciting violence, nor should it be “reformed”. The issue here is what some Arab people do with this Islam. But how can we explain this “Arab question”? The answer is not in the Koran, a complicated work of countless interpretations, but in the history of the 20th century.

The division of the Ottoman Empire followed by decolonisation created countries with unmanageable borders that failed to tally with different ethnicities or local religious practices. A host of dictatorships, ranging from republican to monarchical, were born as a result to rally these various peoples under a flag and an illusionary national identity. These dictatorships were doomed to failure, as only democracy could have led to functional intercultural societies. And as these new Arab countries had freed themselves from the western powers, they naturally turned to the Soviet Union in the 1960s. As well as aiding Syrian and Algerian dictatorships, the Soviets also exported their economic model, which at the time seemed more efficient than capitalism. These combined influences led to the eradication of entrepreneurs, the middle classes and academic and journalistic freedoms. The intellectual poverty in today’s Egypt is an example of the collapse of a nation that, before the pro-Soviet regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser (from 1956 to 1970), was the intellectual and spiritual capital of the Arab world.

The dwindling political, economic and artistic spheres in the Middle-East served as a breeding ground for Islamism, a 20th-century ideology whose organisation draws its inspiration from fascism. The charter of the Muslim Brotherhood was created in Egypt, and copies that of the Italian National Fascist Party. Islamism is indeed a form of fascism more than a derivative of teachings from the Koran, which simply serve as an alibi. In the same way that fascism was based on nostalgia and representations of the Roman Empire, today’s Islamists worship a very ancient Golden Age, the time of the Prophet. In both cases we find ourselves faced with what sociologists call “the invention of tradition”.

It is worth reviewing these facts as they are little-known to Europeans, who prefer bad-mouthing Islam in general rather than tackling the complexity of Arab history or facing the colonial origins of today’s issues. But even the Arab peoples themselves are relatively unfamiliar with their history. The intellectual elite are aware of it, but they are starved of influence in their own countries. Who in the Arab world actually remembers the Arab Renaissance of Al-Nahda, which preceded the Arab Spring by a century? This movement saw the introduction of schools for girls, a free press and constitutional monarchies in Egypt and the Middle-East by politicians – many of whom were educated in France, such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi (in 1834). The Tunisian Quartet is not a split with the present, but a potential return to the Arab Renaissance after a series of socialist and dictatorial digressions. Tunisia aside, other Arab countries must now reconnect with their own history to show the world, and themselves, that they are not fated to dictatorships, fascism or Islamism, which are but aberrations. The process will be long, but it is possible. And Europeans could contribute if they admitted that Islam and political and economic freedom are naturally compatible.

Guy Sorman is a contributing editor of City Journal, a French public intellectual, and author of many books, including Economics Does Not Lie.