Will Democratic Uprising in Tunisia Dim Islamophobia in U.S.?

Jan 21 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali

Reuters reports that an analysis of the revolt in Tunisa demonstrates that “Arab leaders play up threat from religious radicals.” We might observe that this same threat is “played up” by American conservatives, often motivated by religious beliefs.

The key feature of the Tunisian revolt is that it was

  1. A popular uprising occurs – and succeeds; and
  2. Islamists didn’t do it

Say what?

According to the narrative fashioned by conservatives for American ears, this should be impossible. Any revolt must be Islamist in nature. Yet it is not. What transpires?

As Reuters puts it, “The absence of Islamist slogans from Tunisia’s pro-democracy revolt punches a hole in the argument of many Arab autocrats that they are the bulwark stopping religious radicals sweeping to power.”

You think?

America, obviously, has long supported these strong-men, including the former ruler of Tunisia, the man just overthrown, president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled the country for 23 years.

He was popular with the U.S. because he kept Tunisia secularly oriented and ruthlessly suppressed Islamic fundamentalist groups. And “after Sept. 11 2001, he was an enthusiastic backer of Washington’s ‘war on terror’.”

It might be noted here that Bush’s spread of “freedom” to the region was selective and accompanied by force. Remember, Bush had no word for “diplomacy” other than “invasion.” Hitlerian, but there you go.

It’s a new world. Obama came; diplomacy and nuance returned. Secretary of State Clinton urged elections; we did not invade and impose them.

It was not American Marines and it was not Islamists who overthrew President Ben Ali, but supporters of democracy and free speech. It is not Sharia Law that has “liberated” Tunisia but democracy.

Islamic specialists point to some important facts:

“The lesson from what’s happening in Tunisia is that (Arab leaders) won’t be able to hide any more behind the Islamist threat argument,” said Amel Boubekeur, a North Africa specialist at social sciences school EHESS in Paris.


Islamists were “not able to carry the concerns and longings of the vast majority of Tunisian people, especially the middle class which has chosen freedom and justice,” said Egyptian political analyst Nabil Abdel Fatah.

According to the conservative narrative, Islam is incompatible with democracy. It is impossibility that anyone there could have chosen “freedom and justice.”

As Reuters points out, “It looks embarrassing for the Western governments that spent decades justifying their support for Ben Ali — and other secular-minded Arab world strongmen — by suggesting the alternative was Iran-style Islamic revolution.”

American conservatives are selling the same message to American voters. And they’re wrong too.

It turns out, as it so often does, that it was not an either/or choice. As is usually the case, there are more than two options.

We don’t know what if any influence Islamists will have on the new government. As Reuters points out, “It remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s enfeebled Islamists will be able to win significant support in the event that they are unbanned and allowed to contest planned free elections.”

And will al Qaeda move into the supposed vacuum? Not likely, says Reuters:

In a bid to exploit Tunisia’s unrest, the Algerian-based Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb called on Tunisian youth to join its fighters for training in Algeria.

But analysts say the group has negligible support, even in Algeria. Al Qaeda analyst Camille Tawil said that while small numbers of angry young Tunisians might eventually be tempted, it was clear demonstrators were ordinary people protesting against despotism and the al Qaeda appeal would have no impact.

This has wide implications, not only domestically for other Islamic nations (be warned Syria, Egypt and Algeria) but for America’s foreign relations with those nations, given America’s long support for such rulers.

As the BBC reported,

Washington has often worried about what the alternative to allied regimes in the Arab world would look like, and the fear of Islamist groups taking over in the region has stopped the US from pushing harder for change in the region.

President Obama was quick to congratulate the Tunisian people, applauding their “courage” and their “brave” struggle:

  • 17 Dec: Man sets himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid over lack of jobs, sparking protests
  • 24 Dec: Protester shot dead in central Tunisia
  • 28 Dec: Protests spread to Tunis
  • 8-10 Jan: Dozens of deaths reported in crackdown on protests
  • 12 Jan: Interior minister sacked
  • 13 Jan: President Ben Ali promises to step down in 2014
  • 14 Jan: Mr Ben Ali dissolves parliament after new mass rally, then steps down and flees

Where does this leave American Islamophobes? Will they be moved to temper their rhetoric? Unlikely. Religious bigots and political ideologues are little swayed by facts. The world is as they believe it to be and nothing will change their thinking.

But the advent of Democracy in Tunisia and liberal reforms create hope for the rest of us, not only for the Tunisian people and for those in other Islamic countries, like Syria, Egypt, and Algeria, who hope for similar reform, but for those of us who would like to see the fire of the Islamophobes cooled by a cold splash of water.

The Telegraph asks, “Is Tunisia the first domino to fall?” Analysists are now looking at “Tunisia’s neighbour Algeria, where riots over food prices have only just subsided, and towards Egypt, where recent attacks on the Christian Copts raised the spectre of deepening sectarian violence.”

There can be no doubt that the strong-men like Ben Ali who rule in Algeria, Egypt and Syria, will continue to exploit the fear of radical Islam; it is equally clear that American conservatives will continue to sing the same song, rallying support for their form of fundamentalist religion by creating fear of another. It is up to Americans to see through the spin and to recognized that the world is far too nuanced for mere black and white interpretations, and to beat back the tide of fundamentalism, wherever it rears its ugly head. After all, we have our own – the Talibangelicals – and they don’t like democracy either.

7 responses so far