Wednesday, May 02, 2007


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Monday, January 9th, 2006

Muslims’ Struggle for Political Innovation in a Conservative and Tyrannical Atmosphere



Through the windows of the rollercoaster-like cab, the tinted windows of the state-owned buses, or my tinted eye-wear that reduced the glaring brightness of summer days; from the city to the remotest regions in Tunisia; there is one constant view: pictures of a smiling man in modern and traditional clothes (depending on where you are). I recognize him, he is Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who took over the reigns of the country nearly sixteen years ago just around the time I was in that part of the world last. He did not look like he aged a day, and in a sense seeing his face made me feel like I did not age either. After all, the fact that he is still there is therapeutic for a person like me who lives in the US and who already saw three presidents succeeding each other. That succession of presidents ought to make me (or anyone else) feel old especially that I can claim that I had a hand in their election. That civil act necessary for smoothing governmental transitions however, came with the price of feeling old. I did not know that I already have a “history” to tell about one president who was fired after one term, another who retired after finished his maximum allowed of two terms, and the son of the former replacing him after an arduous and controversial Supreme Court intervention, and now a second term for a president who described himself as a war-president. If that does not make you feel old, then you have not experienced the stillness of the political system in the Arab world and especially Tunisia. In fact when I was told that the first Tunisian President had passed away, I almost did not believe it: Arab presidents don’t die; the world is supposed to end before they die or before they are removed from power.
Visiting Tunisia and talking to people I knew and people I just met is an enriching experience. It made me realize that humans are indeed creatures of their social circumstances. Moreover, it made me realize the uniqueness and the specificity of these circumstances that are shaped by the present as much as they are dictated by the past. In the case of the Arab world, there is no sense of future and may be that is due to the fact that they don’t want to feel the way I felt: old. Be as it may, I realize that Middle Eastern and North African politics are the product of history and less of the present. In a sense, to think of the distant future is to gamble and that is not allowed per culture and religious values. What is not in the culture also is a sound understanding of the role of institutions that are the sole warrantor of the future. The Arab and the Muslim mind are strongly shaped by the stability of the past, the predictability of present, and the certainty of death. I argue that that triad is what maintains the Muslim society where they are and how they are. Understanding the political system of the modern Muslim communities ought to be found in their history and in their present. In an attempt to do so, I will present the case of Tunisia which is a good representative of the rest of the Arab states and even some Muslim countries.

The History of Governance

Nearly a century after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the formal European occupation of the Muslim and Middle Eastern communities, none of the emerging Muslim states has managed to establish a political system that would ensure development and progress. Despite numerous coups, deaths, and elections; the Arab regimes remain the same in terms of achieving public mandates and instilling economic and political stability worthy of the aspirations of their citizens. There is no lack of theories that attempted to explain this alarming state of affair; yet, I find myself tempted to add to that pool of ideas and analyses.
I will start by arguing that Muslims’ current political systems are developing in an environment dominated by revivalism instead of innovation. This matrix is the main reason behind the seemingly everlasting stagnation. Furthermore, it can be contended that revivalist discourses necessarily inhibit progress due to three factors, (a) over-achievement, (b) institutionalism, and© eschatology. Muslim communities that are being built on the ruins of a powerful and successful civilization are especially prone to these historically imposed limitations. All the makers of the national destiny of the Arab world willfully ignore the obvious historical reality that decrees that no fallen dominant civilization that attained the status of an empire ever manages to resurrect itself in its old image. However, due to destructive pride or alarming flawed interpretation of history; no one from amongst the Muslim intellectuals seems to be wiling to argue this perspective.
In order to explain the first factor, one must first define what is mean by a civilization and the steps it takes on the path to becoming and empire. In general terms and for my purpose in this essay, I will define the civilization as the manifest expression of collective, sophisticated, and adaptive values in critical areas of public life. The said expression must be propagated and preserved by effective iconic and monumental means.
The critical areas where success ought to be achieved in order to establish a particular community as the center of gravity for a world civilization are, (1) the establishment of relatively peaceful cities and inclusive citizenship, (2) the emergence of complementary organization of labor, (3) the widespread of refined sciences, literature and cultures; (3) the rule by an attuned government, (4) the adoption of a complex and inclusive religious system, and (5) the export of the values and iconic elements non-coercively to other cultures. A look back at the history of the Muslim community would easily show that Muslims had established a leading role in all of the above.
To wit, new cities were built and new individual and collective identities were given to the citizens of the emerging ummah. The swelling population developed specialized laborers and professionals and the arts and the sciences prospered in the courts of the Abbasid Caliphs. The Caliphate reflected the special need of a community that needed to balance the divine and mundane discourses. Although Islam has represented the foundation of law and governance; other religious communities continued to practice their faith under the allowance of the ahl al-kitāb and ahl al-dhimma stipulations. During the peak of the Islamic civilization, communities that were above and beyond the reach of Muslim armies such as South East Asia, China, and South-African Islands willingly accepted Islam simply after coming in contact with Muslim traders, merchants, and travelers.
In most cases, the Islamic civilization had achieved its status by relying on institutions that were responsive to its specific needs. Through a process of trial-and-error, social, economic, and political institutions were established and that guaranteed its adaptability and longevity. The Caliphate, imamate, waqf, masajid, and `ulamā’ are all examples of institutions that reflected the specificity of the community.
The achievements of the Islamic civilization play a double role when they are interpreted in the context of the self-fulfilling prophecies. The more is realized in the domain of civil and global domain, the nearer the end of the world in the eyes of the populace according to cultural legends. The Prophet’s declaration that he was send at the end of time, and the end of time almost preceded him contributed to a sentiment of pessimism that is amplified by the historical markers that measures the distance between divine and the mundane, the past and the present, and the present and the future.

Modern Times but Old Ways

Since the emergence of nation-states, Arab nationalist and now Islamic theorists are struggling to look forward instead of looking westward or backward. While Arab nationalists adopted the modernist paradigm which mandates that they break with the past in order to build the future; Islamic political theorists look at the past for answers to the present and future. Meanwhile, the public is still unmoved by the promise of the future since the psychology of eschatology is still in command.
All parties however, seem to lose sight of the fact that contact with other civilizations that was the result of colonialism and now the dominance of Western civilization have endlessly and eternally changed the character and nature of the Muslim community. Hence, to think that the Islamic civilization is bound to rise again in the same form that it was is utterly fatal and uninformed about history. To believe in the revival of a civilization is similar to trying to find a feather in the same location where it was dropped in a fast running stream of water.
The last election in Tunisia is a good case for voters’ apathy and public disinterest in political change. Both attitudes are reflective of the historical and religious realities that reflect the perception of achievement, institutionalism, and eschatology.
Tunisia emerged from the formal and direct control exerted by France in 1956. After serious maneuvering and manipulations, Habib Bourguiba became the first president of the Republic. His political and social programs were unmistakably dominated by a Western discourse that preached modernity and promised economic deliverance. He ruled through the institution of the sole political party Parti socialiste destourien (PSD). For thirty-one years however, the economy and the society did not make any real progress. During 1980s the country was plagued by numerous crises that boiled to an open revolt known as the “bread revolution”. By 1986, Bourguiba was clearly shaken by the social unrest and the rise of the political capital of conservative movements led by hizb al-tahrir and harak al-ittijah al-islami. In 1987 the leadership of the latter was put on trial and when the court spared the life of Rachid al-Ghannouchi, Bourguiba wanted him retried and put to death.
Fearing the worst, and on November 7, 19987; Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, then the Prime Minister and the Minister of Interior orchestrated a bloodless coup and forced the President-for-Life Bourguiba, also known as al-mujahid al-akbar, into an “early” retirement. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali embarked on a path to economic and political reform. He was well aware of the elements that Tunisians resented most about the previous regime: life-long presidency and absolute authority. In order to remedy the situation and avoid any backlash from the vanguards of old regime, he reaffirmed his support to the path laid out by Bourguiba in order to reassure the old-guards that their interests will be preserved. At the same time, he hinted that old-fashioned governance is a thing of the past. In that regard, he promised democracy, transparency, authenticity, and openness.
By democracy, he insisted that a term-limit on the presidency will be written into the constitution. He also encouraged opposition figures to contest elections and when they failed to win any seats (again due to the years of political abuse that promoted cynicism), he established what I would call political quota system whereby the opposition is guaranteed a certain number of seats by reserving a percentage of the total number of seats to the opposition. In practice however, this process worked in the president’s favor by giving him power to appoint individuals to these seats. Since then, opposition to the system was a mere formality that rehabilitated the image of a tyrannical regime.
Transparency was a signal word that gave the illusion that decision making will be done through a process of checks and balances. That is to suggest that the branches of government will be independent. Again, that failed as the judicial branch remained dominated by the old-guard loyalists.
By declaring his commitment to authenticity, Ben Ali acknowledged the role of religion in the society without consenting to allowing conservative movements to get involved the political process. In other words, he declared religion as a public domain element that cannot be monopolized by a political entity and hence continuing the practice of banning religious expressions to be used in the political arena. By the 1990s, the leaders of religious parties such as al-Nahda were either jailed or forced into exile.
To counter religious feelings, the regime played out on the notion of openness (infitah) which is a slicker word for modernity that was used by Bourguiba. The regime argued that, in order for the country to progress and move forward, Tunisians must consider Western values and apply them in certain sectors in order to keep pace with the advanced world. This doctrine was the diplomatic way of countering the conservative discourse that argued for return to Islamic values that had made the Muslim ummah great.
Buoyed by some economic progress, the regime used the opportunity to grab more power. By the beginning of the 21st century, and after a series of executive decisions veiled as steps demanded by “managed democracy”, Tunisia is where it was under Bourguiba: a president for life, a weakened and criminalized political opposition, and a single party control of the all aspects of political life in the country.
Like many other Muslim countries, Tunisian regime relies on fear and Western support in order to maintain control over its population. Tunisian regime mastered the use of the fear card to stay in power in two ways:
(1) It scared its own population from participating in politics to the point that people in the country feel that the only way to get involved in politics is by joining the ruling party. The government initiated and maintained the myth that the only way for being patriotic is by being a member of the ruling party. Any other political entity is not or is less patriotic.
(2) All conservative and religious individuals who engage in politics are fanatical Muslims who will rollback civil and political rights of individuals if they come to power. For that purpose, they created legal and illegal mechanisms to fight the so-called political Islam. Any young man or woman who goes to a mosque on a regular basis will be labeled “khuwanji” and will be watched by the brutal secret services. Women wearing headscarves are discriminated against, and any persons affiliated or sympathetic to al-Nahda movement are routinely arrested and charged on “security crimes”.
(3) Western nations are blackmailed by the regime which argues that if it is not supported and allowed a free reign to control opposition figures, “Muslim fundamentalists” will take over and will jeopardize their interests.
As a result of all these measures and practices, development and progress in Muslim countries like Tunisia remain a mirage. It is common wisdom that people work hardest in an environment that is inductive of a sense of belonging. Tragically, Muslims in many Muslim countries lost the sense of citizenship and with that disappeared the sense of history and of self-worth. For the Muslim world to progress and develop there must be a genuine and radical transformation in the Muslim society that will cause real political maturity.

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