9 Years ago, in December of 2010 Tunisia shook the world with the start Jasmine Revolution, 3 weeks later it was over and the Tunisian people had overthrown Prime Minister Ben Ali, giving birth to the newest democracy on the planet and igniting the Arab Spring. 4 years later Tunisia created their modem constitution. This very recent history plays into why Tunisia was so eye-opening, why it was so exciting, why, frankly, I went a little crazy while there. As a journalism student, a political science student, and most definitely an Islam west student, Tunisia was so interesting for one key reason, it is a 21st century democracy, it is a country not marred by its own democratic past, its decision making is not hampered by constitutions or ideas written down by statesmen and politicians centuries ago. That isn’t to say that Tunisia doesn’t have its own history to reconcile, but the hope, the potential of this nation was why visiting was so interesting.
The only Muslim democratic country in the Middle East and North Africa, one of the most recent democracies to exist, a democracy born out of revolution, to say that Tunisia is undergoing the ‘democratisation process’ would be an understatement. While we were explicitly told by Dr. Radwan Masmoudi at the Centre for the study of Islam and Democracy that Tunisia was more concerned with getting it right for themselves it’s hard to deny that Tunisia right now is not only figuring out democracy for themselves but also creating an example of how Islam and Democracy can co-exist. It was clear talking to locals that while the revolution itself may be considered a failure by some, due in part because of the goals regarding the Tunisian economy and job market, everyone was ready and active in the countries democratic system. This active electorate seems in part due to how the government is trying to get everyone involved, members from the Ennahda Party made it clear that they wanted everyone, even political opponents involved in Tunisia’s new democracy so that everyone regardless of their beliefs can at least trust in the government and their new democratic systems. That is not to say however that the system is flawless, far from it, however whilst in many cases around the world this can be put down to differences, or historical points of view, in Tunisia the repeated response is simply “we aren’t done yet”. This response, while not always the nicest thing to hear is at least provides hope for Tunisians and their country.
Tunisian modernisation is a work in progress, it was what we were told time and time again, first by our guide tour Wajdi Borgi, next by Dr. Radwan Masmoudi at the centre for Islam and Democracy, again by the journalists from Nawaat media, politicians from the Ennahda Party, and finally from Professor Nejet M’Chala and the students at Carthage University, all of our talks in Tunisia were dominated by this idea of progress. With this reoccurring theme of progress it is easy to see why as with its democracy, there is a great deal of hope within the country.
A demonstration of Tunisia’s views on the freedom and rights commonly associated with modernity is the very act that gave them access to these rights, the Jasmine revolution because of this the Ennahda party made it clear that despite being an Islamist party they wanted to promote free dialogue between people, as the country had just freed itself from a dictatorship.
In terms of equality between the sexes, Tunisia passed a law not found in many western nations, the criminalization of domestic violence. Now, this one issue was something that divided some of the locals we spoke to, while all agreed it was a hugely positive step, the students from Carthage university and the journalists from Nawaat both agreed that while the law had been passed, the practical steps and systems needed to enact it were still missing. This once again builds upon the very “work in progress” theme found in Tunisia, amazing steps being taken, but still not yet where they need to be.
Tunisia was by far the largest surprise on the tour, stepping out of the airport the buildings and the environment was in a way what you would expect hearing of the current state of the Tunisian economy. On the drive to our hotel, the yellow stone buildings commonly seen in images of the region where everywhere but as we drove closer it was as if we stepped into another country. The main-street looks as if it was lifted straight out of Paris. At one end stood the memorial to President Habib Bourguiba, the namesake for the avenue, at the other the Beb el Bhar, marking the entrance to the Medina. While at first, the avenue looks like nothing more than a European street, our tour with local, Wajdi Borgi, showed us that the architecture of the main avenue is a living museum that paints a picture of Tunisia’s history. Starting at the memorial to President Bourguiba, walking down the street towards the Beb el Bhar you are sounded with modern European styled buildings, either constructed post-Tunisian independence or during the period as a French protectorate. As you move down the avenue, buildings start to become older, the facades and finishings start to change, changing from the complex and overt Western/European style into more subdued and subtle Latin styles. As you progress further this continues changing once again becoming more Islamic in style, at this point you can even spot a tiny mosque, meant for soldiers stationed beyond the city walls, a remnant from when this area was not protected within the cities gates. A little bit further and you come to the Beb el Bhar, the sea gate, once a part of the city walls this gate marks the entrance to the Medina of Tunis and acts as the dividing point between the European side of the city, and the historic old city. As you move through the winding streets and alleyways of the medina you discover architecture and designs that while clearly Muslim also draw on imagery from the rest of the Abrahamic religions, demonstrating Islam’s connection with Judaism and Christianity but also Tunisia’s varied and complex culture. Hidden in the medina’s heart is Al-Zaytuna Mosque, the oldest mosque in Tunis and a site of great importance as a deeply historic university.
Where Qatar had been a demonstration into modern Islamic architecture Tunisia was my first experience into the deeply historic and beautiful styles that were the norm throughout the history of the Islamic world. The styles seen here would become a common occurrence further into the tour with similarities seen in both Morocco and the south of Spain.