Filed under: Middle East, Muslim World | Tags: Ben Ali, Haroon Moghul, Islam, New York Times, Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia
Uncertainly rules the day in Tunisia. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s strong-armed and authoritarian ruler since 1987, is in Saudi Arabia while the interim government struggles to restore some semblance of order. “Confusion, fear and horror in Tunisia as old regime’s militia carries on the fight,” reads on headline in the Guardian. To be sure, the days, weeks and months ahead are likely to be just as tumultuous.
But the New York Times, which has otherwise done a decent job of covering the story, can’t seem to report the facts on the ground without breaking into the quite-familiar and largely-contrived secular/religious divide that seems to always explain events in the Middle East. For instance, in its description of transpiring events, Times reporter David Kirkpatrick includes this bit of insight:
Tunisia is far different from most neighboring Arab countries. There is little Islamist fervor there, it has a large middle class, and under Mr. Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, it has invested heavily in education. Not only are women not required to cover their heads, they enjoy a spectrum of civil rights, including free contraception, that are well beyond those in most countries in the region.
Tunisia, of course, is one of the most unfree societies on the face of the planet. Ben Ali was an autocrat in every sense of the word. But as the Times seems to suggest, the fact that contraception is readily available and that women aren’t forced to cover (they aren’t mandated to do so in most of the Muslim world), is supposed to make up for, soften, or perhaps, rationalize the repression. It’s an entirely bankrupt approach that fails to explain the complex nature of Tunisian affairs.
Writing in Religion Dispatches, Haroon Moghul illustrates why the secular/religious explanation is not only lazy and hackneyed, but often, useless in understanding people’s grievances. He writes:
There must be an explanation for why a journalist would make such a broad, unsubstantiated statement, and it returns us to the simple need to define Arabs as either secular (like us) or religious (unlike us), an effect of which is a confused causation. Namely, because many Arab states aren’t democracies, they must be Islamist states, where of course women must have to cover their heads.
This assumption lazily equates the public practice of Islam with all things undemocratic, whereas we are inclined to view secularism–even when enforced by a dictator–as explicitly preferable, even though in the experience of many Arabs (and Muslims), secularism is the ideology which justifies control of their lives, religion, and politics.
Moghul’s piece is excellent. Read it all here.