For the past half a century, the Tunisian film director Nadia El Fani would have had no problem showing her new documentary, Neither God Nor Master, which explores her atheism and disdain for radical Islam. But before the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia was the most socially liberal country in the Muslim world. Its Islamist extremists were where they belonged: in prison. A few weeks ago, however, during the film’s premiere, hundreds of bearded zealots smashed through the glass doors of the capital’s CinemAfricArt cinema, attacked the audience, and threatened ‘a massacre’ if the screening continued.
Six months after the overthrow of the Tunisian strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, an avowed secularist and hardly the tyrant he is portrayed as having been, such incidents have become frequent. In May, Nouri Bouzid, another Tunisian director and critic of Islamist extremism, was stabbed in the head. Hundreds of hardline Islamists now prowl the streets of Tunis seeking converts. Radicals have firebombed the city’s legalised red-light district, demonstrated outside the local synagogue, killed a Catholic priest, hounded a teacher out of his job for saying something deemed insulting to the Prophet Mohammed, forced the interim regime to block all internet pornography and caused widespread chaos by rioting to demand that the veil, previously banned, be made compulsory.
The intellectual elite threw their support behind the revolution, in which only a tiny percentage of the population participated. Now they complain of a lack of police protection. But the laconic policeman in charge at a local station, in response to a plea for help from a member of the CinemAfricArt audience, rather hit the nail on the head. ‘Ben Ali was protecting you, and you kicked him out,’ he reportedly said, and shrugged.
In April, Islamist volunteers took control of Ettadhamen, the working-class suburb of Tunis that was the centre of the revolution. It now looks like a microcosm of what lies in store for the whole country. These days, only the Islamists are happy. Tunisians belonging to the country’s once vast middle class, who shunned the uprising, have sunk into a collective depression. Many are openly stating what recently was considered sacrilege: the revolution was a terrible mistake.
Tourism revenue, once the primary pillar of the economy, is down by more than half. The second pillar of the economy, foreign investment, has also crumbled. The entire south of the country was dependent on trade with Libya, and now sits idle. The poverty rate was 4 per cent before the revolution, but has increased to 40 per cent. The crime rate in this once remarkably crime-free country has skyrocketed. Few venture out after dark. In May, I was caught up in one of the capital’s periodic riots, and saw a young man beaten to death. It came as no surprise that the foreign media, for whom Tunisia is once again an irrelevance, did not report the incident; but even the local media ignored it. Editors who once sprouted pro-Ben Ali propaganda have thrown their weight behind the interim regime, a watered-down version of what existed before the uprising.
Tunisia’s political outlook is as dismal as its economic performance. The main Islamist political party, Ennahda (Awakening), looks certain to triumph in forthcoming elections. Lesser-known liberal parties have formed a coalition and are holding the odd demonstration, but they don’t stand a chance in the face of the well-organised and funded Islamist onslaught.
Ennahda has, of course, distanced itself from the street violence. There have been some attempts by apologists for radical Islam in the West to compare the party and other ‘moderate’ Islamist groups with the Christian Democrats of Europe. In truth, the closest parallel to the party’s odd combination of highly organised structure and denial of responsibility is the European far right. Both are crypto-fascist in nature, both have viable views on day-to-day policy, and both rely on a grassroots network of thugs of whose activities they can publicly wash their hands. Jean-Marie Le Pen of France never once admitted any connection with the skinheads who did his dirty work beating up immigrants in the banlieues, yet such politicians are quietly understood by the grass roots to represent them.
Ennahda, too, faces the complication that there exists in Tunisia a movement of even harder-line Salafists: angry young men who want an Islamic state right here, right now. It cannot afford to alienate what will be a sizeable chunk of its electoral support. That helps explain the mystery of the party’s lack of a political manifesto. Ennahda relies on a kind of double consciousness, whereby nobody knows, yet everybody knows, what it is and where it wants to take Tunisia: away from Paris and towards Mecca.
When it comes to eradicating Tunisia’s liberalism, while the political Islamists and street thugs may disagree on tactics, they ultimately see eye to eye. ‘Some of the oldest democracies, such as Britain and France, had ministries for the colonies,’ Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, has written. ‘The same democracies, in which homosexuality, fornication, gambling, abortion and birth control have been legalised, impose unfair conditions on weaker nations.’ Britain, it should be pointed out in fairness, is also a country that readily offered this man a refuge from persecution for two decades.
The fact is that moderate Islamism is a myth. There are, to be sure, more than a billion moderate Muslims — people who pray five times a day or not, fast during Ramadan or not, perhaps entertain superstitions about pork, the devil, or the conduct of the birds vis-à-vis the Kaaba, or indeed seek by painstaking study of the Koran and the Hadith to reconcile the basic values of their religion with modern life and the discoveries of science. But Islamism is a political ideology that takes a literal, fundamentalist interpretation of the Koran as a master plan for society: Islamic law. You are either an Islamist or you are not, in the same way that you cannot be a little bit pregnant.
For all who understand this, the sad reality has now dawned: Tunisia’s uniquely secular inheritance went up in smoke with the Jamsine Revolution — perhaps the dumbest and most self-defeating uprising in history.
John R. Bradley’s new book, Tunisian Tsunami, will be published in December by Palgrave Macmillan.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated July 16, 2011