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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 6    Issue 10   16-30 November 2011

Professor A. R. Momin

First-ever Free Elections in Tunisia

In the first free elections in Tunisia held on October 24, 2011, the Ennahda Party (Hizb al-Nahda), a moderate political group which considers Islam as its main source of inspiration, emerged as the largest party in the country’s new constitutional assembly. International observers confirmed that the elections, in which nearly 50% of the electorate voted, were free and fair. The Ennahda Party won 90 out of 217 seats.

Rashid al-Ghannoushi, leader of the Ennahda Party, emphasised soon after his party’s victory that he would follow the path of moderation, that his party supports gender equality and that women would not be compelled to wear headscarves against their wish. It is interesting to note that the Ennahda Party looks upon Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party as a role model. The Ennahda will form a coalition government, with the support of two secuar parties, in the next few days.

Tunisia’s Blighted Legacy

Tunisia, the northernmost country in Africa, has a population of 10.4 million. In 1881 the French invaded Tunisia with an army of 36,000, following which the country became a French protectorate. French colonial rule resulted in a massive exploitation and plundering of Tunisia’s resources, the migration of tens of thousands of French and Italian settlers, the impoverishment of the peasantry and the systematic erosion of the country’s cultural and religious heritage. The number of French settlers grew from 34,000 in 1906 to 1144000 in 1945. By 1910 there were 105,000 Italians in Tunisia. The French colonial administration discriminated against Tunisian Muslims in many ways. A systematic and calculated attempt was made by the colonial rulers to wean them away from their traditional moorings and values. The colonial rulers privileged and promoted those Muslims who had opted for Western education and had imbibed French culture. One of the most insidious consequences of French colonial rule over Tunisia—in fact of European colonial rule in general—was the creation of a breed of natives who would look up to Western culture and education and look down upon their own cultural legacy, who developed a vested interest in the perpetuation of colonial rule, and who played a key role in the continuity of the colonial legacy after the passing of the colonial era.

The independence movement in Tunisia was led by Habib Bourguiba, who had studied law and political science at the Sorbonne in the 1920s. Following Tunisia’s independence in 1956, Bourguiba became the country’s first president. During his regime (1956-1987), massive changes were brought about in the country’s economy, politics, education and culture. The Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), founded by Bourguiba, ruled the country since independence. Bourguiba’s 30-year reign was characterized by an evidently Western and secular orientation, an unrelenting quest for modernization and a marked disdain for political groups and parties that claimed to owe allegiance to the Islamic ideology. In the 1980s Bourguiba imprisoned and threatened to execute leaders of the Islamic Tendency Movement.

Islam has been a central and inseparable part of the collective consciousness of Tunisian Muslims for centuries. During the anti-colonial struggle, Islam acted as a potent source of moral, cultural and symbolic strength and resilience. Bourguiba sought to dilute and undermine the hold of this vital part of the Tunisian identity and legacy. In 1956, shortly after independence, Bourguiba launched a massive project aimed at undermining the role and vitality of religious institutions and the authority of religious functionaries. Shariah courts were abolished and religious endowments were nationalized. The highly respected Zaytuna seminary was incorporated into the University of Tunis. In addition, Bourguiba pushed through a controversial legislation called the Code du Statut Personel (Personal Status Code), which secularized the family code and replaced the Shariah-based laws in respect of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child care. Polygamy was outlawed and divorce was made subject to judicial review. The government refused to give permission for the celebration of festivals relating to the shrines of Sufi saints. A number of Sufi shrines were even demolished by the authorities. On February 5, 1960, three weeks before the commencement of the holy month of Ramadan, Bourguiba launched an audacious attack on the practice of fasting, arguing that Tunisians needed to devote their energies to the country’s progress and development rather than to the observance of outmoded religious practices. But Bourguiba’s move proved to be counter-effective and created widespread resentment and unrest among the people. Eventually he capitulated.

Ben Ali, who was then interior minister, seized power from Bourguiba in a palace coup in 1987. He promised democratization and held parliamentary elections in April 1989. However, soon after coming to power he stifled all political opposition and jailed his opponents on trumped-up charges. He made it clear that he was in favour of excluding religion from public life. The Ministry of Education reintroduced a decree from the Bourguiba period that banned the wearing of headscarves in schools and offices. Ben Ali’s tyrannical methods and his secularizing zeal were particularly reflected in the manner in which he dealt with the Islamic Tendency Movement, founded by Rashid Ghannoushi and Abd al-Fattah Muru in 1981. Ghannoushi believed in multiparty democracy and constitutional law and combined his Islamic orientation with the democratic argument to criticize the Tunisian government. He called for the reconstitution of the economic order on the basis of justice and equity, the end of single-party politics, the acceptance of political pluralism, and a return to traditional religious and moral values. In 1988 Ben Ali’s government issued a decree to the effect that no political party seeking recognition should have the word Islam as part of its name. In order to comply with this demand, the Islamic Tendency Movement was renamed Hizb al-Nahdah (the Renaissance Party). In 1989 Ben Ali reneged on his earlier promise to recognize Hizb al-Nahdah as a political party and declared that he would not allow any party to combine religion and politics. The government imprisoned the leaders of the party and closed down its organ Al-Fajr. Ben Ali purged the police and army of Islamic sympathizers and ordered the arrest of hundreds of people on spurious charges of extremism and terrorism. Ghannoushi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment, went into exile in London. He arrived in Tunis on January 30 after two decades of exile.

Although the constitution of Tunisia declares the country to be an Islamic state, for all practical purposes Islam has been made subservient to the secular state and its role has progressively been circumscribed and undermined. Institutions that have traditionally imparted and disseminated Islamic teachings—madrasas and Friday sermons in mosques—have been under the control of the government.

Western countries have long feted the Tunisian model and heaped praises on its secularism, liberal economic policies and stability, while glossing over the nepotism and corruption of the ruling dispensation, suppression of human rights and civil liberties and lack of democratic, transparent governance. The US, France and Germany persistently backed the Ben Ali regime and praised the dictator for being a “friend of Europe” and for his suppression of “extremist Muslims.” The French president Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Ben Ali as a great democrat. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a member of the French Socialist Party and former head of the International Monetary Fund, once stated that Tunisia was “a model for many emerging countries.” The association of French investors in Africa, CIAN, praised the country for its “solid economy, coupled with political stability.” When large-scale protests and demonstrations were being held across Tunisia, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, was asked about the protests. “We can’t take sides, “she said.

The Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten released a series of US diplomatic cables from 2006 on massive and pervasive corruption and nepotism in Tunisia and its adverse effects on the economy. The cables revealed that nearly 50 per cent of the country’s political and economic elite was connected with Ben Ali’s corrupt regime. The cables show that the US was fully aware of the appalling levels of corruption in Tunisia, but chose to overlook it and continued its support for Ben Ali because of his role in suppressing Islamic movements and dissident leaders. Rashid Ghannoushi aptly remarked that “while the West criticizes Islamic governments for not being democratic, it also supports governments that are not democratic and that are keeping Islamic movements away from developing their ideas.”

On December 17, 2010, Mohammed Bouaziz, a 26-year-old educated street vendor, who used to sell fruits on a handcart to earn his livelihood, was slapped and thrashed by municipal officials for engaging in an illegal activity and his handcart was confiscated. He walked to the governor’s office and asked for an audience, which was refused. Humiliated and frustrated, he set himself afire and eventually died on January 4. The event triggered an unprecedented wave of protests and demonstrations across the country. Labour unions quickly joined the demonstrations, which grew violent in the face of brutal retaliation by the police. The police caned the rampaging mobs, used teargas shells to disperse them and even opened fire, killing at least 78 civilians by official count. News of the unrest was quickly spread through mobile phones and the Internet. Gory images of deaths and injuries caused by the police were circulated on mobile phones and on Facebook and aired on Aljazeera television.

In many places the protests and demonstrations turned violent. The main rail station of Tunis was set alight by angry crowds. Demonstrators fought the police in pitched battles, torched police stations and ransacked banks and shops. A large number of luxury cars, including Porches, Volkswagens and Kias, imported by the President Ben Ali’s son-in-law, were torched by the demonstrators. His villa was ransacked and trashed. Mercifully, Tunisia’s army refused to use force against protesters. On January 14 more than 40,000 people gathered at the historic Avenue Bourguiba to vent their ire against the government, braving torrents of teargas and bullets. On January 14, Ben Ali fled the country after 23 years in power and sought shelter in Saudi Arabia. Some members of the royal family sought asylum in France, while others moved their cash and fleets of luxury cars to Dubai. Within a day of Ben Ali’s departure, many of the luxury villas, cars and businesses belonging to the royal family were ransacked and destroyed by the protesters. A branch of Zeituna bank, founded by Ben Ali’s son-in-law, was torched. Similarly, vehicles made by the companies for which he had the dealership were damaged and set afire.

The results of the October elections show that the Arab Spring has begun to bear fruits. The results mark a victory for democracy, moderation and responsive governance in Tunisia. Hopefully, other states in the Arab region will follow the laudable example set by Tunisia.

Sufi Entrepreneurs In Senegal

Senegal, located in western Africa, won independence from France in 1960. Nearly 90% of Senegal’s population of 14 million are Muslim.

Sufism has exercised a profound influence on the Muslims of Senegal. The vast majority of Muslims in the country belong to various Sufi fraternities. The most influential Sufi order in Senegal is the Mouride Brotherhood, based in Touba, east of the Senegalese capital Dakar. The Mouride order was founded by a charismatic Sufi, Sheikh Ahmadou Bamba, who passed away in 1927. Ahmadou Bamba laid great emphasis on self-reliance, hard work, extending a helping hand to other members of the fraternity and non-violence. On account of his huge popularity and influence in the region, he was exiled by the French government to Gabon in 1895 and again to Mauritania in 1903. His tomb in Touba is visited by thousands of Senegalese people from across the country. Nearly 5 million people in the country are affiliated to the Mouride order. Touba is now Senegal’s second largest city, with an estimated population of one million. During the annual Mouride festival of the Grand Magal, more than a million pilgrims visit the city. There is a large mosque adjacent to the tomb, which can accommodate more than 7,000 worshippers. It is not just a coincidence that Touba is home to a number of international banks and money transfer services.

The members of the Mouride order are drawn from diverse social and occupational backgrounds, and include peasants, traders, musicians, vendors, academics and politicians. Senegal’s president, Abdoulaye Wade, is affiliated to the Mouride order. The well-known Senegalese musician, Youssou N’Dour, is a follower of the Mouride fraternity. He argues that Sufism is general and Mouridism in particular offer a corrective to the stereotype about Islam and Muslims that has gained currency after 9/11. “Muridism is for me two paths—one is the way to God, the other path is the doctrine of work and dignity. Because if you don’t work, you hold your hand out and lower your dignity,” he says.

While preaching the virtues of self-reliance and hard work, Sheikh Bamba encouraged his followers to travel. A large number of Mouride followers have migrated to France, Italy, Spain and other European countries and the United States. Many of the street vendors on the streets of several European cities selling bags, sunglasses and souvenirs are followers of the Mouride order. A large number of Mouride merchants settled in Marseille, France in the 1960s and 1970s. Most of them alternated between working in Marseille’s factories during the low season and selling goods and merchandise on the streets during the tourist season. During the 1980s some of them took to wholesale trade and supplied goods to their fellow Mourides. This gave rise to well-organised spiritual, cultural and commercial networks in several cities across Europe, US and Africa. The networks are mediated and sustained through what is known as dahira, a community milieu which serves as a centre for the inculcation of Islamic values and traditions and for prayers and dhikr, where the members are initiated into the values and ritual practices of the Mouride order. Spiritual mentors or guides, known as marabouts, play a highly important role in sustaining the Mouride order, in fostering closer ties among the followers and in facilitating business contacts and making business deals. They also play a part in negotiations and in settling disputes.

The Mouride are now increasingly using modern information and communication technologies, especially the Internet, to keep in touch with members of the fraternity, to share and exchange views and experiences and to coordinate common activities and programmes.

UNESCO Approves Membership for Palestinians

In 1948, when the state of Israel was created, thanks to a well-orchestrated conspiracy hatched and executed by the Zionists, Britain, France and the US, more than half of the indigenous population of Palestine, some 750,000 people, either fled in terror or were forcibly driven out of the land of their birth. More than 500 Palestinian villages were wiped out. In 1953, the Israeli parliament retroactively declared nearly 120,000 hectares of captured Palestinian territories to be state property, to be used later for either new Jewish settlements or security purposes. The six-day war in June 1967 forced some 250,000 Palestinians to migrate to other countries. Nearly half of the Palestinian population—estimated at around 10 million—lives in other countries as refugees. The remaining half lives in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Ghaza, comprising nearly 20% of Israel’s population.

The Palestinians living in Israel continue to bear the brunt of oppression, humiliation and dispossession. Nearly one-fourth of them have lost their ancestral homes. In the West Bank nearly a third of the Palestinian population lives in refugee camps. The second Palestinian uprising (intifada), which began in October 2000, was an expression of the deep sense of frustration and anger felt by the Palestinians. The Isreali forces responded to the uprising in an extremely brutal manner. Hundreds of Palestinians, including women and young children, were mercilessly killed or grievously injured by Israeli forces.

Israel has stubbornly and brazenly defied, with the open and persistent support of the US, all UN resolutions relating to the rights of the Palestinian people with impunity. The United Nations, the European Union and the rest of the world have done nothing that could help in securing the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinians. A few months ago, the Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Ghaza decided to move a resolution in UNESCO and the UN Security Council for full membership for Palestinians.

On October 31, 2011, UNESCO voted in favour of membership for the Palestinians. Of 173 countries that participated in the voting, 107 were in favour of the move, 14, including Israel, US, Canada and Germany, opposed, and 52 abstained. China, India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa voted in favour of Palestinian membership. Humiliated and miffed by the success of the move, the United States, which provides about 20% of the organisation’s funding, announced that it would stop providing funds. In line with its persistent support for Israel, the US has continued to deny the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people. A law passed in the 1990s allows the US to cut funding to any UN body that admits Palestine as a full member.

Though the endorsement for the membership of Palestinians in UNESCO marks a small step towards the creation of an independent state of Palestine, it has a huge symbolic significance. The success of the move indicated the broad international support for the Palestinian cause and brought out the isolation and humiliation of the US and Israel in the international arena. The UN Security Council will vote in November whether to grant the Palestinians full UN membership. The US has threatened to use the veto against the move.

Music Therapy in Turkey

The positive effects of music therapy have been known and acknowledged by Muslim scholars and scientists for nearly a thousand years. The celebrated Muslim philosophers Al-Farabi and Al-Kindi discussed and catalogued the healing effects of different musical modes on the mind and body. Ibn Sina dwelt at considerable length on music therapy.

Two eminent Turkish doctors at Istanbul’s Memorial Hospital, Dr Bingur Sonmez and Dr Erol Can, are successfully using traditional Turkish and Arabic music as a complementary therapeutic technique. They argue that traditional Arabesque scales and modes can produce positive psychological and physiological consequences for patients.

Dr Can, chief anaesthetist at the intensive care unit of the hospital, discovered music therapy while working in a hospital in Sophia, Bulgaria. He learnt to play the flute which was used in traditional music therapy many centuries ago. The makam (maqam in Arabic) is a musical mode unique to classical Arabic and Turkish music. It defines the pitches, patterns and development of a musical piece. “There is a different makam for every illness, every health problem,” Dr Sonmez says, and adds that five to ten minutes of a certain musical piece lowers the heart rate and blood pressure. Dr Somnez emphasizes that music therapy is not a substitute or alternative for conventional medical treatment. “It is a complementary treatment,” he says.

Surge of Conversions among Western Women

Islam is spreading with amazing speed, especially among women, across several parts of Europe and the United States. A study carried out at Swansea University showed that in the past ten years, some 10,000 Britons have converted to Islam, and three-quarters of them were women. According to a report in The Independent (November 6, 2011), of the 5,200 Britons who converted to Islam in 2010, more than half were white and nearly 75% of them were women. The average age of converts among Western women is 27. Despite the wide prevalence of the stereotype that Islam is oppressive to women, a quarter of female converts were attracted to Islam mainly because they felt it treated women with honour and dignity.

It is estimated that as many as 20,000 Americans convert to Islam every year. Many of them were drawn to the Islamic faith in the aftermath of 9/11. Most of the converts are women and the majority of them are Hispanics and African-Americans. Some of the European and American converts are well-known celebrities, such as Yuonne Ridley, a British journalist who embraced Islam in 2003 after being held captive by the Taliban in Afghanistan, Lauren Booth, the sister-in-law of former British prime minister Tony Blair, and Angela Collins Telles, an American woman who travelled across Egypt and Syria and was impressed by the people’s generosity and kindness there. She found it hard to reconcile the misconceptions and negative stereotypes that generally surround Muslims and her own observations and experiences. She converted to Islam a few months before 9/11. “The concept of God was the most beautiful thing (in Islam), and that concept fits with what I believe,” says Collins Telles.

Johannah Segarich is an independent middle-aged music instructor. Like most Americans, she was intrigued by the terrorist attack on the US on September 11, 2001. She would often ask herself, “What kind of religion is this that could inspire people to do this?” She had studied other religions, but not Islam. One day she decided to find for herself the answer to the question that had caused her so much anxiety. So she bought a copy of the Quran and began reading it. She finished reading the text in a few weeks and then started reading it all over again. While reading the Quran, she felt a deep sense of inner peace and tranquility. She was captivated by the text’s incredible magic. A few months later she decided to embrace the faith that she had hated all her life.

Most of the men and women in Western countries who have converted to Islam in recent years have been faced with problems, such as the absence of orientation and enculturation networks, especially in the smaller cities, whereby converts could be guided into the institutional, cultural and behavioural norms and mores of the faith. They are also faced with competing and even conflicting interpretations of the faith by different sects and denominations and individuals. Many of them, especially those who have started wearing the headscarf, experience discrimination, stigmatization and hostility from mainstream society. But their firm convictions and sincerity have helped them to cope with these challenges with fortitude and forbearance. Close association and solidarity with fellow converts, who share similar background and experiences, also serve as important source of reassurance.

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