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Abdelbaki Hermassi: How Tunisia defeated the Islamic fascists

Taken from a lecture delivered by the Tunisian minister of culture, at Westminster University in London

Tuesday 26 March 2002 01:00 GMT

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, certain intellectuals, such as the American writer Samuel Huntington, tried to revive the "clash of civilisations" refrain. Confusing the religion over one billion people with the outrageous acts of a fanatic madman named Osama bin Laden, Francis Fukayama, the brilliant "end of history" theorist, brought the issue of "Islamic fascism".

This is hardly accurate and, to say the least, exaggerated. The shock (if there is one) is not between civilisations (Islamic, Christian or Buddhist) but within them, opposing those who yearn for progress to those who close themselves to all except obscurantist notions, democrats to fundamentalists, the forces of good to those of evil.

So do not let us confuse our wars. The front line is not between north and south, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It runs through mankind as a whole. The enemy is everywhere, lurking in the open wounds caused by injustice and fed by resentments inherited from the past.

Terrorism is the weapon of the poor and the desperate and will only be wiped out when the main wells that feed it, poverty and injustice, are finally drained dry. This is where Tunisia's experience in fighting fundamentalist-based terrorism could be helpful.

Tunisia has known a long line of great thinkers, from Magon to Apuleus, from Saint Augustine to Ibn Khaldoun, from Thar Haddad to Habib Bourguiba, and this country – my own – has kept alive the flame of intelligence and reason. After becoming independent in 1956, Tunisia undertook one of the rare attempts in the Islamic world at western-style cultural modernisation. Resisting the ideological sirens of the pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movements at that time so fashionable, the new state decreed that everyone should get an education, made teaching universal and secular, downgraded the traditionalist élite and dismantled the habous property which provided its economic base, and promulgated the Code of Personal Status. guaranteeing women's emancipation.

In the 1970s and 80s, like other Muslim countries, Tunisia was confronted with the rise of fundamentalist so-called Islamist movements, which first spread in the universities where, for a time, they represented a parallel to the communist-inspired movements. They were thus able to express their ideas freely in the press, the institutions of civil society and associations such as the Tunisian League of Human Rights. They joined the 1988 National Pact and many of their activist stood in the 1989 legislative elections as "independents". Failing to obtain the votes of their peers, they dropped their mask and called for sedition, perpetrating acts of violence which disqualified them in the eyes of their supporters inside the country.

During the 1991 trials of the fundamentalists, Tunisians were astounded to discover the true face of these movements, which had under the cover of religious proselytism gone in for the most abject forms of terrorism.

In Tunisia the Islamic activists were rapidly brought to heel as the result of a multi-faceted approach that combined security handling (dismantling the networks), judicial action (bringing to trial those who had committed terrorist acts), economic action (drying up the springs of their funding), and lastly an educational and cultural approach (spreading the culture of toleration, freedom of expression and respect for others' opinions).

This was the context in which the Carthage Tolerance Charter was promulgated in 1995 after a meeting where thinkers and theologians of every religion and creed had come together. The charter called for respect for others and dialogue between peoples and civilisations, in a spirit of understanding and mutual respect.

Our people did not wait for the events of the 11 September to demonstrate their rejection of intolerance and terrorism and their love of justice and peace.

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