Hitchens on Tunisia

On Disingenuousness

Christopher Hitchens’s has written a terrible article on Tunisia in Vanity Fair.

Hitchens’s writes an astoundingly uncritical, if not positively glowing, travelogue on a country that Reporters Without Borders named an “enemy of the internet” — along with Libya, Burma, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Syria (to name a few). After writing wistfully about Tunisia’s Punic days, Hitchens remarks at the country’s lack of veils and burqas (in the Maghreb such things are rarely seen as they are in more backward regions, such as Afghanistan and Pakistan where the sorts of things Hitch marvels at being absent are worn), and at the social reforms of Bourguiba. He remarks only in passing that this, and most of the other modernizations he observes, have cost more freedom than the parallel reforms seen in Turkey. Turkey at the very least is an illiberal democracy. Tunisia isn’t even a democracy. At all. As he notes, the nation has had two presidents in its history, with only half of them having come to power democratically.

At election times, he has been known to win more than 90 percent of the vote: a figure that never fails to make me nervous. I have not met the man, but within hours of landing in the country I could have passed an exam in what he looks like, because his portrait is rather widely displayed.

In Third World countries, they often call that a “personality cult“. It exists just the same, with some local color, in Libya, Egypt, Syria, North Korea, and they used to have it in Iraq and the USSR. That 90% figure probably helped to earn Tunisia a political rights score of 6 from Freedom House (Tunisia’s Freedom Index is almost identical to Algeria’s: Not Free with CL and PR scores of 5 and 6). The paragraph ends with the reader expecting a not so enormous “but“.

In his typically contemptuous and condescending tone, Hitchens writes of Tunisia in contrast to its neighbors (if you consider Somalia, Sudan, and Chad Tunisia’s “neighbors”), telling us that

you can say for Tunisia that people do not lower their voices or look over their shoulders (another thing that has made me nervous in my time) before discussing these questions. But the conversation still took on a slightly pained tone. Was the West—that’s me—not judging the country by rather exacting standards? To the east lay the huge territory of Libya, underdeveloped and backward and Islamized even though floating on a lake of oil, and, furthermore, governed since 1969 by a flamboyantly violent nutcase. (“We are the same people as them,” said my friend Hamid, “but they are so much en retard.”) To the west lay the enormous country of Algeria, again artificially prosperous through oil and natural gas, but recently the scene of a heinous Islamist insurgency that—along with harsh and vigorous state repression—had killed perhaps 150,000 people. Looking farther away and to the south, Sudan’s fanatical and genocidal militia, not content with what they had done in Darfur, were spreading their jihad into neighboring Chad, extending a belt of violent Islamism across the sub-Saharan zone. Increasingly, Africa was becoming the newest site of confrontation not just between Islam and other religions (as in the battle between Christian Ethiopia and Islamist Somalia, or between Islamists and Christians in Nigeria, or Islamists and Christians and animists in Sudan) but between competing versions of Islam itself. Why pick on mild Tunisia, where the coup in 1987 had been bloodless, where religious parties are forbidden, where the population grows evenly because of the availability of contraception, where you can see male and female students holding hands and wearing blue jeans, and where thousands of Americans and more than four million Europeans take their vacations every year?

Aside from the ridiculous caricature of Libya as “underdeveloped and backward and Islamized” (because Tunisia, or the rest of Maghreb, is somehow not Islamized? And the insurgency in Algeria is hardly “recent”, and largely restricted geographically) he has somewhat of a point. Sure the Tunisians have very few political rights and the religious instinct found in most Islamic societies is repressed beneath uncovered women, alcohol, and the firm grip of a dictator, but one wonders if the Hitchmeister ever ventured to consider the dark side of the country as it is, which the Tunisian government hides somewhat better than do the Egyptians and Algerians? He does not in the article, likely because like most of the travel writing by western writers in Tunisia there is no evidence that Tunisians think for themselves or have independent opinions at all. No need to look for dissidents. Hey, “people do not lower their voices or look over their shoulders” before talking about their president (I wonder if that has anything to do with the people Hitch interviewed?). No matter though, because look, Tunisia isn’t the rest of Africa! Think about it, it could be so much worse! Tourists might not be able to enjoy its beaches! The locals mights govern themselves! The most subtle dissidents might not be tortured!

The funny thing, though, is that in his effort to differentiate Tunisia from its neighbors, he actually shows its similarities. Religious political parties are banned in both Algeria and Tunisia; alcohol is easily acquired and produced in both states; St. Augustine was born in Algeria but spent much of his life between that country and Tunisia; both countries’ populations are part of the “smooth blend of black and Berber and Arab” that form all of the Maghrebine peoples, though Tunisian Berbers have almost found themselves extinct and the government has had no trouble at all with discouraging or forbidding the expression of their culture and the use of the language (the Libyan government does this as well). “I still could not shake the feeling that its system of government is fractionally less intelligent and risktaking than the majority of its citizens” — this is one of the best sentences in the entire piece. While this is probably true in Tunisia, it is as true in most of the other North African countries. North Africans are keen, to an extent that Hitchens seems to be entirely ignorant of, perhaps because his fear of doing actual reporting in the region. There are many risks associated with some of the “backward” places that Hitchens writes off as dens of Islamist festering. The Tunisians might also be just too intelligent for Hitch to engage; he might not be able to follow their complexities. Better keep it simple and cartoonish.

Another exciting  sentence is this one: “Its international airport is named Tunis-Carthage, evoking African roots without Afrocentric demagogy.” What? This is one of the most common elements in Arab nation-building: linking local landmarks to remote, often but not always pre-Islamic symbols. Bourguiba, then head of a new and tiny country with big and potentially hungry neighbors, was famous for this wataniyyah. New polities in need of a common identity co-opted ancient symbolism to differentiate themselves from neighbors or to stave off bullying by charismatic leaders in other countries. Such evocations in modern marketing, be it Baalbek, the Pyramids, Timgad, Hannibal, Persepolis or Ashurbanipal are used to make Middle Eastern — almost always Muslim — states more appealing to Europeans, as it gives potential investors, tourists, and aid donors something to identify with. It is on the one hand, an assertion of localized pride, as the Tunisian, racially and to a lesser extent culturally (this was more true a hundred years ago than today), is no different than the Libyan or the eastern Algerian with whom he may even have blood-ties. What makes Tunisia special? It has Carthage. Can European identify with the Arab and Muslim history of what used to be what was the longest lasting of the Turkish beyliks in North Africa? With a country whose main port was for centuries a major entry point for white slaves into the homes of wealthy Arab and Turkish Muslims? No. But they remember “Mediterranean” Carthage, which once rivaled European Rome and whose history is a part of the classical cannon. It serves the same purpose as calling a restaurant that serves nothing more than Arabic or Turkish cuisine a “Mediterranean” restaurant, rather than a Middle Eastern one. It puts it into the same context as Italy, Greece and Malta, rather than Libya, Algeria, Morocco and other such “Afro-centric” places. God forbid Tunis’s airport have a name like “Patrice Lumumba International Airport” or “The Heart of Darkness.” Or something.

On the other hand, Tunsian Arabic is close to eastern Algerian or far western Libyan, save for important local variations; in the broadest sense the biggest difference is territory and that the country itself has been an administrative center through most of recent history rather than a frontier. To rally patriotism for the local dictator, Colonel, emir, or wobbly president most Arab leaders will recall local land marks with which the modern culture has little connection. Tunisian Arabs had little to do with anything but the triumphant conquest of Roman Carthage, and were not present for Semitic Carthage’s glories. The same is true of Egyptian Arabs, and of Iraqi Arabs when it comes to the glories of the ancient Egyptians and the pre-Persian Semitic empires in Mesopotamia. But to create loyalty, it is necessary to formulate auxiliary, contemporary local identities around the ruins upon which Arabo-Muslim societies stand. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the proponents of qawmiyyah (ethnic, pan-Arab nationalism) in Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, and Yemen went head to head against the practitioners of wataniyyah (local, state/region focused patriotism that does not necessarily negate the Arabism of a place, but de-emphasizes it while emphasizing the role of the state) in Tunisia, Lebanon, Jordan, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf. Bourguiba had more than a few public rows with Nasser, over Tunisia’s less radical and pro-Western foreign policy. To practice what he preached, Bourguiba and supporters of the Tunisian state worked to instill identity on their people that would stand up against, say, a Libyan invasion or pro-pan-Arabist street protests. Playing up ancient connections to Europe via the country’s very, very obvious historical connection to Carthage was easy and logical. It is a kind of less extreme and more rational version of Lebanese Maronite Phoenicianism (as it did not deny Arab or Islamic identity). In the sense of public relations, “Carthage” helps to contextualize the country for outsiders in a more or less western discourse while bolstering national identity as an intermediate polity between east and west; the Arabic Tunis is, after all, a name derived from African Berber.

Hitchens’s discussion of the famed Tunisian Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi is as flawed as the rest of the article. He seems to want to disassociate the man from his country.

Mongia Souaihi cheerfully explained to me the many reasons why the veil is not authorized by the Koran and why she is in danger for drawing this conclusion in print. “The fundamentalists from overseas have declared me to be kuffar—an unbeliever.” This I know to be dangerous, because a Muslim who has once been declared to be an apostate is also a person who can be sentenced to death. “Which fundamentalists? And from where overseas?” “Rachid Ghannouchi, from London.” Oh no, not again. If you saw my “Londonistan” essay, in the June Vanity Fair, you will know that fanatics who are unwelcome in Africa and Arabia are allowed an astonishing freedom in the United Kingdom. The leader of Ennahda, the outlawed Tunisian Islamist group, the aforesaid Mr. Ghannouchi, was until September 11, 2001, allowed to broadcast his hysterical incitements into Tunisia from a London station.

So, where is this man from? London? Ghannouchi is not an English name. Maybe Welsh. Londonistan did not create Rachid Ghannouchi, Tunisia did. What would have happened to Ghannouchi if the Tunisian authorities had their way? He’d probably be in a cell or dead. Back in the day, the Tunisian government expelled hundreds of students whose political views differed from those of the state; they went to Syria (like Ghannouchi), Saudi Arabia, Europe, Egypt, and elsewhere. Tunisia was ahead of the game, getting a head start at sending its bad apples abroad to be other peoples’ problems. At the time, it is written, Ghannouchi was not even an Islamist, only joining that camp after studying in Syria thitherwards he had been exiled. Tunisia has given the world its share of foreign Islamist fighters in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Political repression in Tunisia has broken the will of some dissidents and turned others to radicalism and inspired creative resolve among others. As in Egypt and Algeria, the political rigidity of the Tunisian regime has produced plenty of undesirables

Amusing, though, to read Christopher Hitchens, who fancies himself an heir to Orwell, promote the policies of a man, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who is no less a dictator than any other continental strong man, in a glowing propaganda piece. Hitchens has been out writing about the virtues of the American founding fathers in recent years, writing about individual freedom and all the stuff kids learn about in civics class, as well as bashing God with flawed arguments (so flawed, in fact, that he rather terribly lost a TV debate to Al Sharpton, of all people). While Hitchens seems to hate religions of gods (and Islam somewhat more than others), it seems that he is guilty of following the religion of Myopicism, more so than many of the neo-conservative writers who continue to offer misguided revelations on current affairs. True, Tunisia could be much worse than it is; but, contrary to Hitchens’s glowing and unbecoming tribute to Ben Ali’s Tunisia, it could be much, much better, despite its being an Arab Muslim country, populated by followers of a “desert religion” as Hitchens would have the Tunisians. Even a realist expects half-way honest appraisals of pivotal societies, because what makes us smile is often not what is most helpful.


7 thoughts on “Hitchens on Tunisia

  1. What were you expecting from Hitchens? It is the same guy who seriously write now (not in 2003) that invading Iraq was a good thing and that the country is better off for it… Christopher Hitchens has been fundamentally unable, in the last 20 years, to write any decent article about the Middle-East. The only one which is not worth wiping one’s arse with its paper was about… Israel.

  2. Lost to Sharpton? That’s funny, as Sharpton pretty much agreed with Hitchens many points which put so many holes in the religious arguments that it wasn’t even funny to watch it anymore.

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