Kaplan: Slammed

Michael Collins Dunn, editor of the Middle East Journal, slams Robert D. Kaplan’s recent piece on Tunisia (addressed here and by Brian Whitaker):

[ . . .] Kaplan has written some good books, though his Middle East track record is not all I might wish for. This time, I think he gets it wrong.

[. . .]

[B]ear in mind my doctorate is in history, and I did a bit of work on the early Islamic Maghreb, not to mention having a reasonable knowledge of Classical Antiquity. In other words, don’t start arguing about Carthage and Roman Africa unless you want a fight. Or a rant.

It is a biting critique that should be read in full. 

It is more thoroughgoing than the one recently posted here and hits on similar points but in greater detail. Dunn writes:

Algeria and Libya weren’t “vague geographical expressions” since in classical antiquity Libya pretty much meant the whole African continent, and “Algeria” is a French invention from Algiers. The “map of classical antiquity” however, would show first a string of Carthaginian colonies, and later and inland, Numidia, the land of Massinissa and Jugurtha, where Algeria is today, and the magnificent Roman ruins at Leptis Magna in Libya suggest it was not “relative emptiness.” Read your Sallust.

On the other hand, let’s not give the Romans too much credit: Delenda est Cartago. The major urban center of Tunisia was not just destroyed by Rome, but the ground was salted to make it uninhabitable.

Yes, Tunisia was a major urban center of early, Late Roman, Christianity. Augustine, who made a bit of a name for himself, preached at (the reborn Roman version of) Carthage among other places, but he was born in Thagaste (Suq Ahras) in what was then Numidia and is now Algeria, and is best known as the Bishop of Hippo (Annaba, Algeria). In Christian terms, Augustine is, well, kind of major.

None of this is intended to deny the centrality of what is now Tunisia. But Kaplan, save for one throwaway line about its importance under “Medieval Arabs,” says little about Tunisia’s role in early Islam. In about 670 AD the Arab conquerors, reaching what had been Proconsular Africa under the Romans, decided, as they had in Egypt (Alexandria to Fustat/Cairo) to move the capital inland from the coast, and founded the city of Kairouan (“the camp,” but from the same word that gives us “caravan”). The Great Mosque in Kairouan is still one of the two great spiritual centers of Tunisia, along with the Mosque/University of Zeitouna in Tunis, once the greatest Islamic center of education west of al-Azhar.

In the old Moroccan imperial city of Fez, one of the best preserved medieval Arab capital medinas, there are two sides of the city, across a river, They take their names from the two great mosques: theAndalusiyyin (the Andalusians, the Spaniards) and the Qarawaniyyin (the Mosque of the People of Kairouan). It is a reminder of the dominance Kairouan once had in the Islamic Maghreb.

[. . .]

Tunisia is “s real state, with historical and geographical legitimacy.” I can understand the contrast drawn with Libya and Algeria. But isn’t Morocco a “real state.” And surely no one is going to doubt Egypt’s pedigree. This is the kind of stereotype I hate.

Read the rest.


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