A PIVOTAL MEETING
The handshake between Tunisia's President Ben Ali and US leader George Bush was pregnant with far weightier symbolism than is usually the case when two heads of state meet. Ben Ali's visit to the US, accepting Bush's invitation delivered in person by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in December 2003 in Tunis, was laden with more import than cementing the existing excellent relations between the two countries. It was the coming together of two worlds, the Western and the Arab, at a time when tensions between the two are at snapping point.
Although Ben Ali travelled to the US solely in his capacity as Head of State of Tunisia, there was no doubt that the eyes of the Middle East and the north African Maghreb region (in eluding Algeria, Libya and Morocco) were fixed on him. Over the years, Tunisia's diplomatic skills have chiselled out a unique position for the country as the bridge between the world of Arab Islam and the West.
Tunisia's credentials in this regard are impeccable. Quietly, unpretentiously, but persistently, the country has acted the honest broken bringing together often disparate parties from the region and outside it to the negotiating table. The latest success was in working behind the scenes to persuade Libya to abandon its stance on weapons of mass destruction.
This point was highlighted by President Bush when he told Ben Ali: "Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term." Ben Ali responded: "We share principles together, Mr President and that is the establishment of states on the bases of democracy, human rights and combating terror."
Perhaps more importantly and this is a point often missed by Western observers al though Tunisia is situated on the African continent, it is Arabic and Muslim at heart.
The constitution and the legal system are secular but the official religion is Islam. Right from the time of its independence in 1956, the country's leadership stressed education for both boys and girls, as demanded by Islam. The result is that Tunisia has one of the world's highest literacy rates. The Islamic injunctions on the rights and high status of women over rode cultural and traditional mores on gender and today Tunisian women enjoy greater equality in the professions and earnings than in many Western countries. Islam's insistence on an egalitarian society and the right of individuals to improve their living standards has resulted in one of the highest per capita incomes in the developing world, almost 80% home ownership and one of the lowest poverty levels in the world.
President Bush acknowledged this when he praised Tunisia for establishing a "modern and viable education system and for giving equal rights to women".
There are few better examples of the living proof of the Islamic spirit of respect for other religions and races than Tunisia. People of different ethnic backgrounds have lived together so intimately and so easily that, when you are in Tunisia, even the idea of looking at people's colour seems as preposterous as grouping people according to height or weight.
Equally preposterous is the idea of cordoning people according to their faiths. Islam demands respect for all religions. There is a very sizeable community of Jews who have lived happily and prosperously in Tunisia for hundreds of years. The El Ghriba synagogue in Jerba is one of the most important Jewish shrines and thousands of Jews from all over the world attend annual celebrations Lag be Omer.
Seeking after knowledge, progressing, working hard for yourself and your community, equality of the sexes, justice before the law, respect for other faiths and creeds, helping the poor and always striving to do good are all part of the letter and spirit of Islam. This is not 'moderate' Islam as is sometimes erroneously labelled. It is Islam pure and simple.
Therefore, that Tunisia is modern, progressive, prosperous, at peace with its neighbours and itself and Islamic is not a contradiction of terms. Tunisians will tell you that it is because they have remained true to the real spirit of Islam that other boons have followed.
This is an important distinction to make--especially in the West where a distorted view of Islam, based on the activities of a few who also claim to be Muslims, has sometimes reached dangerous proportions and in fact, has provided the so called 'fundamentalists' with a significance and size well out of proportion to their real, minute dimensions.
HOME GROWN DEMOCRACY
There is another, unfortunately widely held misconception in the West that for some reason or the other, Islam and democracy do not mix. This is the opposite of the true state of affairs. Everything in Islam promotes the ideal of democracy from the concept of the ummah, the duties of elected officials, taxation, social welfare, a fluid legislation, checks and balances and the protection of human rights. Autocratic rule is un-Islamic. Some of the countries which are predominantly Muslim, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Senegal, Mall, Tanzania, Sudan, Iran and so on are all fully functioning democracies, If a handful of states which are autocratic also happen to have Muslim majorities, it does not follow that all states which have Muslim majorities are automatically autocratic.
However, all democratic states, by definition, shape and construct their systems of government according to their national priorities, their histories, their cultures, their value systems. One size does not fit all the British parliamentary system with a constitutional monarchy, the American federal system with an executive president, the French presidential/prime-ministerial system, the German federal organisation with a chancellor at the head all are democracies shaped by their societies.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell recognized this distinction during his visit to Tunis in December when he said that the US did not wish to export its model of democracy but was keen to see the installation of democracies where they do not exist. On this point, he will find nobody to quarrel with in the region--the struggle for most people in this area for the last 50 years has been precisely that--a democracy cut from their own cloth.
Tunisia is a model Arab and Muslim state and it is where most other countries in the region want to reach, its continued success is proof that Islam and modernity go hand in hand. It is also a body blow to those who for political reasons, seek to persuade the world that Islam and modernity are mutually exclusive and that to chose one is to lose the other.
Tunisia's own battle against terrorism, when political groups, pretending to be Islamic but in reality distorting Islam completely out of shape in order to create a state of anarchy, was fought and won long before America woke up to the reality of this horror on September 11.
Thus, at this juncture in the world's history, when many pieces are in flux, President Ben Ali's visit to the US assumed a significance well beyond diplomatic and trade relationships. This visit could lay the ground for rearranging the pieces in the Arab world so that order can be restored to chaos, peace can be given a chance to prevail, hostility can be transformed into friendship, suspicions can be laid aside, respect for each other's needs can be recognised and a strong partnership can be forged.
TUNISIA: MAIN INDICATORS
* GOVERNMENT Multi-party democracy.
* HEAD OF STATE President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
* POPULATION 9.8m (2002).
* MAJOR CITIES Tunis (capital),Sfax, Bizerte, Sousse.
* TIME ZONE GMT+1.
* CLIMATE Mild in the north and along the coast Semi-arid in interior and south
* TEMPERATURES December 11.4 Celsius. July 29.3 Celsius.
* CURRENCY TND 1.51550 (Tunisian Dinar) = 1 (February 2004).
* NATURAL RESOURCES Oil, phosphates, iron ore, lead, zinc, salt.
* DEMOGRAPHIC GROWTH RATE 1.1% (2001)
* LIFE EXPECTANCY 72.9years (2001)
* LANGUAGES Arabic (official) French widely spoken, some English, Italian and German
* RELIGION Islamic majority, Christian and Judaism.
* ADULT LITERACY RATE 74.4% (2000)
* GROSS DOMESTIC PRODUCT TND 32.203m (2003)
* GNP PER CAPITA TND 3,125 (2003)