Tunisia’s civility vs. Turkey’s crudeness

Tunisia’s civility vs. Turkey’s crudeness

If there is a single bright spot in the Muslim world today, it is undoubtedly Tunisia. Tunisia is of course the country that initiated the “Arab Spring” more than five years ago, and it has managed to avoid becoming a disaster through civil war, a military coup, or a restored tyranny. Rather, Tunisians moved on to democracy, by enacting the most liberal constitution the Muslim world has ever seen.

 Tunisia therefore is now the only country in the Muslim world that ranks as “free” in the global map of political liberty issued every year by the Freedom House think tank. In contrast, Turkey, once imagined as a “model” country, is now only “partly free,” and is falling down the scale at full speed. Regarding freedom of press, it joined the “not free” category last year.

So what is Tunisia’s secret, which is so lacking in Turkey? Some may simply find the answer in Turkey’s “Islamism,” with a reference to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But alas there are Islamists in Tunisia too, organized under the Ennahda party. They are no less Islamic than their Turkish counterparts.

Quite the contrary, they may be even more Islamic in ideology and practice. But they still have a huge difference: While the AKP is zealously confrontational and triumphalist, Ennahda is impressively reconciliatory.

This reconciliation ideal was heavily emphasized by Ennahda’s wise leader, Rached Ghannouchi, at the party congress held in Tunis on May 20. “As we have said repeatedly,” he noted: “We are for a comprehensive national reconciliation and for cooperation and consensus-building with all those who recognize the revolution and its martyrs and respect the Constitution – Islamists, Destourians, Leftists, and all intellectual and political trends, so we can all go forward steadily toward a future that is free of grudges and exclusion.”

The “Destourians” here was a reference to the Socialist Destourian Party, Tunisia’s secularist ruling cadre for decades, which has historically been Ennahda’s “other.” It can be seen as being a bit like what the Republican People’s Party (CHP) is for the AKP. But while you hear only contempt for the CHP from the AKP crowd, Ghannouchi offered a partnership “towards a future that is free of grudges and exclusion.” 

“This also applies to the way we view our history,” he added. He listed many prominent figures from the recent history of Tunisia, including Habib Bourguiba, who is typically the iconic secularist autocrat despised by Islamists. For Ghannouchi, figures like Bourguiba are rather “leading symbols of our dear nation, as sources of inspiration for us all, which must all enjoy our respect. They undoubtedly made their mistakes, but we take the positives and build on them.”

Again, you never hear anything like this from the AKP folks. For them, history is nothing but a warzone between good and evil, the virtuous and the vicious. (And, of course, they themselves are, by definition, the good and virtuous ones.) Reconciliation with the evil enemy is neither possible nor desired. Those who call for such Pollyannaish ideas are either soulless sissies or manipulative traitors.

Of course, this combative culture is not limited to the AKP. It is a national Turkish problem, as historian Şükrü Hanioğlu noted in a recent piece that contrasted Turkey and Tunisia. Ghannouchi-style civility does not work in Turkey, as chest-beating leaders are always preferred over hand-shaking ones. That is why, at the end of the day, our current problem is less our ruling Islamism, more the crudeness of those who define it.