The popular song "Happy" by American rapper Pharrell Williams has become a vehicle of liberal self-expression in, of all places, Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Three years after the start of the rebellion that toppled not only Tunisia's dictator but Egypt's Mubarak and Libya's Qaddhafi, the country remains tense, with Islamists at bay for now but still a menacing presence. Young Tunisians have taken up dancing to the song
as a way of letting off steam and defying the Islamists who disapprove of dancing as "debauchery and moral decay". Several compilation videos, grouped by city, have been posted on YouTube -- here's one from Bizerta:
In a few cases the confrontation between fun and fundamentalism has been more explicit. Last year Islamists attacked schools
staging productions of the "Harlem Shake" dance, but were driven off by students.
Such clashes are part of what I call the global culture war
-- it wouldn't be difficult to identify equivalents of both sides in our own country. The string of countries from Egypt to Morocco which we usually call "North Africa" -- though I think "South Mediterranean" is a more accurate name for the region -- illustrates particularly well the conflict between modernity and freedom on the one hand, and malignant traditionalism on the other, which is going on in various forms in many cultures.
It also illustrates the fallacy of paradigms such as Huntingdon's "clash of civilizations" which allocates the various countries into one or another cultural bloc, dividing the map into neat geographical regions such as the West, the Islamic world, Latin America, etc. People tend to like such models -- they're easy to understand -- but in many cases they don't represent reality very well.
For example, the Maghrib region (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco) is colored in as part of the Islamic world along with, say, Somalia and Saudi Arabia. But how useful or even accurate is that in describing what the region is actually like? Not at all, really.
Islam is the predominant religion, of course, but as Ibn Warraq
has pointed out, there's abundant evidence that serious doubt about Islam and even outright atheism are widespread in many Muslim populations, even if social norms and Islamist brutality make it unwise to express such views openly. Moreover, as in the United States, there are millions (perhaps majorities in some countries) who claim membership in the religion of their ancestors out of cultural inertia while disregarding most of its tenets in practice. Do you think Khomeini or bin Laden would recognize the video above as a product of an "Islamic" society?
The Maghrib is also Arabic-speaking, but that statement requires even more qualifications. The original Berber languages spoken there before the Muslim conquest still persist in some areas, especially towards the west. More important is the presence of another language -- French.
France ruled the Maghrib during the colonial era and left its language there, but the situation is very different from the limited elite role of English in former British colonies such as India. In Tunisia, 58 years after independence, two-thirds of the population still speaks French and the language is omnipresent in everything from street signs to the media to higher education -- this despite a fairly consistent government policy of emphasizing Arabic. Algeria has the world's second-largest French-speaking population after France itself. In 1993, 49% of Algerians spoke French, and by 2000 the figure had reached 60%
-- that is, the use of French is increasing
over time despite, again, government policy favoring Arabic. This isn't an elitist colonial remnant; these are de facto
As one might expect, the languages have become enlisted in the culture war, as Islamists emphasize Arabic and secularists emphasize French (in Algeria, Islamist anti-government rebels have sometimes targeted French-language teachers for murder). The internet and satellite TV are strengthening French further by increasing access to France's media, which in turn act as a conduit for Western cultural influences.
As with many countries, the history of the Maghrib is one of successive invasions which brought different influences -- Roman, Muslim, and most recently French. It's a drastic error to declare only the Muslim influences to be the true identity of the region, and everything else extraneous.
It's true that Algeria and Morocco still have authoritarian regimes, but the same was true of Spain and Portugal until a few decades ago, and they are solid members of democratic Europe now. Tunisia is already breaking the mold, with a promising new constitution
which, in some ways, looks more progressive
than our own, though of course the real test will be how it is applied in practice.
Those who fret over the presence of relatively small Muslim minorities in western Europe (which are, in any case, mostly becoming assimilated
into the host countries) are missing the far bigger and more important influences in the opposite direction. In hindsight this is no surprise. Mecca cannot compete with Paris, and people who have a choice will always choose light and color and vitality over the grey scowl of the puritan -- whether they live in North America or the South Mediterranean.