11 February 2014

Happy Tunisia and a few observations on the South Mediterranean

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 bilingual societies.

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 being 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 the US or the South Mediterranean.


Anonymous Zosimus the Heathen said...

An interesting piece. I agree with your point that North Africa could, in many ways, be more accurately described as the "South Mediterranean", as the countries of it often seem to be considered barely part of Africa at all! Certainly, they're considered totally different entities from the nations of so-called sub-Saharan Africa, which tends to be regarded by many as the "real" Africa. (Though even there, it's complicated as the five large countries of the Sahel - Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Chad and Sudan - often seem like weird hybrids of the Arab North and the black South. As you say, the various regions of the world defy easy categorization.) Indeed, I sometimes get the impression that the countries of North Africa are considered by many to be de facto European nations (funnily enough, a Lonely Planet guide I once found on Europe actually had a chapter dedicated to Morocco!).

You raise a good point when you mention that Islam has been but one of many historical influences in North Africa. Shortly after Qaddafi's overthrow in Libya, I read a few books on the country (mainly to see why Wacky Qaddafi had become so hated by his own people - funnily enough, for reasons I can't really recall, I idolized the guy myself as a naive, idealistic teenager!), and discovered that it had a very long and complicated history, the Arabs and their religion of Islam playing only a part in the shaping of that history. (Coming as I do from a country that's only existed (officially at least) for a little over 200 years, I find it easy to forget that some countries have been around a lot longer!)

Your mention of the French colonial influence in some parts of North Africa was also interesting. From what I've heard, a lot of people in so-called Francophone Africa have fond feelings towards France; some, in fact, seem to give the impression they're trying to be more French than the French themselves!

12 February, 2014 00:43  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Zosimus: Thanks! Historically, the Sahara has always been a much stronger barrier to culture and gene flow than the Mediterranean, and of course the Mediterranean was the center of interconnected cultures and settlements for millennia before the rise of the Abrahamic religions changed it into a boundary between two hostile camps. I've seen maps of the Roman Empire where it was called "Mare Internum", for good reason. Aside from French influence, North Africa has Roman ruins all over the place, reminders of an ancient heritage shared with Europe.

An excellent report on Libya under Qaddhafi is here. No surprise that Libyans hated his guts.

It's hard for Australians or Americans to grasp the complexity of the histories of the much older countries of Europe and the Middle East. This is another reason it irritates me that the latter are flatly tarred as "Islamic" when most of them have histories which extend back long before Muhammad, and in some cases have roots they consider tie them to Europe.

I imagine secular-minded Maghribis value Western-style (especially French) civilization all the more for living in countries where they have deranged and violent Islamists to contend with.

12 February, 2014 13:02  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"...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."

Or the fundamentalist red states where young people are moving away from the grey scowl of the puritan Christianists. It's happening slowly, ever slowly. But it is happening.

13 February, 2014 17:55  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Shaw: That's my point -- the culture war is basically the same fight everywhere, whether it's Massachusetts or Alabama or Algeria. It's just that the opposing sides are different in relative strength in different places.

14 February, 2014 07:58  
Blogger CAS said...

This is a wonderful, uplifting post. I hope you're right that the Paris' of the world will win out over the Meccas. I remember when people were blasting Happy across Tunisia. The trend went viral and young people started doing the same thing throughout the Middle East. In Iran, people were arrested and subjected to beatings. The problem is that the extremists are willing to abandon all semblance of human and moral decency in promoting their agenda. One side in this war is willing to stop at nothing, the other side maintains a live-and-let-live perspective on life. Fear and deprivation are great weapons for stifling dissent.

I tend to agree with you that the "good" side will eventually prevail but a part of me worries that a minority of bad actors will destroy us before that can take place. I see you wrote this in 2014. I wonder if Trump's 2016 victory and the very close election of 2020, have changed your perspective at all.

27 December, 2020 10:31  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

CAS: Thanks! The very fact that the puritans resort to arrests and beatings as punishment for things like dancing shows both a strength and a weakness. Yes, they are willing to use brute force without restraint, and that makes them dangerous and intimidating. But it also shows that force is all they have. As soon as the regime falls or changes -- and all regimes eventually do -- the taboos will collapse. Who, except for a small minority of real fanatics, would voluntarily live in such a way?

Trumpism was a setback, but mainly confined to the US, and I think the longer view will give us more perspective. Something like the Trump administration always seems like a huge disaster while you're living through it. Twenty years from now, I think we'll look back on it as more of a speed bump. I tend to take the big-picture view. You may have noticed the motto I use here and there on the blog: "Leaders come and go. Political parties come and go. Nations come and go. The essential struggle continues."

29 December, 2020 02:38  
Blogger CAS said...

Thanks for pointing out your motto. I may have seen it but didn't realize it represented one of your core beliefs. I'm glad to know that your outlook is essentially a positive one. In many ways, mankind continues to advance.

I hope Trump's influence quickly evaporates after he's out of office but I'd like this administration to go down in history as a disaster that should never be repeated.

29 December, 2020 08:54  

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