On Being Tunisian

In the wake of the recent violence in Tunisia, my mind is running. I am not scared for my safety — both because of the placid and privileged area we live in and because all of my experiences here have been so far from what happened on Friday. I am only scared that my university won’t understand this and will force us to leave.

In the last two weeks, I’ve been exposed to the Tunisia of tolerance, of liberalism, and of forward thinking. In many ways I see it here more than in the average American, and certainly more than the average American politician. Clearly, however, there is another side to the country. The side that Western media likes to focus on. Though it is not a dominant characteristic of Tunisia, that side has unfortunately come out of hiding. 

After the ridiculous and suspicious, (not sure exactly which of the many conspiracy theories to believe,) movie made its way across the world, we have started to feel the rumblings of anger here. As I said, I do not feel scared, nor attacked. This is more of an attack against Tunisia than against the US or the West. It is an attack against the country and its people for the obvious reasons: Tunisians were injured and affected, this will temporarily diminish tourism in a heavily tourism-based economy, and, as the filmmakers intended, this brought further negative connotations onto Tunisia and the greater Muslim world. But more profoundly, this was an attack on Tunisian identity.

During any substantial conversation with Tunisians I meet — from my host parents to a waiter who sat with us at a cafe — I am told with pride that Tunisia is the most tolerant, the most liberal, and the most open to those of different backgrounds. Skeptics may say that this has not always been true and that it’s easy to be so tolerant when your country is so homogenous. What is significant though, is that this is such a part of the identity of the people I’ve met. To these Tunisians, the Salafists are not “real Tunisians”. They have been influenced by the Gulf, by what they view as the more radical Middle East.

Probably partially as a result of the growth of Salafism in Tunisia, there is a growing movement to identify as Berber/Amazigh by those who want to distance from extremism. They’re still Muslim, and unlike Berber champions of Algeria and Morocco, they are still Arabic speakers. It is an identity movement about roots, about defining what it means to be Tunisian — a complicated task because of the many influences at play in the country. By identifying as Berber, you’re claiming to be an unadulterated Tunisian. You’re not standing with the French or European former colonizers, and you’re not with the Middle East.

By following in the footsteps of Libya’s and Egypt’s protests, Tunisian Salafists may have intended to startle Americans and defend their faith, but they ignored what this would do to their country. Now, when people find out I’m American, the first thing they do is apologize for what happened on Friday, but I feel that they are the ones who deserve an apology.

As October approaches and the transitional government is nearing its deadline for a new constitution, recent events may make put an obstacle in the way of moving forward. Many Tunisians have become disillusioned by An-Nahda’s flip flopping and incompetency, and sadly, with the revolution itself. Yet people speculate that the embassy attack will serve as a catalyst for An-Nahda’s holding onto power. The party can use it as an excuse to prolong the release of the new constitution and elections on the premise of security; or, they can use (and have used) it as a rhetorical tool to position themselves as a party that will defend Islam while separating from the more radical strands that would act violently to do so. As the anger around the video, (and American foreign policy,) subsides as it inevitably will, I can only hope for the best for this country that I am calling home for these few months. I hope that Tunisia will remain what I have seen to be truly Tunisian and that the post-Revolution steps forward are not hindered by the acts of people on the fringe.