By Dr. Douja Mamelouk
The March 7th events at the University of Mannouba in Tunis drew my attention this week: could this be a wake-up call? A salafi who is not a student at the university took down the Tunisian flag from the rooftop of the university and replaced it with the salafi black flag – inscribed in Arabic with la ilaha illa Allah Muhammad rasul Allah (“There is no God but God and Muhammad is His prophet”). We Tunisians say this phrase many times a day; when we are surprised for instance, we say la ilaha illa Allah (there is no God but God) or when we forget something. But in this incident, a salafi took down the Tunisian flag and by doing so he challenged the nation. How the words on the flag affect us is a personal matter – but dishonoring the flag is a political matter – it is illegal and it offended most Tunisians not to say all.
More impressive is the fact that a female student climbed the wall, walked toward the flag attempting to replace it with the Tunisian flag and confronted the salafi on his action. The latter pushed her onto the roof of the university where they were both standing. Interestingly, once she was physically attacked, several young men came to her rescue. Someone dared to defy the Tunisian flag and now he must deal with many angry Tunisians, who immediately reacted on Facebook and Twitter. Similar to the days before and after 14th January 2011, people changed their profile pictures to the Tunisian flag.
Perhaps the salafi who decided that the Tunisian flag was not to his taste does not know that the red Tunisian flag signifies the blood of the martyrs who battled French colonization. Tunisians take pride in their flag. The reaction to the incident demonstrates that this flag unites them, regardless of political or religious affiliations.
Apparently, the salafi in question felt that the Tunisian flag did not represent him and decided to affirm a new identity found in the salafi flag, considered by some to be the banner of Islam. However, his gesture gives rise to philosophical debates about identity, representation and citizenship. One may criticize Bourguiba for many things, yet most Tunisians would agree that he instilled the concept of citizenship through a strong educational system. We still remember the national anthem being played every morning in high school and the lucky student of the day who was chosen to raise the flag. Despite the Ben Ali era, Tunisians still feel like citizens united under their red flag. It is a symbol of our Tunisianness despite how our despots attempted to use the flag to their advantage. Ben Ali attempted to present himself as the ‘protector’ of the flag and our nation. It is surprising that the police did not intervene and some witnesses say that they watched violence escalate from a distance. Before the revolution, the people were terrified of the police but after the revolution, it is the police who are terrified of the people.
Another positive instance in this negative incident, is the fact that one of the salafi protesters returned the Tunisian flag high upon its pole, suggesting that differences of opinion exist in all groups and that most remain committed to the notion that the flag represents all Tunisians. The salafi student’s gesture intelligently prevented further chaos amongst the different protesters present and proved that the incident was indeed an isolated one and not the expression of the salafis as a group.
The transition period is fraught with difficulties. Theoretically, the existence of political and religious debates within the university is a democratic and positive experience. Unfortunately it appears that a debate ends up in a fight in Tunisia at this time. When we may finally speak freely the reflex to revert to sophisticated verbal insults and violence remains present resulting from years of a political and religious void. Growing up in Tunisia, I thought the Tunisian youth had no political interests. In reality, we all knew what happened in the basement of the Ministry of Interior. Hence we lived our lives and avoided political debate.
Is it possible to see something positive in a shocking incident? Yes. A Tunisian woman stood up for citizenship and national identity: in her attempt to return the Tunisian flag the salafi pulled down, she courageously faced his manner of debate: violent assault. Hopefully, it remains an isolated incident. Larger issues face us and as the Egyptian historian Khaled Fahmy explains: “our educational institutions are never thought of as places for the production of knowledge.” (Egypt Independent, March 7, 2012) which is, in my opinion, the core of the problem. What happened to the production of knowledge at the University of Mannouba? Why and how has a university become the stage for our religious and political exhibitionist selves? I think the mission statement of our higher education institutions requires reevaluation. We need to learn how to think for ourselves and to establish a civil and civically conscious dialog that will lead us to the foundation of a strong and united nation. What better place to do this than at a university?
Perhaps the first step toward a civil debate between the different religious and political groups is admitting that they all have the right to exist. I think that we have become a bipolarized society (salafis versus secularists). When both groups are present in a forum they exchange insults and accusations: Secularists view the salafis as long-bearded closed-minded intolerant religious zealots and in return the salafis view secularists as atheistic Francophiles who are anti-Arab and anti-Islam. Isn’t it time to consider ourselves and others as Tunisian citizens with equal representation for everyone? The Tunisian flag should stand for all Tunisians as a reminder of a national collective identity, regardless of political and religious affiliations.
Dr. Douja Mamelouk was born and raised in Tunisia. She is an Assistant Professor of Arabic and French at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.