On the December 17th 2010, a fruit vendor by the name of Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in front of the municipal police station in the small town of Sidi Bouzid to express his outrage at injustices within the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia that cut to the core of his existence. This act horrific in nature unleashed pent up angst among the long-suffering peoples of Tunisia. On December 18th they began to demonstrate and demand their right to be free of an oppressive regime that had controlled nearly all aspects of life for a quarter of a decade.
Much to the jubilation of the Tunisian peoples, Ben Ali fled for exile in Saudi Arabia on January 4th 2011. Surprising was the fairly peaceful end to a presidential tenure full of torture, political imprisonment and indirect acts of oppression proved as inspiration for other nearby countries to eject ruling regimes. And so then the Arab Spring was born.
Life under dictatorship meant that all spoken thoughts had to be censored and the freedom of expression was suppressed. The fall of the Ben Ali regime has given Tunisians an opening to move from a state of silence to an articulate voice of an outrage. Putting thoughts in print and calls for justice on the Internet a new generation of Tunisians are taking this opening of transitional justice to find thoughtful arguments demanding the basic right to the freedom of expression.
Aymen Zaghdoudi, a young scholar and cyber activist is taking this moment in history to write a treatise on the freedom of expression in Tunisia. A dissertation devoted to this topic could not have been written before December 17th 2010 yet now in this lighter atmosphere he has found his opening to think and write. Taking the thesis that Islam itself is not an obstacle to the freedom of expression, but rather those who interpret it in an orthodox manner. And in history he finds patterns between periods of decline in Islam coinciding when the freedom of expression was most suppressed.
Zaghdoudi is convinced that the way to change the mentality a Muslim nation is by using the key of Islam to open the door towards democracy and freedoms. I questioned him of the dangers of writing such a work. You are not implicating Islam as the obstacle, so by extension you are finding political leaders at fault.
Putting the ‘evolution’ in revolution
“The dictatorship is over of course,” Zaghdoudi notes. Even in this moment, while he fears people might interpret his writing as blasphemy against Islam he believes the risks of not speaking are graver than being jailed. During the dictatorship, Zaghdoudi yelled in his neighborhood coffee shop, “Fuck Ben Ali!” and found everyone running away from him in fear of being associated with such a statement. Guilt by association was a powerful method of control. The people were oppressed. Now he feels more confident to speak. Zaghdoudi’s impetus to write this project is his deep hope that this generation can be open minded and less offended. Tunisian society is very conservative and he finds that many believers, the most orthodox are prisoners of history pining for the past instead of creating a new future.
In America, our First Amendment right to the freedom of speech is the cornerstone to our functioning democracy. Citizens have the right to express whatever thought they have without the fear of governmental force, no matter how profound or scandalous. Creating a free society begins with the freedom of thought and speech. Without that, citizens can never truly be active participants.
Trading one dictatorship for another
In the wake of the Ben Ali dictatorship, there has been an opening for many to reenter into the political sphere. Parties once suppressed have reemerged. One is the Islamist party, the Ennahdha Movement. This party knew the experience of political imprisonment and in light of their reemergence place state and social security above notions of individual rights. Tunisia has a long history of being a progressive modern Muslim nation, granting women equal rights decades ago and is today vigilant in keeping extremists out of the country. Yet, it is worrisome that the president of the party Rachid Ghannouchi subjugates notions such as the freedom of expression, seeing it as a threat to the stability of society. Western notions of individual rights pollute the state of order. The justification of wanting to restrict in the future the freedom of speech sounds familiar. Dictatorships in the mid-decades of the 20th century in Latin America used such measures to control its populations and to maintain power. Much blood was shed to throw off those shackles of terror. While more acute in Latin America, the conditioning of the people to accept self-censorship in North Africa will only lead the country to a new diffused dictatorship revolving around the Islamist party. A society built without true liberty for the sake of maintaining order is a dictatorship.
Tunisia has freedom of religion but within the confines and dictates of a single dominate religion, Islam. The mantra within the Islamist party is to not challenge others beliefs, meaning do not defame the sacred. Yet, Tunisians must realize and lay claim to the most inherent right, a right most sacred their freedom to express.