Careful what you wish for: Radical Islamists ride in on the heels of pro-Democracy protesters

Tunisia’s deep-rooted secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women’s rights including legal brothels are about to fall to the REAL tyranny threatening the Arab world: Islamic fundamentalists and their own brutal puritanism and oppression of women.

UK DAILY MAIL(H/T Maria) – A few hundred metres from the main mosque in the heart of Tunis’s old quarter lies Abdallah Guech Street, a red-light district which has thrived since the 19th century. Here, the Ottomans legalised and regulated prostitution — as they had in much of the rest of the Muslim world.

Uniquely, though, in the Arab world, the tradition in Tunisia endured. Every one of the country’s historic quarters boasts bordellos; even, most remarkably, Kairouan, Islam’s fourth holiest city.

In keeping with Tunisia’s deep-rooted secularism and unprecedented championing of Muslim women’s rights, the prostitutes carry cards issued by the Interior Ministry, pay taxes like everyone else and enjoy (along with their clients) the full protection of the law.

Or at least they did until last month’s Jasmine Revolution. But last week, faster than you could scream ‘Allahu Akbar’, hundreds of Islamists raided Abdallah Guech Street armed with Molotov cocktails and knives, torching the brothels, yelling insults at the prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamist state.

As soldiers fired into the air to disperse them, the Islamists won a promise
from the interim government that the brothels would be permanently closed.

In other cities, brothels were targeted, too; and there have been demonstrations throughout the country — whose economy is heavily dependent on the vibrant tourism industry — against the sale of alcohol.

Suspected Islamists otherwise preoccupied themselves with slitting the throat of a Polish Catholic priest, which, if confirmed, would be the first such sectarian murder in modern Tunisian history. And anti-Semitic slogans could be heard outside Tunisia’s main synagogue: this in a country with no history of persecution of its Jewish minority.

Demonstrators shout slogans on Habib Bourguiba Avenue on February 19, 2011 in Tunis as they take part in a protest for a secular state following the murder of a Polish Priest, verbal attacks on Jews and an attempt by Islamists to set light to a brothel. The sign reads: “Muslims, Christans, Jews, we are all Tunisians.”

When the Tunisian revolution started last month, it was hailed as a template for the rest of the Arab world. But if revolutions are judged by their outcomes rather than their intentions, then the story of post-revolution Tunisia is equally instructive. The world’s attention has quickly moved on — to Egypt, Bahrain, Libya or the next theatre of this extraordinary, fast-moving drama.

The phrase ‘Arab Spring’ is being touted as if we were witnessing an unambiguous leap forward for ordinary Arabs: history marching towards democracy and pluralism. No one wishes to contemplate, let alone prepare for, the alternative — that this might end in the restoration of authoritarian rule or, worse, the triumph of a radical Islam.

The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only political group of any note. The key to being optimistic about Egypt’s future — and the Arab world more generally — is not to look too closely at what is happening on the ground. And to pay as little attention as possible to the events in Tunisia.

For all its restrictions on direct political participation, for decades, Tunisia was the most secular and progressive country the Islamic world has ever known. The regime was the least brutal in the region, its people the wealthiest and best educated.

The poverty level was just 4  per cent when the revolution broke out, which is among the lowest in the world. Eighty per cent of the population belonged to the middle class. And the education system — allocated more funding than the army — ranked 17th globally in terms of quality. The veil was banned in public institutions, polygamy was outlawed, mosques were shuttered outside prayer times, and men needed permission from the local police to grow a beard.

It was the only Muslim country where abortion was legal, where frank sex education was compulsory in schools, and where children had it drummed into their heads that religion and politics were distinct and separate.

Radical Islamists opposed to this strict secular order were either exiled or imprisoned. Now, however, with the collapse of the old order, the Islamists are starting to come back — with a vengeance.

At least one group saw the warning signs. A few weeks before the Islamist-led violence, a small and peaceful protest was held by secular women against any move towards a more Islamist way of life.

They gathered when news broke of the imminent return from exile in London of 69-year-old Rachid Ghannouchi, the ‘moderate’ leader of Tunisia’s (previously banned) Ennahdha Islamist movement. Ghannouchi has been careful to distance himself from the subsequent violence. But in retrospect, the women clearly had genuine cause for concern, both at his return and the simultaneous mass release of Islamists from Tunisia’s prisons — and all in the name of the country’s new pluralism.

The West, it seems to me, should be equally troubled. If these notoriously ‘moderate’ Islamists, while still a minority and in the infancy of their campaign, can hijack such a modern, sophisticated and secular Arab country in a matter of days, what could await the wider region, where secularism is already anathema and Wahhabi-inspired Islam has, in many instances, a firm foothold?

Islamists seldom want to take control of the government machine; they have little interest in setting tax or energy policy. The influence they seek is cultural totalitarianism. Bereft of sensible — let alone practical — solutions to the real ills that plague their societies, they aim to Islamise society from below. And principally by tackling a subject close to everyone’s heart: sex.

The events in Tunisia are merely an echo of what has been happening in the region for a decade. In Yemen, Islamists have long since been busy raiding alleged brothels and campaigning against all other forms of what they denounce — wrongly — as imported western decadence. In Bahrain, too, the Islamists have explicitly dedicated themselves to clamping down on prostitution and the sale of alcohol.

What the Islamists need is a government sufficiently biddable to allow them to impose their cultural tyranny — and to succeed, they don’t need majority support. All the Islamists require is to be louder, more forceful and better organised than their opponents.