New York University’s Law School — Lipton Hall Monday, April 9, 2012
In cooperation with The Scholars at Risk Network, NYU Abu Dhabi, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the NYU School of Law, and Human Rights Watch
Mustapha Tlili, Founder and Director of the New York University Center for Dialogues: Islamic World — U.S. — The West, opened the panel discussion with reflections on his personal experience of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. On January 20, 2011, in response to ex–president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s abdication on January 14, 2011, Professor Tlili proudly wrote in a syndicated column, “The protesters who ended Ben Ali’s regime are the educated sons and daughters of the large, secular middle class that was built over decades by Habib Bourguiba. Prior to his rule, even before the French takeover in 1881, a line of nationalist leaders stretching back to the late eighteenth century looked to Europe and the Enlightenment for solutions to the country’s problems. Tunisian identity was shaped by this specific history.” 1
In this article, Professor Tlili was echoing another great modernist, Tunisian political leader, human rights activist, thinker, and educator, Mohamed Charfi, who passed away in 2008. Charfi had written in a column published by The New York Times on March 12, 2002, “Our hope is that young Tunisians, through a more secular education, can be brought up to value individual liberty and openness to others. Combined with the emancipation of women and universal education — all of which were part of President Habib Bourguiba’s reforms, beginning in the late 50’s — this educational system is already helping to form a more modern society.” 2
Although the Jasmine Revolution spread rapidly across Arab lands from Egypt to Syria, Professor Tlili argued that the so–called “Arab Spring” did not last. In Tunisia as elsewhere, he stated, the chills of winter were soon perceptible in the Islamists’ discourse, no longer tempered by the old regimes’ repression. Though their discourse was initially timid, tactical, and measured, Professor Tlili observed that it has become more assertive and more unabashedly radical since the Islamists won a relative majority in democratic elections — close to 19% of the total electorate.
This perceptible shift in discourse has raised several critical questions for Professor Tlili about the ultimate success of the Jasmine Revolution. Has the international community misread the revolution and its meaning? Are we seeing a repetition of one of history’s darkest trends — by which a determined, ideologically zealous minority hijacks a popular, authentic, and progressive revolution, and gains control through any possible means, including coercion or violence? Citing examples of this phenomenon from the Bolsheviks in 1917, to the Nazis and Fascists in the 1930s, to the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, Professor Tlili asked: is the pattern repeating itself in the Arab world?
Professor Tlili then laid out what he saw as the primary principles upon which a new Tunisian constitution should be based. He declared that it is impossible to say how long this “winter” will last if the world’s liberal democracies do not hold the new Islamist regime in Tunisia to the values enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Other democracies must signify that in a free, democratic, and civilized society, violent actions — such as forcing women to wear the veil, attacking intellectuals, artists, and minorities, and promoting hatred — are unacceptable.
It is even more unacceptable, he continued, that the Islamist government grants fanatics the “freedom of expression” to commit these vile acts, instead of taking firm steps to protect the rights and liberties Tunisians fought for in their exemplary revolution. Professor Tlili warned that the government must change its course to save Tunisia's honor and its image in the eyes of the world. He also cautioned that if the international community is not vigilant, what is happening today in Tunisia — a country with an educated middle class and a deep love of life, tolerance, and openness — could happen tomorrow in less fortunate lands such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. If so, the resulting Arab winter could be catastrophic. As has happened previously in Islamic history, it could last decades or longer, rolling back the gains of human reason and progress not only in the Arab world but most likely in the larger Muslim world as well. The people of these countries would pay a terrible price in terms of backwardness and poverty. Professor Tlili called upon liberal democracies to stand up for the universal values on which their political systems are based and not to forget that backwardness, poverty, and fanaticism in one country can have devastating international consequences, as evidenced in the last decade by the tragedy of September 11, 2001 and the bombings in London and Madrid. These are the grave considerations that the panelists would be asked to discuss.
Professor Tlili then introduced the panelists and thanked the co–organizer of the event, The Scholars at Risk Network, and the co–sponsors of the event: NYU Abu Dhabi, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at the NYU School of Law, and Human Rights Watch.
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