Tunisia: The Virtues of Education

A very unusual political and social event happened in a Muslim country in May 2016. Rasheed Ghannouchi, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood Ennahda Party in Tunisia, announced his decision to separate the political element of the party from religious activities. He stressed that he was aware of the advances the country had made in the fields of education, women’s rights and health and would strive to further them while distancing religion from political conflicts. This move, which runs contrary to the tenets of the Muslim Brotherhood, can be attributed to the powerful political and social developments taking place in Tunisia. Ennahda believed—however reluctantly—that it had to make these changes in order to survive.

The party had found itself confronted by an “enemy” which could not be swayed by the traditional tools of preaching and threats of violence: education. Countless studies have shown that, for better or worse, education is a key to changing ideology, as well as the predominant means of shaping personality. In a situation unique in the Arab world, the first two presidents of Tunisia favored a secular educational system which took root in the hearts and minds of many of the country’s citizens, changing thought processes while embracing modern values. The results are clearly seen today. The nation’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, who pioneered the secularization of Tunisia, boldly sipped a glass of orange juice on prime time television during the month of Ramadan, dumbfounding millions of viewers. On that occasion he stressed that economic development was more important than than faith. His successor, Zinedine Ben Ali, who pursued a similar path, could have made Tunisia the first country to be both Arab/Muslim and modern/democratic.

However, corruption was rampant under his regime, which became increasingly dictatorial, with complete disregard for human rights; he apparently didn’t realize that the liberal education he promoted, with its emphasis on human and civil rights, would produce a natural antagonism to dictatorships. Ultimately, education triumphed, leading to the popular uprising which ousted him from power and ignited the so-called “Arab Spring.”

Ghannouchi returned from exile and his party made an impressive showing at the first elections following the fall of the dictator, receiving 29 percent of the vote. The Ennahda Party, now under the leadership of its secretary general, Hamdi Jebali, formed a government with a coalition of small, secular parties. Yet, an insidious process of Islamization was soon underway. Banned Islamic scarves made their reappearances on the streets and even in institutes of higher learning. Salafist groups felt that they had been given free rein to promote their extremist views. Liberal forces were increasingly worried by Islamic encroachment on their daily lives. Spontaneous demonstrations erupted, counter demonstrations turned violent and two prominent liberal militants were assassinated by Salafists. Tunisia teetered on the brink while the government led by the Muslim Brotherhood showed itself helpless to restore order.

Rasheed Ghannouchi soon grasped that there was only one thing to do to save both the country and his party. He ordered Ennahda out of the government and suggested that a caretaker government composed of technocrats run the country until new elections could be held. (A measure that saved his party from the fate of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, where President Mohamed Morsi was ousted from power, and the Brotherhood declared a terror organization and banned.) In the 2014 elections, Ennahda, though no longer the leading party, still kept some measure of honor, having received the second largest number of votes.

The formidable wall of education erected by the first two presidents of Tunisia had withstood the assaults of radical Islam and won. The Muslim Brotherhood felt the need to retreat and regroup; hence, Ghannouchi’s decision to distance religion from politics and accept a process of liberalization (until the party could resume its path toward Islamization).

IMPACT-se, a research, policy and advocacy organization that monitors and analyzes schoolbooks in Middle-East countries has already published a number of in-depth studies on the educational curricula of the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iran, among others. In 2009, it produced a special report on Tunisia. Published in November of that year, it stated that Tunisian textbooks conformed to UNESCO’S international standards for peace and tolerance education. It concluded that they differed considerably from the books of other Arab countries; they were the only ones forcefully calling for tolerance and coexistence of the “other,” while rejecting all forms of discrimination.

In this context, Islam is presented as a means of fostering an atmosphere of rapprochement with non-Muslims—rather than a means of alienation. Furthermore, the history of Tunisia is presented in a relatively neutral way—past conflicts with Christianity (including the colonial period) are not used to demonize the West, as is often done in Arab countries. So there is an emphasis on openness to Western culture and universal values with a focus on cooperation—once again in sharp contrast to what is generally taught in other Arab countries.

Education has indeed become a potent factor: for the first time in the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, a “sister” movement has announced publicly that it is making a significant change regarding principles based on its ideology—something inherently in contradiction with its basic tenets. Since its creation in 1928, the movement has fought for a return to the values of Islam and the restoration of the Caliphate through jihad—that is, by force.

However, there should be no mistake: Ennahda’s move is merely tactical (and therefore temporary).

What remains to be seen is the direction the Middle East will take in the coming years. Will political Islam succeed to establish itself throughout the region? Or will religious antagonisms die down, leading to the establishment of more liberal entities, while paving the way for people to advance to greater democracy and integration in a global world? For that option to succeed, education based on universal values is needed, which IMPACT is working tirelessly to promote.