Tunisia’s president Zeinal-Abidin Ben Ali is no ‘democrat’ by any stretch of the imagination, while his vicious crackdown on the country’s Islamic movement is well-documented. Yet Pope John Paul II has elected to throw his weight behind him in a false quest for religious tolerance in general and a dialogue between Muslims and Christians in particular.
The Pope went to Tunisia on a 10-hour official visit on April 14 ‘to strengthen links with this tolerant Islamic country,’ as a Rome radio put it the same day. He was warmly greeted at the airport by Ben Ali, who was clearly happy to make political, and religious, capital out of the visit.
The Tunisian president hailed the pontiff as a champion of religious tolerance and an advocate of ‘a dialogue between monotheistic religions’. He claimed that the Pope’s presence in Tunis ‘underlines our shared belief in the principles of tolerance and dialogue. ‘
Ben Ali who has banned An-Nahdha, the Islamic movement in the country, driven its leaders into exile, and imprisoned and tortured its supporters, appealed for religious reconciliation and tolerance.
‘We must all show the courage and wisdom necessary to end divisions as well as hatred, root out the causes of extremism and terrorism, and lay the foundations of co-existence and tolerance among all nations, religions and civilizations,’ he said. He vowed that Tunisia would continue on ‘the road towards dialogue and resist any form of fundamentalism’.
The Pope was equally effusive about the need for dialogue and peace between the ‘three monotheistic religions and peoples of the Mediterranean basin who have all in some way a common destiny.’ But he made a special plea for a ‘deeper and more determined dialogue’ between Christians and Muslims in ‘a spirit of mutual respect and welcome.
The pontiff said he was especially anguished by the situation in the Middle East and in Liberia, making the following plea: ‘We cannot forget our brothers in Liberia and the Middle East, who are once more forced to fight against armed violence. I think especially of the civilian populations, innocent victims of the conflicts. Let nobody be indifferent to these dramas. and may these peoples find the courage to rebuild peace.’
Analysts interpreted the words ‘armed violence’ as a clear reference to Algeria, where about 50,000 people have died as a result of the Algerian junta’s war on the Islamic resistance, and as an indirect condemnation of the Islamic activists. He prayed for the release of the seven Trappist monks taken prisoner on March 27 (Their abduction was blamed on Islamic activists by the Algerian regime).
The Vatican head also appealed to Tunisia to ‘send messengers of peace’ to zones of conflict, yet another reference to Algeria. The appeal pre-supposes that Tunisia is a tolerant and peaceful country despite Ben Ali’s dictatorial rule and his bloody crackdown on An-Nahdha as well as secular opponents of the regime.
Ben Ali, who came to power on November 7, 1987, began his swoop on the movement following its capture of nearly 15 percent of the vote in the 1989 municipal elections. By 1992, An-Nahdha was crushed. A lucky few of its leaders escaped into exile: 250 others got long sentences, while thousands of sympathizers suffered harassment, including prison and torture. Secular opposition leaders were also caught in the sweep.
The president expanded the police force four-fold, expelled representatives of the foreign press and infiltrated the local media, emasculating it in the process. In 1994, Ben Ali had himself re-elected president by a margin of 99 percent. To dispel any doubts about his will to rule supreme, he subsequently imprisoned his only seriously challenger in the poll.
The Pope was clearly not concerned about these issues. Nor was he concerned about the ‘innocent civilians’ in the Middle East conflict despite his urgent appeals. The simplest and most direct way of expressing that concern was to appeal to Israel to halt its massacre of innocent Muslims in southern Lebanon as well as the destruction of their homes and infrastructure. He failed to do so directly or indirectly, and his appeal for a dialogue between ‘the three monotheistic religions’ is, therefore, meaningless.
The Pope’s visit to Tunisia, the first to Muslim North Africa, can only be seen as an extension of his evangelical campaigns in sub-Saharan Africa.
Muslimedia - April 1996-August 1996