Interview with Tunisian human rights activist Abu Khawla

AT contributor and blogger Stefania Lapennaa interviewed Tunisian liberal academic and human rights activist, Abu Khawla recently.

Tell us more about your commitment as human right activist.

  • As you mentioned, I'm a Tunisian academic and Human Rights activist. From 1996 to 2000 , I've been Secretary General and then President of the Tunisian Section of Amnesty International. Later, I moved to the Persian Gulf region where I presently reside. Over the past three years my activity shifted to writing. I am published on the leading Arab liberal website and some of my essays are posted in the English section of Midde East Transparent, as well. Elaph has more than 400 thousand readers per day. I deal with as different topics as women's rights and modernization in the Islamic world, the Palestinian issue, and economic development , that is my field of specialization. The Internet means freedom to me, indeed. I write with a pen name because of professional obligations. I also continue my Human Rights work. I used to coordinate a committee to defend Arab secularists threatened for their beliefs, and recently I attended a Zurich conference on minorities in the Middle East-North Africa regions.  
What's behind the success of the Islamic radical movements in the Middle East?

  • Government support and oil wealth. Governments intentionally support, directly or indirectly, the Islamists by providing them with more tribunes to disseminate their vies (mosques). They also back them when they fail to improve woman' status and reforming education, that would inevitable undermine the Islamists. In addition, governments try hard to harm the secular groups active in our countries. The latter emigrate abroad, creating a gap that Islamist groups will be eager to fill. In Egypt, the leader of an opposition party, Ayman Nour, is a liberal, not a Muslim Brother. The same goes with the blogger Kareem Nabil Soliman. The autocratic governments fail to deliver in matters of education and health. Oil wealth from the Persian Gulf gets in, sets up schools and clinics. That's how Hamas "democratically" defeated Fatah in the last Palestinian legislative election.
Are the Arab and Middle Eastern liberals as weak as they used to be for years?

  • The problem consists in their failure to organize as well as the lack of support by the West. Sometimes you have several groups in a country sharing similar views, but they fail to unite. Many liberals also try to join trade unions and political parties. The "war of ideas" with the Islamists doesn't seem to be a priority for them. On the other side, President Bush announced with great fanfare the creation of an Arabic TV "Al-Hurra" (Freedom) and yet no liberal group from Islamic countries received any support. Europeans aren't doing better in this respect.
Let's talk about a delicate issue: the promotion of democracy in the Middle East. Would Islamists win?

  • Unlike South America, Asia, and even Sub-Saharan Africa, Islamic countries so far failed to join the "democratic bandwagon", following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The only Muslim country that listed as "free" by Freedom House is Mali. Overall, I think that merely holding elections doesn't make a system democratic. The very few attempts to hold free elections in Muslim countries resulted in a total failure. In the 1980s, Sudan transferred power peacefully, then to pave the way for a coup engineered by Islamist leader Hassan Al-Tourabi, which brought about slaughter and destruction on the country. In Morocco, the freely elected government in the late 1990s had to give in to Islamists's opposition to reform women status. It's only in the aftermath of the Casa Blanca bomings on May 2003, that the King Mohammad VI started considering talking about women's rights. In Kuwait, the relatively free Parliament rejected for more than five years an Emir's decree allowing women to vote. Islamists ceased their opposition only in May 2006 when the government threatened to disband the Parliament altogether. Other 'freely elected Parliaments' faired no better. In Pakistan, fundamentalists are using elections in order to re-establish Sharia. In Jordan, Islamists are the main forces behind the defeat of a draft law aimed at punishing those responsible for "honor" killings.
What do you think can be done to empower the reformers?

  • Just a few, essential things: 1) Support modernization in these countries, mainly education and women issues. Western financial support should depend on what Islamic countries achieve in this respect; 2) Support reformers and liberals in the exile.To support only groups active in the Islamic world, as "The National Endowment for Democracy " in Washington is doing now is non-sense. If you are campaigning on the Internet or Satellite TV stations, your location does not count. This rule should be immediately abrogated. The war on terror should shift to the "ideas" front. After 9/11, there was some talk about a "war of ideas" . But talk is cheap. If Western democracies want to wage a war of ideas against radical Islamist forces, liberals from Muslim nations should be enlisted.
You attended a conference in Zurich, Switzerland, that led to the official creation of the "Organization for the Defense of Women and Minority Rights in the Middle East". Tell us more about this newly-created entity.

  • Religious minorities pay a huge price for their beliefs. The form of persecution may change, from mistreatment to fully-fledged extermination campaigns (Kurds in Iraq, Christians and Animists in Southern Sudan). And the so-called "Shaw" (awakening) of political Islamic movements will only make things worse. In Zurich there were representatives of the majority who defend the minority against all odds as well as Berbers, Kurds, Christians and Southern Sudanese. The project we debated about there is the creation of a platform to defende minorities in the Middle East and North Africa.  We'll ultimately have to wait and see how the project evolves and to what extent the newly created organization can deliver.
What's your take on the remarks made by Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddhafi, who claimed that "Berbers don't exist" and that "North Africa is Arab"?

  • Algerian President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika said similar things before. I prefer to refer to the Berbers as "Amazigh", that's their true name. There has actually been some improvement of their condition in Algeria and Morocco. Remarks like the ones made by Qaddhafi are absurd. However, in this era of communication, there will be no choice for the Libyan authorities but to respect the rights of the minorities. Qaddhafi's positions shifted several times in recent years. He may also change his mind in this respect, or he will be forced to.
Do you believe that, one day or another, even a minority of moderates will be able to pave the way for Enlightenment in the Middle East?

  • Absolutely. It's starting right now albeit in a disorganized manner. Liberals mobilization and Western support can accelerate things even further.
Thank you a lot for your time.

Stefania Lapenna is proprietor of the webiste
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