A PIVOTAL MEETING
The handshake between Tunisia's President Ben Ali and US leader George Bush was pregnant with far weightier symbolism than is usually the case when two heads of state meet. Ben Ali's visit to the US, accepting Bush's invitation delivered in person by US Secretary of State Colin Powell in December 2003 in Tunis, was laden with more import than cementing the existing excellent relations between the two countries. It was the coming together of two worlds, the Western and the Arab, at a time when tensions between the two are at snapping point.
Although Ben Ali travelled to the US solely in his capacity as Head of State of Tunisia, there was no doubt that the eyes of the Middle East and the north African Maghreb region (in eluding Algeria, Libya and Morocco) were fixed on him. Over the years, Tunisia's diplomatic skills have chiselled out a unique position for the country as the bridge between the world of Arab Islam and the West.
Tunisia's credentials in this regard are impeccable. Quietly, unpretentiously, but persistently, the country has acted the honest broken bringing together often disparate parties from the region and outside it to the negotiating table. The latest success was in working behind the scenes to persuade Libya to abandon its stance on weapons of mass destruction.
This point was highlighted by President Bush when he told Ben Ali: "Tunisia can help lead the greater Middle East to reform and freedom, something that I know is necessary for peace for the long term." Ben Ali responded: "We share principles together, Mr President and that is the establishment of states on the bases of democracy, human rights and combating terror."
Perhaps more importantly and this is a point often missed by Western observers al though Tunisia is situated on the African continent, it is Arabic and Muslim at heart.
The constitution and the legal system are secular but the official religion is Islam. Right from the time of its independence in 1956, the country's leadership stressed education for both boys and girls, as demanded by Islam. The result is that Tunisia has one of the world's highest literacy rates. The Islamic injunctions on the rights and high status of women over rode cultural and traditional mores on gender and today Tunisian women enjoy greater equality in the professions and earnings than in many Western countries. Islam's insistence on an egalitarian society and the right of individuals to improve their living standards has resulted in one of the highest per capita incomes in the developing world, almost 80% home ownership and one of the lowest poverty levels in the world.
President Bush acknowledged this when he praised Tunisia for establishing a "modern and viable education system and for giving equal rights to women".
There are few better examples of the living proof of the Islamic spirit of respect for other religions and races than Tunisia. People of different ethnic backgrounds have lived together so intimately and so easily that, when you are in Tunisia, even the idea of looking at people's colour seems as preposterous as grouping people according to height or weight.
Equally preposterous is the idea of cordoning people according to their faiths. Islam demands respect for all religions. There is a very sizeable community of Jews who have lived happily and prosperously in Tunisia for hundreds of years. The El Ghriba synagogue in Jerba is one of the most important Jewish shrines and thousands of Jews from all over the world attend annual celebrations Lag be Omer.
Seeking after knowledge, progressing, working hard for yourself and your community, equality of the sexes, justice before the law, respect for other faiths and creeds, helping the poor and always striving to do good are all part of the letter and spirit of Islam. This is not 'moderate' Islam as is sometimes …