Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: The Light of Our Sight; A School on Top of Every Hill

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Tunisia: The Light of Our Sight; A School on Top of Every Hill

Article excerpt

Virtually everyone the Washington Report spoke with in Tunisia--government ministers, a high school principal, college professor, women's affairs specialists, and Solidarity Fund bankers--voiced a common goal: every Tunisian agency must provide educational opportunities, a promising future, and an open society for each citizen. By providing hope, Tunisians say, they fight both religious fundamentalism and terrorism.

As University of Tunis Professor Mhamed Hassine Fantar pointed out, "When people feel marginalized or excluded they turn to radical behavior. Ignorance nourishes and fuels intolerance."

Dr. Fantar described his country's efforts to create a knowledge-based society. Coordinator of the [Tunisian President Zine El Abidine] Ben Ali Dialogue Between Civilizations and Religions, Fantar described education as the foundation of Tunisian society. "We have nearly reached our goal of 100 percent of Tunisia's children receiving education," he said.

Then he added something amazing: "At the top of every hill there must be a school, a research facility or a technology center.

"It is knowledge that destroys partitions between people and nations," he explained. "Our strategy has always been to remain unique in ourselves while accepting of others."

Tunisians have made Roman arches and mosaics their own, Fantar noted. Tunisian minarets take a different shape, as do their graves and tombs.

"Democracy is a tree," the philosopher declared. "Roots just can't grow in an untended field. It's important to prepare the soil, fertilize it. In Tunisia we are preparing the soil for democracy, but focusing on economic, social and educational development for our people.

"Tunisia is a Muslim country. We teach our children both to be proud of being Muslim and to accept Jews and Christians. All religions are trying to reach a holy state, and all ways to reach that state are good," Fantar said. "Religion is a language in which worshippers express themselves. The sermon, emotions, politics, and liturgy may change from mosque to church to synagogue, but the goal of each is the same.

"Religion is the best product of humans or the most dangerous. It's like electricity," Fantar cautioned. "It can kill if it isn't used properly."

Tunisia, he told the Washington Report, appoints its religious leaders. "We made the separation of religion and state an electoral law. No one can form a political party on the basis of religion."

As for charges leveled against Tunisia's human rights record, Fantar replied, "Every human has the right to social, educational and economic achievements, health care, housing, electricity and roads. Our government works to provide those human rights for its people. At the same time we guard against tribalism, extremism and intolerance."

Some, he added, would like to see women's rights disappear and fundamentalist ideas re-emerge. "The Tunisian majority will not ever let that happen," he stated.

Tunisians, Fantar concluded, are a "melted pot." The indigenous Berbers welcomed all invaders, he said, and treated each new arrival as a business opportunity. "We are all Tunisians. The theme of Tunisia is a country that works. At the end of the day its people are happy."

Ahmed Naija, president and director general of the Tunisian Bank of Solidarity (BTS), underscored the success of Tunisia's efforts to supply basic rights to all citizens. …

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