A world of fear: Tracking 'terror' in Tunisia

While I was visiting my family and friends in Tunisia this summer, I came across a new feeling, or maybe it is an impression -- a feeling or impression that I never encountered before in the country that is proud today to be called the sparkle of the "Arab Spring."  

I grew up there in the '80s. I remember seeing in people's eyes the fear of authority, humiliation, loss of dignity, the sorrow of poverty, suspicion, but I didn't see the "fear of terrorism." Even in the darkest hours of the country, during the '80s, when there were violent incidents attributed to Islamist militants, I didn't hear from people around me that they were afraid.

Was I young and carefree at the time? Was I naïve and unaware of the news around me? I have my doubts. I grew up in a house with a lot of newspapers, books, TV and radio, both local and foreign. My father was not complacent towards the regime and we were always hungry for political news.

But during my last visit, I saw something special, an impression of "déja vu." Every simple talk I had with family members and friends seemed to hint at the uncertain future, "fear of the terrorists," or simply, fear of the "other." Listening to the news in the car, I heard the speaker reporting on ongoing discussions in the "Assemblée Constituante," the elected assembly, about new "anti-terror legislation." I couldn't stand listening. I turned it off instantly. This tense environment brought me back to the troubled days of Canada in the post-9/11 era.

The difference was that while in Canada as a member of the Arab-Muslim community, I felt, sometimes understandingly, the target of suspicion. Nevertheless, in Tunisia I was not a member of any visible minorities and still everybody is scared of the "other." But who is the "other"?

If you are an Islamist, you are scared of the "old regime" coming back to power and putting you in jail. If you are from the "bourgeoisie," you are afraid of the hordes of the poor and their slums and diseases. If you are from the "old regime," you are scared of the "Islamists" and their hidden agenda of allowing polygamy and genital mutilation of little girls. If you are Tunisian, you are scared of the Libyans who are rumoured to have money and arms and who are blamed for all the economic and security problems of the country. And finally, the whole country agreed to be afraid of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Many times, I felt uneasy during those discussions as fear can't cohabit with rationality and without rationality democracy can't be built.

I couldn't stop thinking about how, after the events of 9/11, the U.S., Canada and many other Western democracies were plunged into an era where civil liberties were curtailed, where innocent people were jailed and others deported. I couldn't stop thinking about the role of some media outlets and authors in perpetuating old myths like "Canada was a safe heaven for terrorists" or about the imminent "Islamic tide" that would wipe us all out, and soon we would have "sharia-based tribunals" cutting hands and stoning women.

Today, the situation is not any different in Tunisia. Facebook, which as social media was assumed to have played a positive role in mobilizing youth against the tyrannical regime of Ben Ali, today has becomes a rumour-spreading machine, where "scared" people keep perpetuating and feeding one another "scary stories" about "the other" and maintaining social hysteria.

One can wonder: who is this environment benefiting?

In the U.S., post-9/11, groups of politicians, some military and right-wing think-tanks and corporations benefited from maintaining a high level of fear among the population. Several new pieces of legislation targeting individual rights and privacy were introduced with almost no opposition, only because people longed for more security. Many politicians were given "carte blanche" for their illegal actions, and never brought to trial simply because they had to do the right thing and "save" the country from evil. Torture techniques became the "mal necessaire" and indefinite jail of suspects became the norm.

Today, I am afraid the same thing is happening in Tunisia. Ministers from the old regime were not even questioned for their role in the brutal dictatorship. The mismanagement and corruption of more than 50 years were magically forgotten. The journalists, artists, and authors who in the past praised the dictator and his policies were forgiven, if not granted a "new virginity" for continuing their circus.

In 1988, Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky wrote Manufacturing Consent. It showed how media played a role in creating a population ready to accept government policies without questioning them. Today, it would be similarly relevant to explore the topic of "fear" and how this became a tool in some hands to shape public opinion in favour of more scrutiny of citizens by government while pushing aside real debates.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com

Photo: Chasing Donguri/flickr

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