An Arab Anomaly

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
Safwan M. Masri
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Pressa
    , September
     352 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Seven years after a wave of uprisings swept the Arab world, a glance across the region today offers a sobering contrast to the initial hope and euphoria unleashed by the so-called “Arab Spring.” With one exception, all of the Arab countries affected by the tumult of 2011 have reverted to autocratic rule (as in Egypt), deteriorated into civil war and failed states (think Libya, Yemen, and Syria), or simply stagnated (as in Morocco). The one exception, which also turned out to be the birthplace of the Spring, forms the subject of Dr. Safwan Masri’s engaging and well-written Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly

Masri, a Jordanian-born professor and administrator at Columbia University with a research background in education across the Arab world, takes up a question Western academics and foreign policy practitioners have struggled to answer in the post-Spring period: why did Tunisia’s democratic experiment succeed where its Arab peers failed? Masri locates an explanation for this puzzle in a set of historical, social, and cultural ingredients unique to Tunisia, namely: a history of political reformism and civil society activism, advancements in women’s rights, the marginal place of religion in political and public life, and an educational system prioritizing critical thinking skills. In Masri’s estimation, these four ingredients “predisposed” Tunisia to a successful democratic transition, and their absence elsewhere in the region means Tunisia cannot serve as a model for other Arab states. 

The strength of Masri’s work lies in its accessible presentation of Tunisian history, articulated throughout engrossing chapters recalling the country’s ancient founding in Carthage, the relative continuity of Tunisia’s borders through successive imperial conquests, key political and educational reforms of the 19th century, French rule through 1956, the post-independence regimes of Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the momentous events from 2011 to the present day. Students and others unfamiliar with this history will find a solid introduction in Masri’s book.

Whether Masri’s historical account ultimately supports his main argument is more debatable. To demonstrate that certain factors “predispose” a country to such a complex outcome as democracy, one must establish a clear link between those factors and the outcome in question. Tunisian history is indeed replete with examples of political reformism and civil society outliers such as an independent labor movement, laws empowering women (well beyond the Arab norm, and for a time even beyond certain Western benchmarks), regulations reducing Islam’s presence in public life, and educational reforms imparting analytic skills alongside knowledge of math, science, and foreign languages. But Tunisian history is also full of counter-examples, calling into question the determinism of the author’s central claim. 

Perhaps nowhere is this question more pronounced than on the matter of religion. 

Tunisia: An Arab Anomaly contends that one key reason the country has successfully transitioned into a democracy is that unlike in most Arab states during the modern period, Islam has never been the dominant reference point of Tunisian identity, and as such it has occupied a relatively negligible place in the country's political and public realms. But the historical record, including episodes Masri himself highlights, suggests far greater contestation over Islam’s place in Tunisian society. That a 19th-century reformist like Khayr al-Din sought to modernize a centuries-old institution of Islamic learning like the Zaytouna was remarkable, but he largely failed in the face of stiff opposition among the seminary’s leading theologians at the time. A century later, Tunisia’s President Habib Bourguiba took a less conciliatory approach, shutting down the Zaytouna, bringing the remaining religious institutions and personnel under state control, promulgating a progressive Personal Status Code which abolished polygamy and granted women expanded rights in matters of divorce and custody, implementing a sweeping education reform which reduced the amount of religious instruction in the public schools, and later banning the wearing of a head scarf (hijab) in those schools. 

Bourguiba’s secularizing moves elicited fierce opposition from supporters of his main rival, Salah Ben Youssef, who had argued that Islam was, in fact, central to Tunisian identity and as such had to play a prominent role in the independent polity emerging from French rule. The Bourguiba regime’s suppression (at times violent) of the “Youssefists” became the defining and lasting fissure of Tunisia’s birth as a modern state, a fact that Masri’s account largely glosses over. And notwithstanding Bourguiba’s considerable efforts to marginalize Islam, Tunisian school textbooks and curricula throughout the 1970s and 1980s did precisely the opposite, increasing lessons in Islamic history and philosophy at the expense of foreign language instruction and Western philosophy. The education reform of the early 1990s, which (re)introduced lessons in Western political thought and reduced the imprint of Islam, may have played a part in inspiring the generation of Tunisians who launched the protests of 2011, as Masri contends. But the very fact that such a reform was implemented in the first place belies the notion that Tunisian Islam has consistently belonged “almost exclusively to the private sphere.” 

Contestation over the place of Islam in Tunisian society only continued after 2011 when an Islamist movement banned under the former regime emerged as a key political actor. The Ennahda ("Renaissance") Party, as Masri rightly notes, has also proven to be something of an anomaly in the region, making key concessions throughout the political transition that undeniably contributed to Tunisia's relative stability today. Still, the concomitant emergence of violent Islamist groups within Tunisia—the lone Arab democracy became the single largest exporter of foreign fighters to the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria—and ongoing debates over the proper role of religion in arenas like inheritance law and gay rights suggest the outcome of Tunisia's anomalous democratic experiment remains very much up for grabs.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sarah Feuer is a Senior Fellow in the Arab Politics Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Date of Review: 
August 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Safwan M. Masri is executive vice president for global centers and global development at Columbia University. He holds a senior research scholar appointment at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs and is an honorary fellow of the Foreign Policy Association. Previously vice dean of Columbia Business School, he earned his Ph.D. from Stanford University in 1988. Masri lives in New York and Amman.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.