“We don’t only want to be Muslim and eradicate anything before or after,” stated the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Arabic Language and Culture Program Director Amel Mili about the historical Muslim conquest of her native Tunisia. She and a fellow Tunisian offered a refreshing rebuttal of the hackneyed Islamic supremacist dogmas dominating Middle East studies at a conference in Washington, DC earlier this month.
Mili addressed a small breakout panel at the Policy Studies Organization’s Middle East Dialogue 2017. Her lecture examining a 1982 Tunisian court decision denying a woman her inheritance on the basis of sharia law shed light on the difficulty of reinterpreting Islamic scriptures for the modern world.
During audience questioning, Mili focused on Tunisia’s uniquely cosmopolitan culture within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. “In Tunisia, so far, we have this global approach of history. I am happy, even if it was through colonization, that I had the chance, for example, to master the French language and the French culture.” In post-panel communications, she added that in Tunisian history, “French language bears the ideas of equality, democracy, human rights, etc.”
Mili confirmed the sentiments of a Tunisian woman in the audience who described how in Tunisia’s cultural crossroads, “everyone met in that small country, and this is what made the rich aspect” of its “Mediterranean identity.” The “Arab or Islamic invasion” of North Africa beginning in the seventh century is merely one element of Tunisian heritage. Mili reinforced this view by noting that Islam “arrived around the seventh century, but before that we have a history, after that we have a history, and we want all this rich background.”
Tunisia’s historically authentic cultural blend contradicts its Islamic supremacist groups’ fixation on “just this time when the Arabs, they came as invaders like anyone else,” such as French imperialists, Mili pointed out. Tunisia had a “very ancient history before that and after” Islam, but the “big problem is that they don’t want to acknowledge the French history in Tunisia or what was before.” “Islam, yes, it is part of the culture, but it is an element of the culture.” She identified a wider cultural problem in MENA: “To have a different identity than the identity I have” often frightens people.
The aforementioned Tunisian audience member maintained that Tunisia benefited from the deterrent effect of the 2013 overthrow of Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. “Our Islamists were very smart in evaluating the situation in Egypt specifically. What happened to Morsi, they said, oh gosh, next time is going to be us,” and correspondingly moderated their behavior. This certainly pleased secularists like Mili, who declared that “sharia law is the work of humans; it has nothing divine, even for a believer,” particularly considering that slavery, “in Islam, like any other old doctrine, it was part of it.” “We need this separation between religion” and state.
Mili and her fellow Tunisian offered a refreshingly non-ideological, reasoned view of their homeland. Tunisians and others can take pride in the region’s complex history and culture, a pride that includes rejecting Islamic supremacism. Other scholars should follow their lead.
Andrew E. Harrod is a freelance researcher and writer who holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a J.D. from George Washington University Law School. He is a fellow with the Lawfare Project. Follow him on Twitter at @AEHarrod. This article was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.