Of flags and Salafis

In the second such incident this month, Tunisia's hardline Salafis decided to scale buildings in order to, well, put up a flag. Seeing the cheers of joy and victory, few things seem to entertain them more, it appears.

This latest incident occurred last week, on March 25. Half a dozen men climbed the clock tower at the entrance of Avenue Bourguiba in Tunis -- which was the flashpoint of the capital's revolutionary protests last year -- to hang, askew, a flag too small to be really visible from afar on the copper-colored ‘Big Ben.' The Tunisian blogosphere quipped, for that matter, that the Salafis were attempting to turn the clock back a few centuries.

In case you were wondering (as I was), that flag, black with white inscriptions (or vice-versa), is widely referred to as the "Caliphate" flag. It carries the shahada -- the declaration of faith, which states that "there is no god but God and Muhammad is his prophet." Some trace the origins of the flag to the Prophet Muhammad himself; contemporary narrators have informed us that he carried a black banner, which he called "the eagle," to battle, however it is not known if the shahada was inscribed on it. The white one is the ‘civilian' banner, which flew over the city in times of peace.

While it would historically have represented an Islamic nation-state, the flag is today common to a number of Islamist movements, perhaps the most notorious being Hizb-ut-Tahrir. It is a wholeheartedly partisan flag and, for Muslims, has no spiritual significance -- rather, it mostly looks like a photographic negative of the Saudi flag.

The more interesting flag-related incident, however, occurred three weeks ago, at Manouba University, which has for months been the scene of clashes between secular and salafi student groups.

A large, bearded man in a black robe climbed the rooftop of the School of Humanities, pulled down the national Tunisian flag, and replaced it with the black and white flag. Though at a clear disadvantage, a female student, Khaoula Rachidi, climbed to the roof and tried to stop him. I imagine her voice was a little shaky, mixing Arabic and French as Tunisian young people do, as she chastised him for replacing the flag. The giant didn't like what he heard: He pushed her to the ground.

Emboldened, other students followed suit and climbed the roof. An altercation between the salafis and secular students ensued.

In a matter of hours, Tunisia had a new icon. "We are all Khaoula Rachidi," wrote newspapers the next morning -- as they reminded, almost tongue-in-cheek, that the Tunisian national flag that the religious hardliner removed carries a crescent and a five-branched star, representing the five pillars of Islam.

Two divergent discussions ensued. The first was the creation of a perfect media story; the courage of a young woman, presented as a David to the Salafi Goliath, the flag-bearing Marianne of a real-life Tunisian Delacroix painting. Even the President invited her to a flag-raising ceremony the following week.

The second, however, was about what it means to replace the national flag with a partisan one, and how that is symbolic of the relationship between Salafis and the Tunisian community: Whether the former see themselves as part of the latter or, conversely, see Tunisia simply as a province in a larger Islamic nation.

Some downplayed the incident. The Salafi community promptly condemned it, reasserting its patriotism and stressing that "the mistakes of one cannot be blamed on the whole movement." Rashed El Ghannouchi, leader of the more moderate Ennahda party, said that "only a madman" would remove the flag. Many, however, condemned the act in the harshest terms with barely concealed disdain, casting doubt over the patriotism of the Salafi movement that chooses to raise a different flag over the national one.

Both events are quickly being forgotten, becoming sideshows on the long battle for the secular character of the Tunisian republic. The clock tower event is already an amusing topic of conversation, and Khaoula's name nearly forgotten. All that remains is the shadow of a black and white flag, not big enough to obscure the spring sun of Tunis. At least, not yet.


Democracy Lab

A bittersweet celebration in Burma

RANGOON -- Yesterday, on the day of the long-awaited election, I decided to return to Independence Ward, the Rangoon neighborhood I wrote about in my piece last week on the difficult choices facing Aung San Suu Kyi. It turned out to be a good place to be. Many of my journalist colleagues opted to spend the day in Kawhmu, the rural district on the edge of Rangoon where the Lady herself was running for a seat. But I figured it might be rewarding to go to a place that wasn't at the forefront of the coverage. I wasn't disappointed.

When I arrived, the first thing I noticed was a huge crowd gathered in front of one of the local offices of the National League for Democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi's party. Members of the local NLD chapter had set up a big chalkboard at the edge of the street, where they planned to tally the votes as the results came in. Even though there were no votes to count yet, since the polls were still open, onlookers were milling around in front of the board, anxiously discussing possible scenarios. NLD members were sitting in the small café in front of the office, sipping soft drinks and trading gossip. Everyone in the neighborhood seemed to be out on the street, some of them wearing T-shirts sporting NLD insignia or portraits of Aung San Suu Kyi. (Expressions of support for the pro-government party, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence.) The place was buzzing with excitement and anticipation. Ye Win Htun, an NLD spokesman, put it simply: "People want to know all about their election."

He wasn't kidding. Again and again, the voters I encountered told me that they had woken up early that morning so that they could be at the polls as soon as they opened at 6 AM. This was the first time that any of them had been able to cast a vote for the NLD since 1990, when the party had won an overwhelming victory in the constituent assembly election (subsequently brutally suppressed by the reigning military junta). Everyone I spoke to was thrilled to have had the opportunity to vote for their local NLD candidate, and, by extension, for Aung San Suu Kyi: "I'm very happy," said one elderly gentleman who gave his name only as Albert. "It feels good."

Judging by the rest of my conversations, his words neatly captured the prevailing sentiment. Interestingly, it soon became apparent that many of the bystanders (drinking in the anticipatory atmosphere) had come to this neighborhood -- which is part of Mingalar Taung Nyunt, the township that encompasses a big chunk of central Rangoon -- from other areas that weren't voting on this day. (Remember, yesterday's vote was only a parliamentary by-election, involving less than 7 percent of the total constituencies in the country.) A young doctor, Nay Winn Aung, had come with two friends from another part of Rangoon just to be there. A staunch supporter of the NLD (though not a member), he told me how he had participated in the government-orchestrated election two years ago -- but only so that he could mark his ballot with a big cross (thus invalidating it) to demonstrate his disregard for the whole process, which he described as a mockery of a real election. He spoke of his longing for a truly open society, and of his hope that the newly elected NLD parliamentarians, despite their small numbers, would be able to build coalitions with disaffected members of the military and the USDP, the pro-regime party. And he spoke of his fear that NLD supporters in some places might express their frustration over voting fraud or violations of election rules with angry demonstrations that could easily get out of hand.

He was right to worry. As the day wore on, we heard reports of apparent dirty tricks by pro-government forces, allegations that had prompted street protests in Mandalay, Burma's second-biggest city, and elsewhere. The NLD leaders, who are sensitive to the risks, seem to have successfully defused them. The 2008 constitution contains a clause allowing the army to reassert its authority in the event of civil disturbances, and the leaders of the pro-democracy movement know that they will have to tread carefully if they don't want to provoke the hardliners into reasserting control.

Not long after I spoke with the politically savvy doctor, I was sitting on the floor in one of the NLD offices on the block, chatting with a young activist who had emerged from jail as part of the big release of political prisoners in mid-January. (We were sitting on the floor because the office has no furniture, an indication of the party's relative poverty.) He pointed out to me that those freed at the time were not actually granted clemency; the charges against all the ex-prisoners remain in force, and anyone who is judged by the government to have violated the terms of this de facto probation can be instantly re-arrested. Like everyone else, he was excited about the election. (The polls closed as we talked.) But he was also keen to point out that Burma is still a long way from any sort of real democracy.

He was about to continue, but right then a deafening cheer rose up from the street. Everyone jumped to their feet and rushed downstairs. The crowds were swelling now, blocking the thoroughfare. No one seemed to mind the intense, steamy heat. Hundreds of people massed in front of the local polling station, just across the street from the chalk scoreboard. Then came another big cheer, accompanied by frantic applause. No one seemed to know what was going on at first, but soon we figured it out: The election officials in the polling place had started counting the votes, and each time they opened a new box of ballot papers the onlookers outside expressed their enthusiastic approval. In a place like Burma, having a chance to vote for the candidate of your choice is not something to be taken lightly.

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