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.
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.
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.
it would historically have represented an Islamic nation-state, the flag is
today common to a number of Islamist movements, perhaps the most notorious
It is a wholeheartedly partisan flag and, for Muslims, has no spiritual significance
-- rather, it mostly looks like a photographic negative of the Saudi
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.
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.
other students followed suit and climbed the roof. An altercation between the
salafis and secular students ensued.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images