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A brief item in the Arabic press last week said Tunisia decided to call back its ambassador to Qatar. The reason for the move, reportedly, is the airing of a program on Al Jazeera, a station controlled by the family of the emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa a-Thani, that dealt with a campaign against the ra'ala (Muslim veil) being waged by the president of Tunisia, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Disputes between Arab countries and Qatar over Al Jazeera's aggressive programing are nothing new. Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria and another half dozen Arab countries have in the decade the station has been around borne the brunt of its anchors and commentators' barbs. In several cases, the station's offices were closed, its correspondents kicked out of the offended country and the local press was immediately enlisted to attack the ruler of Qatar, "that little country, whose entire citizenry could easily fit into one luxury hotel," as the Jordanian press has put it.

Al Jazeera's program was aimed at focusing the attention of the Arab world on the heart of the struggle for Tunisia's national identity and presented it as a country that is fighting against Islam, precisely in the week when British Prime Minister Tony Blair explained to the public that wearing a veil in Britain affects the matter of "how our society relates to the way in which the Muslim community integrates into our society and how Islam can live alongside the modern world."

This important Western leader's remarks prompted a great debate not only in his country, but also in most Muslim communities around the world. The same week that the British prime minister made his speech, members of the Tunisian security forces were posted at the entrances to schools and universities to bar the entry of young women wearing veils. In publications of the Tunisian opposition, which is active primarily in France and Britain and speaks out mainly on Internet blogs, there were reports of violent clashes with female students. The police forcefully prevented the entry of the female students, according to the reports, and tore the veils from their heads and even struck them when they resisted.

Religion as a personal issue

In Tunisia, the law prohibits wearing a veil in public places. The law includes an ostensibly logical explanation: "If we consent today to the wearing of a veil, tomorrow we will have to consent to the negation of a woman's right to work, or to vote, or to study, and in so doing, we will be saying that she has no role other than to give birth to offspring and housework," explained Al-Hadi Mahani, the director general of the ruling party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. It is an unprecedented explanation. Not only is a leader in a Muslim country comparing wearing a veil to taking away women's individual rights, but he is also adopting the approach whereby taking away a woman's right to wear a veil is a minor blow to her freedom, and the deed is intended to prevent a far greater evil. Tunisia is a secular country, although its constitution stipulates that it is a Muslim country. To a large extent, the toleration of religion there resembles that in Turkey. In other words, religion is a personal matter of the adherent, until he makes it into a public issue, and then he comes up against the state patrols that maintain secularism. Whoever wants to fast during Ramadan is free to do so at home, but stores and restaurants continue business as usual. On the streets, more French than Arabic is heard, women and young girls walk around dressed in tight-fitting jeans and Western clothes, and the number of women who wear veils is relatively small compared to the numbers seen in Cairo or Amman.

Here lies the inherent paradox of Tunisia, which, on one hand, is proud of its liberal and secular constitution and its progressive personal status laws, which grant women the same status as men, equal job opportunities, equal rights in marriage and divorce, and bans polygamy, but, on the other hand, this little North African state (with around 10 million citizens) has been ruled for some 20 years by a dictator. In the last elections, held in 2004, Ben Ali did indeed "lose" some support and instead of the 98 percent of the vote which he "won" in the previous election, he "received" only 94 percent, but even this erosion of his support has an official and enlightened explanation: "Tunisia is a multiparty country and it also has an opposition."

The truth, however, is the opposition in Tunisia is mostly the creation of Ben Ali. The 70-year-old leader, whose likeness in the posters on the streets and pictures in the press looks like someone who has yet to turn 50, makes it very clear to the opposition, with the help of his security forces, what are its limits, what is permissible for it to do and, mainly, what it is prohibited from doing.

Ben Ali made the Islamic opposition party, Renaissance, illegal though he allowed independent candidates to run in the 1989 elections. Human rights workers in Tunisia report that there is total government control over the Internet, and that it breaks into Internet clubs and private homes to prevent the transmission of "dangerous material" abroad; that political prisoners are held in solitary confinement for lengthy periods; and that an Internet site operator was arrested for supposedly publishing reports about terrorist organizations.

The veil is idolatry

The U.S. State Department report on human rights portrays a regime that is very far from the standard definition of a "liberal" regime. But has anyone heard any kind of reprimand of Tunisia from President George Bush? Has anyone dared to criticize the regime of Ben Ali, which absurdly enough, hosted last year's World Summit on the Information Society?

The reason for the satisfaction with Ben Ali's regime, seen in liberal leaders such as Blair or Jacques Chirac, as well as slightly more conservative leaders such as Bush, stems from the fact that in the eyes of the West, a Muslim leader who fights against the veil can't be "not liberal" or "anti-Western," even if he prevents a real opposition from existing, or imposes stiff censorship of channels of information in his country.

The joy of those Western leaders was made complete this week when Ben Ali himself explained his regime's position on the veil: "We must distinguish between this sectarian garb and the original Tunisian clothing, a symbol of national identity." What is this "foreign sectarian garb"? The director general of the ruling party expounded on this: "Tunisians are surprised nowadays by the arrival of several social phenomena that are foreign to their religion, their identity and their tradition. These phenomena have no connection to Islam, which calls for intellectual endeavor, exercising one's judgment and searching for knowledge and raising the value of the individual." The veil, however, according to both Ben Ali and the director general of the ruling party, symbolizes idolatry. This is a statement not just in reference to the wearing of a veil, but also primarily a definition of "Tunisian Islam," as distinct from Saudi Islam or Egyptian Islam, and all the more so, the Islam of Osama bin Laden.

Male power of seduction

However, on the edge of Ben Ali's secularist policy, it is possible to also find the approach of the Tunisian human rights activist, Sara Dudash. In a sharply worded article that Dudash published last month on the Web site of the opposition, the Progressive Democratic Party, she warns that taking away a woman's right to dress as she wishes, "in a veil or in modern clothes," will eventually lead to the opposite result, and instead of minimizing the phenomenon of veil wearing, will actually broaden it, not necessarily as a show of religiosity, but as a reaction against the suppression of women's rights and as an expression of her independent character.

Dudash does not spare any of those preachers and religious leaders who encourage wearing the veil from her criticism. According to her, the religious figures "are trying to shore up the claim that a woman's hair is unchaste, and very seductive to men. But the psychological studies indicate that the male power of seduction is no less than a woman's. If so, why aren't men instructed to wear a veil, or commanded to refrain from wearing shorts?" Dudash asks that both sides, the clerics and the people representing the civilian regime, leave women alone and not intervene in their outward appearance or lifestyle.

Ben Ali cannot agree to this liberal demand, because the Tunisian woman, whose veil has become a measure of liberality in the eyes of the world, may not know where to set limits. Ben Ali would rather do that for her.