A few criticisms to consider regarding George Packer’s piece on Tunisia
George Packer has a lengthy piece in the New Yorker on Tunisia here:
Packer is of course a great American writer and journalist… I thoroughly enjoyed his book on Iraq.
That said, a few criticisms I think need to be considered by both practitioners and readers when it comes to his stab (I think a first and only attempt?) at unpacking the Tunisia story/ies.
[A qualification – please excuse the dashed off quality of this blog post and the typos! Also, I hope it does NOT read as demeaning, snarky or rude! I also will of course correct some of my assertions as folks send me comments.]
— First, we should all be very skeptical at this point of the old pitfall of “parachute journalism.” The New Yorker has had problems in the past on this issue, as have many other publications.
I wrote about an extremely problematic Dexter Filkins’ piece on Hezbollah and Lebanon here in 2013:
The New Yorker gigs pay very well – probably the best in the industry these days? – which allows great wordsmiths to roam the world and write about people and places and issues that they find interesting. They can hire local fixers and afford an “extended take.”
But that is precisely the problem: Packer – I believe, and please correct me if I am wrong – has no training in North Africa’s history and politics and I don’t think he has spent much time there except for these quick hit trips for the long New Yorker piece (again, please correct me if I am wrong). I am not sure about the extent of his grasp on the languages either – but these are all issues vital for the reader to know when it comes to an attempt to “get granular.” Was he recording the conversations that his fixer then interpreted? It is – I would suggest – even more important to know the precise filtering effect at play here since most of the story is not policy but personal testimonies.
Related to this core, “formal” problem (since his understanding of the country is necessarily constrained – I believe – by his own limited time spent and ability to comprehend), a few specific criticisms of the content
My primary one, drawn out below, is that the “locals” in his story appear to be telling him over and over about the main problems they see facing the country – the justice/penal system and the corruption/inefficiency of the parallel state. But Packer insists in this long piece to focus almost exclusively on the first hand testimonies and stories of Tunisians living through these moments in a manner that is wholly over-determined by ISIS and Jihadism (and yes, with a bit about the cops). Since these are the two anchors that dominate the story and from which all of the criticisms and ideas of Tunisians and other observers seem to relate to, we are left with little else as context to understand the statements and assertions – and we have little to grasp at in order to understand how Tunisians are imagining a way forward, much less how they contextualize ISIS/Jihadism within the far larger political grievances that run so deeply through the country.
[A side note: I myself avoided writing about Tunisia at all until three and a half years into living and working in Tunis – and only then I have tried to restrict my writing to policy issues and a few major anchors for Tunisia’s troubles that I think I can reasonably understand and for which I can offer some insight. I have also been driven to offering policy ideas and analyses by a growing sense of alarm and love for Tunisia, which can be taken as one wants.]
1 – Packer’s core mission – he says – is to explain why Tunisia is a contradiction: why it is the “only Arab Spring” success story of democracy, tolerance and compromise but also supposedly the leading per capita supplier of fighters to ISIS et al. In putting this forward as his task, Packer is wading deeply into the socio-cultural, historical and political bodies/minds/experiences of his subject, Tunisians. It is a monumental task – one that a foreigner with great training (like Monica Marks) must invest a whole lot of time and effort in so as to get the output as right as possible. As I mentioned above, from what I know and can read, Packer simply doesn’t come to the table with adequate background and understanding. As such, he writes:
“Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
— This quote is put forward as a main piece of evidence as to why the “Tunisian mind”has somehow gone off track, more than other minds. But how can the reader evaluate this statement? One guy said this, sure, but how are we to trust and understand that this is not a mere throwaway sentence? Why is this credible? I would argue that ahead of cliches about Tunisians being risk takers (a take I have not often heard in fact over the last five years), is the cliche that Tunisian’s are NOT risk takers and “prefer” administrative predictability. No matter which cliche is “more right,” Packer elevates this statement to the beginning and gives it an aura of insight that he cannot possibly evaluate properly (I believe). Perhaps his fixer can, but then she should not be simply named NOOR – she should be a co-author.
If we extend this further, the question becomes why the New Yorker didn’t hire any number of great writers – Tunisian and otherwise (yes they exist) – who actually know the country, the history and its languages far better? This of course is a larger problem of center-periphery journalism.
2. He writes:
Tunisia’s revolution began in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old produce vender, refused to pay a petty bribe.
— Perhaps a minor point, but in a lengthy piece how can one omit the 2008 mining revolts that some of us point to as a different starting point for the 2010 events?
3. He writes:
Tunisian jihadis have developed a reputation for being involved in extreme violence. In Iraq, they, along with other North Africans, have been known for volunteering to become suicide bombers. A Syrian escapee from Deir Ezzor province recently told the Daily Beast that the worst isis police officers were Tunisians, adding, “They are immoral, irreligious, corrupt, and they treat people badly, whereas those from the Gulf countries are not as bad.” In Tunis, Ons Ben Abdelkarim, a twenty-six-year-old woman who leads a civic organization named Al Bawsala, said, “Tunisians who go abroad are the bloodiest—they show such an inhuman face when they go to the zones of jihad.” She explained, “Injustice contributes a lot to this—when one feels that one doesn’t belong to Tunisia, when one feels that Tunisia brings you nothing.” The Jasmine Revolution, she said, had been stolen from the young.
— How can Packard know this to be true? I have heard this about Egyptians, Saudis, Mauritanians, Libyans, Syrians etc over the past 12 years. How can we elevate these snipets into nuggets of knowledge when they are apparently premised on such hearsay?
Packer relies here on Ons. But I do not believe – and correct me if I am wrong – that Ons has ever traveled to Syria. How does she know they are the bloodiest abroad? We should understand how one gets to these claims because they are contentious, fraught with danger and potentially very important.
Either way, the alienation she describes fails to offer a backup for her claim about Tunisians being the bloodiest around (incidentally the comment I often repeat is somewhat different – that I hear anecdotes of Tunisians being extremely capable managers and organizers and some of the best commanders… for whatever that is worth).
After all, isn’t the alienation experienced by so many Egyptians, Libyans, Algerians, Syrians probably the same (if not more!)?
4 – He writes:
Tunisia has many advantages over other Arab states: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions; no oil wealth that distorts the economy and draws foreign interference; a tradition of moderate Islam; widespread literacy; a small, apolitical army.
— Packer fails to mention a major difference that has a big impact on Tunisia – its distance from the Arab-Israeli conflict. I would also add the old coastal-interior division which could be just as explosive (we need to unpack this in this story then…). Also, do not discount tribal divisions in Tunisia – they are critical to understanding the portraits of the interior that Packer visited.
5 – He writes:
Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists.
— If everyone was saying this to you then why not unpack this? Tunisians were crying out about this gap and this danger, and yet no discussion of the issue. Increased US aid is mentioned in passing as going to counter terrorism. Why isn’t there a focus on building up de-radicalization programs or more importantly, reforming the jihadist-generating “justice” and prison system?
— This raises another critical point or absence: why in this very long piece is their virtually no context that discusses the number one issue: Corruption and its destabilizing effects on the security sector and the economy? This is the main event and yet Packer hardly touches it? A major omission in my view for such a long and well funded piece.
6 – He writes:
In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
— Very strange for Packer to leave out the huge geo-political issue here: Why is it that western and US allies are evidently instrumental in promoting this brand of violent religious extremism? To not raise this issue here is a major blindspot – as his his failure to unpack why Turkey – our NATO ally – was supplying Tunisians for extremist rebel groups in Syria via its territory. How can one understand the current problem in Tunisia without directly raising the regional geo-political context that provided the fertilizer and the killing fields?
“In the summer of 2012, he flew to Turkey, then crossed into Syria. “I went there without thinking,” he said. “Youthful passion took me there.””
— Youthful passions are evidently a lot less important that Turkish foreign policy at that time period and GCC policy…and the US and EU stance on the effort to bring down Bashar. This must take a key role ahead of what one person says ostensibly lead him to Syria.
7 – He writes:
Most worrying was Ennahdha’s accommodating posture toward Ansar al-Sharia. Marks said that Ennahdha’s approach echoed an idea that is popular in political-science circles, the “inclusion moderation hypothesis.” If radicals can be brought into electoral politics, the theory goes, their demands and desires will become manageable. The notion that radical Islamists could be made moderate by giving them a seat at the table turned out to be tragically wrong.
— I disagree completely. Packer left out virtually any geo-political context so the reader would likely agree with him. The radicals got a seat in Tunisia then unmasked themselves and “went bad”… perhaps as they always would have.
The problem with this de-contextualized assertion is that it leaves out what was happening in the region after the first few months of the Arab revolts: The widespread effort to bring down Bashar Assad in Syria, including fairly early on, we now know, by empowering violent religious groups and individuals a la Afghanistan and the Soviets. This is the crucial ingredient that rendered the “political-science circle” argument “wrong.” Packer gives little consideration to this and instead views the approach in a de-historicized manner as having been really stupid. I would argue that without the regional security meltdown produced early on by the Syria War (which exacerbated the Libya meltdown as well), power balances and security efforts could have effectively contained the issue of spreading salafi-jihadism. After all, where would they have gone to learn, fight and preach about the violent confrontation with the state (all three are vital components for the issue getting out of hand)?
I warned against the effects of this Syria strategy in May 2011 and February 2012 here:
“In Syria, We Need to Bargain with the Devil”/New York Times, February 2012
“A Third Way on Syria Is Possible”/Huffington Post, May 2011
These are a few of my criticisms of the piece. Of course I am happy to see a smart, well written and long article in the US trying to unpack what Tunisians are thinking vis a vis Jihad and ISIS. Bereft of much political context though, I am worried the reader is left thinking that the individuals themselves – and their own local conditions – are largely responsible for their passionate “drift” to religious violence.
I am also left wondering the eternal question that plagues such pieces: Why didn’t a Tunisian write this story? I can offer several who would be just right for the job…