Tunisia Steps Out

How the little country that sparked the Arab Spring is becoming a regional player for the first time.

TUNIS — Back in 2005, Tunisia, then an autocratic police state, spent months gearing up to host the World Summit on the Information Society, a U.N. conference on communications and the Internet. Don't worry if you haven't heard of it -- no one else has either. But it said something about the priorities of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the president of 23 years who fled into Saudi exile in January 2011, that the conference was then the highest-profile international event for quite some time in this diminutive Mediterranean country whose successful revolt inspired the Arab Spring.

Seven years and one revolution later, Tunis is making its final preparations to host the "Friends of Syria" meeting on Friday, Feb. 24. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, with her British and French counterparts and representatives from more than 70 other countries, will descend upon the Tunisian capital to discuss what can be done about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The summit is taking place in the coastal suburb of Gammarth, the same place where the Syrian National Council -- the most prominent of Syria's opposition groups -- held its first congress back in December.

Most attention to post-revolutionary Tunisia has focused on the domestic tussle over the role of religion in state and society and on the economic malaise that lay at the root of its uprising. But Tunisia's approach to the Syrian uprising is also a sign of a more self-confident country seeking to reposition itself overseas as well as at home. With Syria facing a long, grim battle ahead, Egypt's revolution only half-complete, and Libya too preoccupied with internal strife to play much of a regional role, Tunisia is slowly starting to flex its modest but newly democratic muscles.

In early February, the interim government, formed after Constituent Assembly elections last October, took the surprisingly proactive step -- and one unthinkable under its predecessor -- of expelling the Syrian ambassador and severing official relations with the Assad regime. Libya followed suit a few days later, while demonstrators in Cairo and Algiers demanded their governments take similar action. "We need to send a strong message to the Syrian regime that they have to stop the open killing of innocent and civilian people," explained Tunisian Foreign Minister Rafik Abdessalem.

Last week, Tunisia's new president, Moncef Marzouki, flew around North Africa in a bid to revive the long-floundering Arab Maghreb Union between Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco. He may well face a hopeless task in trying to patch up Algerian and Moroccan differences over the Western Sahara, long an obstacle to forging any deeper Maghreb integration, while relations between Algeria and Libya remain chilly after the former's lackluster support for the Libyan uprising. Yet the Feb. 18 meeting of Maghrebi foreign ministers in Rabat, Morocco, was the first since 1994, and the leaders of all five countries have agreed to hold a summit in Tunisia before the end of the year, something Marzouki said he hopes "would revive the bygone aura of the Maghreb region."

Tunisia's post-Ben Ali repositioning is also about moving out of a Parisian orbit, one long associated with the ancien régime and not helped by French policy during the uprising. As protests were spreading across Tunisia's downtrodden hinterlands in late 2010, French Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie was taking complimentary flights on a jet owned by one of Ben Ali's associates. Days before the Tunisian president fled, she appeared to suggest that France offer its crowd-control "know-how" to help quell the protests. And even after Ben Ali departed, Paris scarcely concealed the suspicion with which it regarded Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party that went on to win the most votes in the October polls.

Although Tunisia's relations with its former colonial power will always be strong, given the deep commercial and cultural ties between the two countries, the relationship now has a different hue. Like several senior members of Ennahda, Foreign Minister Abdessalem lived in British exile for many years and caused a stir in January when he required an interpreter to hold talks with his French counterpart, Alain Juppé. Some even think that the French language is in terminal decline. "La Francophonie est-elle en danger en Tunisie?" asks a headline on the latest cover of a glossy women's magazine called Femmes de Tunisie. The answer is no, but just as Paris is no longer the overwhelming foreign string-puller in Tunisia, so is French no longer the only foreign language in town. English is reportedly gaining traction in language schools and universities, new Anglophone blogs and news sites are cropping up, and, over time, Tunisia might even become a trilingual country in the same way as Lebanon.

Despite Tunisia's dynamic approach to Syria and the Maghreb, no one is suggesting that the country will become a regional power broker. It has many domestic uncertainties to contend with. Unlike the Gulf states, it cannot dispense the liberal sums of money that are usually required to seal any major diplomatic breakthrough in the Arab world. It cannot use its own pan-Arab satellite television channel as a foreign-policy tool, nor can it spend lavishly on international branding or PR.

But all that may be to its advantage. Tunisia is detached from the geopolitical quagmires in the region. Its interests are not directly caught up with the Iranian crisis. It is not an oil producer. It does not share a border with Israel. These sorts of qualities led to the relocation of some 7,000 members of Yasir Arafat's PLO to Tunis in the early 1980s after being evicted from Lebanon and to Tunis's becoming the temporary base of the Arab League after Egypt was suspended following Anwar Sadat's 1979 peace deal with Israel.

At another time of upheaval, this non-threatening country might play a similar role. Tunisia has made a far smoother transition from autocratic rule than Egypt, Libya, or Yemen has. Tunisian politics and society hang in a volatile but arguably healthy balance between the secular and the religious. The state has the institutions, albeit young and fragile, of a functioning democracy. Its uprising was the most organic and homegrown of any in the Arab Spring, requiring neither an external spark nor a foreign intervention to give it critical mass. Tunisia may not be perfect, but in a region lacking in role models it can provide far more real-life lessons than Qatar, for instance, which arguably has little to offer other than money and moral support as it seeks to bolster its international clout. Similarly, any renewed Maghreb union -- however unlikely -- could provide a counterweight to Gulf influence and would certainly have money to throw around.

All this is part of the ongoing reshuffling of alliances, rivalries, and blocs in the post-Arab Spring world. Where Tunisia stands will only later become clear. But the country has many assets that could help it become more than just a neutral venue for regional conferences.

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When there's something Muslim in your neighborhood, who ya gonna call? Meet the British lawyer fighting Islam, one parking ticket at a time.

Click here for pictures from inside the world of Mosquebusters. 

LONDON — It is winter, the middle of December, and I find myself making an odd phone call. Pacing around my living room, I kick at the carpet as I dial the number.

"Hello?" I say.

"There's no time," the man on the other end of the line answers immediately. His name is Gavin Boby. We have e-mailed before, but I introduce myself again, explaining my background: education, photography and video experience, that sort of thing.

Boby's tone is measured and businesslike. "It sounds like you have skills that could be of use. Muslims are very bad losers," he says matter-of-factly. He'd like me to act as a witness, he tells me, videotaping his court appearances and searching the Internet for "targets." The conversation is taking me into uncomfortable territory; my voice wavers, and I begin to flounder. Boby doesn't notice. "I'll send you instructions on how we work," he says and hangs up. I have just become a Mosquebuster.

The Mosquebusters, or the Law and Freedom Foundation as they're officially known, are part of a new wave of anti-Islamic campaigners in England with links to more established anti-immigrant groups such as England Is Ours and Stop Islamisation of Europe. Like many of these groups, the Mosquebusters fear that traditional British culture, laws, and values will disappear with the changing face of Britain and worry that extremist interpretations of sections of the Koran urge Muslims to kill non-believers and take slaves.

Until mid-February, the Mosquebusters advertised for volunteers, under a campaign called "No More Mosques," on the website of the ultra-nationalist English Defence League (EDL), a group that organizes anti-Islamic street marches that often decend into brawls, riots, and arrests. The EDL and other anti-Islamic groups have no problem convincing their members to parade in public yelling insults like "Muslim bombers off our streets!" and "Allah is a pedophile!," but the Mosquebusters have a quieter, perhaps more insidious approach: In offices and city halls, they are crafting legal cases against mosque construction applications across the country. It's a war against Islam, but one that often resembles a bureaucratic turf battle more than a clash of civilizations.

Mosquebusters leader Boby, known as The Lawman, is careful to draw the distinction between religion and race. "It is primarily about the division between Islamic and non-Islamic society, and the lawless violence at the heart of Islamic doctrine and practice," he says in his manifesto. Boby dresses conservatively, with a black suit, white button-down shirt, and pastel neck tie, done up tight. He is clean shaven, his brown hair cropped close, and his small eyes squint behind wire-framed glasses. He has the look of a typical middle-aged businessman. And most of the time, he is.

From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., he runs a planning application company in Bristol, in western of England. He is a qualified barrister with undergraduate and graduate law degrees. But what Boby really wants is "an army of people, about 500 across the country," as he says in one of his online motivational videos. As I watched the recording from my flat in East London, while digesting one of his instructional e-mails on bureaucratic mosque-busting, Boby leaned closer to the camera, maintaining eye contact: "It is very important that mosques are stopped."

Boby launched the Mosquebusters website in 2011, but the group has been working behind the scenes for longer. It offers legal expertise, pro bono, to anyone disputing the construction of a mosque in England, and it has a growing web presence. Boby relies on a handful of volunteers to help with his work; they don't have a physical office but work from home communicating via e-mail, with Boby alone. "I've tried using members of the EDL as volunteers before. They're too reactionary," he says. When Boby needs to meet his Mosquebusters or clients, he takes them for lunch, one-on-one, in London or Bristol -- an offer he made to me as well when we talked by phone. Boby doesn't speak with the press, so a chance to meet him would have been rare. But later in the week, he had a change of heart; he e-mailed me questioning my motives and asked me to disregard all prior correspondence.

* * *

Black and white pictures of World War II fighter planes decorate the Mosquebusters' website, boasting triumphs on fuselages. "Progress So Far... 10," reads the banner. To date, mosques in Blackpool, Bolton, Ealing, Huddersfield, Kirkless, Luton, and York have been fought off by the Mosquebusters. A mosque in Uxbridge, stopped initially by a Mosquebusters community petition, has now landed back in court under appeal from the local Muslim community. It threatens the Mosquebusters' otherwise flawless record.

On a Saturday in late January, I went to see the mosque in question. Located at the end of the Metropolitan tube line, Uxbridge is 20 miles from central London, buried in a largely white, working-class suburb. Walking half an hour south from the Metro stop to the contested Royal Lane Mosque, one passes a small commercial center, a throbbing road, damp underpasses, and sprawling estates.  The town has the feeling of a place forgotten and fearful of change. It has a population of about 1,300 Muslims, just under 5 percent of its total residents.

Five years ago, Royal Lane Mosque was the Irish Community Centre. Over time, the Irish community's had waned, and there wasn't enough money to keep the center open. The building lay derelict for three years, the wooden bar and beer-stained carpets shut behind boarded windows. Two years ago, the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association bought the building and began to renovate it. They repainted the interior, laid down green carpets for kneeling, installed televisions and speakers, and began to re-do the façade. The windows are now arch-shaped, filled with frosted glass for privacy.

But after spending $205,000 on the renovation, the association was denied permission in September 2011 by the Hillingdon Borough Council to use the building as a mosque. Local residents, with the help of a pre-prepared Mosquebusters template, had put pressure on the council, arguing that the mosque's 10 parking spaces wouldn't accommodate all visitors. The Ahmadiyya Muslim Association built an extra two parking spaces and lodged an appeal a month later.

Brian Fairless lives across the street from the Royal Lane mosque. He leans against the door frame of the semi-detached house that he's lived in for over 20 years. "I don't see why they couldn't have this mosque somewhere else, where there's a larger Muslim community," he says, crossing his arms over his thin chest. Fairless, 66, is retired and now spends one month out of the year in Sri Lanka, donating his money and time to people affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. He fundraises in England, using the money to build shelters, homes, and community centers for people of all religions. But he doesn't want this one on his doorstep. "I don't want loud calls to prayer, and I don't want my parking space taken," he says.

From the street, the mosque is hard to spot. It sits back from the road behind a soaring metal fence. Its brick exterior is painted off-white, and with no signs or markings it blends into the grey winter sky. Groups of Pakistani men wait sheepishly outside, looking shy and uncomfortable. Cars begin to arrive, parking on the street, on the pavement, and in front of resident's windows, waiting for the mosque gates to be unlocked.

Wrapped in heavy coat, scarf, and wool hat, Sohail Quereshi, the mosque's imam, holds whispered conversations with other worshippers. They are unsure whether to open the mosque, unsure who might be watching from behind curtained windows. This is the first time they're using the facility; usually, they rent the event hall next door. The council still hasn't given its consent for the mosque's operation, and the parishioners worry that this unauthorized service could damage their community's reputation and negatively affect the status of the appeal. Quereshi turns to me outside the gates and shakes my hand warmly as I introduce myself. "We didn't know whether you were local press," he says. "For them to see us using the mosque would be very damaging."

Eventually, the men file in. Shoes are removed, stored in racks by the front door. Coats are slung on plastic garden furniture. Inside, the space is split into two large, clinically sparse rooms. One room has a polished marble floor; children slide about in their socks waiting for table tennis and arm wrestling competitions to begin. The second room -- the mosque proper -- has a thick, striped green carpet. With the front door closed, the mood inside changes. The members of the congregation mill around, shaking hands, joking, and eating pizza off Union Jack paper plates. The pizza consumed, white blankets with red and green embroidered patterns are laid on the cold marble. The 50 or so men in attendance kneel in lines opposite Quereshi. Silence falls as they bow their foreheads to the floor in unison.

* * *

It's not religious practice, claim the Mosquebusters, it's parking. Or noise pollution. Or building codes. And with downloadable petition templates, generic letters to councilors, and free legal advice for begrudged locals, it's Boby's mission to make it as easy as possible for your average, disgruntled suburbanite to join in. If there's a trial or hearing about planned construction, Boby will come down to the courthouse to provide free legal representation; if a mosque site has been proposed, he'll arrange volunteers to paper a neighbourhood with flyers. But the Mosquebusters aren't just a resource for aggrieved pensioners -- the group actually wants its volunteers to spread out, actively trolling city planning offices and public records for mosque applications. "It is satisfying detective work, rooting around Islamic deviousness!" reads the instructional e-mail sent to volunteers.

The process begins by searching for D1 planning applications (non-residential buildings), then checking floor plans for a "prayer room," checking names of applicants and agents for names that sound Muslim. "It might be lodged under the label of 'multi-faith center' or 'community center,'" says Boby. "Mosque applicants are crafty and often try to hide what it's really about."

It might seem that the Mosquebusters is a quixotic, xenophobic campaign limited to a handful of small towns in England, but it has ties to other anti-Islamic groups around the world. People from Australia, Canada, Germany, Scandinavia, and the United States comment on the Mosquebusters website regularly, and the group is often written about by far-right organizations. "Mosquebusters racks up another win, all was needed was for someone to oppose it's [the mosques] construction," crows Tundra Tabloids, a Scandinavian website that claims to keep tabs on the political correctness that allows Islamic extremism to flourish. "This is brilliant. I hope council was paying close attention," reads a caption on MRCTV, a right-wing news website.

But as the Mosquebusters have grown, they've earned some unwanted attention. As I was reporting this story, Boby cut all ties with me, refusing to speak or meet for interviews. The Mosquebusters web presence is now cleaner, straighter: Gone are the war planes, the pictures of slam-dunking cheerleaders celebrating another mosque closure. The organization's adapted "Ghostbusters" logo, a caricature of the convicted Islamic terrorist Abu Hamza with a glass eye and hook for a hand, is gone. And Mosquebusters no longer advertises for volunteers through the English Defence League; a disclaimer makes clear that the two groups have no official association.

Still, Boby isn't backing down from his crusade against Britain's creeping Islamicization. "Authorities need to know that the wind is shifting and that when it has blown away the politically correct fog, they will be left in full view," he says in his latest YouTube video, arguing that officials so fear being seen as politically incorrect that they'll grant mosque applications to anyone. And like any hard-working, ambulance-chasing, small-town laywer, he's got his pitch down: "If anyone knows about an application for a mosque, some phony community center or some multi-faith-interfaith-harmony-institute, or a school or college, let me know."

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