Majority of the Tunisians are unaware, similarly bulk of Arab citizens, of the deep friendships that linked Tunisia’s leader and first president Habib Bourguiba to plenty of educated elite, politicians, and journalists in the Levant region. Bourguiba established these relations during his residency in Egypt that he reached in 1945 through Libya. He escaped the French authority which accused him of collaborating with the Axis Powers. The leader also got introduced to national anti-colonialism institutions established by Levant and Maghreb Arab nationals in several European countries.
Bourguiba showed loyalty to the mentioned friendships, even after he resumed Tunisian presidency accompanied by related commitments and duties. He wisely honored plenty of his alive friends and anti-colonialism partners. This can be clearly realized with the Palestinian-Egyptian journalist ‘Mohamed Ali El Taher’ well-known by his traditional Arab nickname ‘Abou El Hassan’ (1896-1974). El Taher was the first figure to welcome the Ultimate Mojahed (Bourguiba) in Cairo and exerted substantial efforts to introduce him to Egyptian leaders, elite, and residents seeking support for their national crises. Bourguiba, in return, honored and awarded Abou El Hassan with premier Tunisian medals, welcomed him in the presidential palace, and visited him in his humble residence. The President has also named a Tunisian street in the honor of Abou El Hassan.
Mohamed Ali El Taher’s newspaper was compared to the British Empire in a way that the sun never sets on his newspaper. He has written a matchless book -never been republished- and included Bourguiba’s letters during the period of his national struggle. The letters exhibit the leader’s noble and humanitarian affections, besides clarifying the political and intellectual references that his movement relied on. This reference is definitely derived from the works of Arabic and Islamic reform movements initiated by (Rifa’a) El-Tahtawi, Moḥamed Abduh, and Kheyr El Deen El Tunisi.
Some, being Tunisians and other nationals, negatively perceive Bourguiba’s residency in the Levant. They wrongly consider that this residency caused him a bitter attitude and a hostile outlook against the Levant. While in reality, a watchful interpretation of the documents and resources of that historic period proves the contrary. Probably, the different perceptions of Bourguiba and Abdul Nasser during the sixties emerged the mentioned blame and confusion between the leader and Levant countries, besides Bourguiba’s speech in Jericho. In addition, certain internal conspiracies in Tunisia that targeted Bourguiba’s leadership that were encouraged by some Levant politicians, had an undesirable impact on the relationship between Bourguiba and Arab leaders.
Bourguiba’s leadership in Cairo was obvious. His attempts successfully introduced the Tunisian issue to Levant figures. In participation with Arab and Maghrab leaders, Bourguiba contributed to initiate an office for the Arab Maghreb countries, specifically Prince Mohamed Bin Abdul Kareem El Khattabi. The leader has been appreciated and recognized by those who directly contacted him, such as Mohamed Ali El Taher, who was a pioneer to recognize Bourguiba’s unique personality and precise insight. Bourguiba was an encyclopedic intellectual, critic visionary, extremely confident in himself and his issue, mastered Arabic and French languages, and clearly recognized the strength and weakness points in the Islamic and Western cultures.
The most distinguished and influencing figure in the Levant to Bourguiba was the Lebanese Druze Islamic intellectual and politician Prince Chakib Arslan. The Prince was the first figure from the Levant region to exhibit exceptional care to Maghreb countries issues. It is said that he has played a major role through his firm relationships with Maghreb national leaders to determine the identity issue triggered by the colonial decree ‘El Thaheer El Barbari’ (1930), and to consider North African countries as the Maghreb area of Islamic and Arabic nation.
Bourguiba adhered to a policy that believed in religion’s role to enhance modernity process
The first meeting between Bourguiba and Prince Chakib Arslan took place in 1937, marginally during the conference of North African Muslim students’ association. The association was considered an equivalent to the scholar wing of the Maghreb national movement. The meeting took place after three years of Bourguiba establishing the ‘Constitutional Liberal Party’ (where Bourguiba’s followers will celebrate its 75th anniversary this March). The meeting showed that ‘Amir El Bayan’ and the Arabic and Islamic campaigner recognized the new Tunisian party as the main representative of the Tunisian national movement. According to William L. Cleveland, a European Historian and author of “Islam against the West: Chakib Arslan and the Campaign for Islamic Nationalism”, Bourguiba highly appreciated the Prince’s reform thoughts. A strong link tied the two figures where Bourguiba allocated a full issue of his party’s newspaper ‘L’Action Tunisienne” after the mentioned Parisian meeting. The link was an unsurpassed support from the Prince to the neo-constituents in their political and intellectual confrontation with the early constituents, especially after the return of the latter’s leader ‘Sheikh Thaalbi’ to Tunis after an almost four decades of exile.
Historians indicate that Prince Chakib Arslan has used his well-known ties with German Reich leaders and their Italian allies, to successfully liberate the leaders of the new Constitutional Liberal Party at the end of year 1943. Bourguiba also requested the Prince to convince the Axis powers to deliver a promise which provides Tunisia its independence post WWII. Although the Prince succeeded in this matter, the post-war outcomes seemed to be absolutely different from what was anticipated at its beginnings. As a matter of fact, no other option was available for Bourguiba, but an additional decade of struggle to attain his independence vision.
The most distinctive hint that indicates how Prince Chakib Arslan has influenced Bourguiba’s personality and thoughts was the perception to Islam and the interpretation of texts in way that meets both Muslim’s needs and modernity requirements. Bourguiba adhered, after Tunisia gaining its independence and being in power, to a distinguished policy that believes in a supportive role of religion in the development and modernity process. This policy differentiated Bourguiba’s insight from the Ataturkism as the latter sought to eliminate any role for religion, regardless of their convergence for the essentiality of modernity. It also differed from Salafism although both referred to and relied on the sacred text. It has been known that Bourguiba said that he “succeeded to constitute all modernity requirements except for equality in inheritance among the two genders where no text can be identified to interpret this matter”. It is worthwhile mentioning that Bourguiba did not take any step towards modernity without a Sharia evidence and a textual interpretation. This includes his description for the two phases of his struggle against colonialism and seeking independence as ‘highest and marginal’ Jihad. Bourguiba explicitly broke his fasting in Ramadan after consulting religious authorities who permitted the matter, imitating the Prophet (S.A.A.W) and the Sahaba during the year of Fat’h. It is obvious that Chakib Arslan, being a reform pioneer, has enriched and developed the interpretation trend within the personality of the young leader. This can be attributed to the Prince being a Druze descendent, that majority of Muslims consider it beyond the norms of the sect. This gave the Prince a character of profound religious understanding to play the role of a modernizing and reforming religious intellectual model, thus enabling him to overcome intellectual and doctrinal block set against his society for centuries.
The practical and realistic orientation that seeks results in dealing with Islam, away from dogmatism and slogans, was the common ground between Prince Chakib Arslan and Leader Habib Bourguiba. However, the death of the Prince without practicing authority and Bourguiba encountering power responsibilities, have created a contradictory and confronting image among the majority of Tunisians and other groups. Moreover, the current dominant Islamic movements have struggled to relate the Prince’s heritage to their legacy, and portray their movements as an extension to it. While in reality, they have been opponents to Bourguiba as their propaganda campaigned to distort his clear image. It is a necessity today to resume the interpretation model believed by Arslan and Bourguiba, who both have spent considerable years to manage the interpretation process. They have also believed that there is an obligation not to leave the Religion and its texts controlled by those who seek materialistic results. They can use it as a method to deepen hatred, rejection and darkness, spread horror and death and destruction, and crises wherever they settle. I suggest to read the Bourguiba’s and Arslan’s heritages to yield interpretation geniality.