The U.S. embassy staff in Tunis, Tunisia evacuated Sept. 14 amidst deadly riots sweeping that nation and the Middle East, but recent graduate Dania Toth stayed in Sousse, Tunisia. Toth, Trinity ’12, moved there days after graduation to serve as coordinator at the American Corner Sousse, an educational and cultural center in Tunisia hosted by AMIDEAST, one of the Middle East’s biggest American nonprofits, and funded by the State Department. The Chronicle’s Jack Mercola and Danielle Muoio asked her about her experience with recent turmoil and rioting in the region.
The Chronicle: How have the riots affected the general populace’s lives in Tunisia?
Dania Toth: Not at all. In my town there is no concern about anything happening. Some have apologized to me and most are shocked and ashamed that this happened in their country. Many have laughed openly that something might happen when I raise concerns, and they consider what happened to the embassy in Tunis to be a very egregious anomaly rather than a sign of more to come, or a sign of changing times, that American newspapers are so eager to say.
TC: How have they affected your life?
DT: I do not intend to evacuate unless something drastic happens, like if individual Americans are targeted. For now, I’m going to work and wearing longer skirts for a few days. While every other newspaper article out there does begin with the tired phrase, “the situation on the ground is uncertain,” that rings true for us here, because it means we’re waiting to see if this will get bad enough to point us definitively towards leaving.
TC: What do you do at the American Corner Sousse? How has your work been shaped by recent rioting?
DT: I am the coordinator of the American Corner Sousse, an educational and cultural center in Tunisia’s third largest city. My job is to run activities based on English language development, American culture, applying to American universities and other scholarship grants to the United States, and basically getting to run whatever I want: debate team, improv classes, creative writing classes and anything else I can think of. I also maintain the English language library and other resources. There are hundreds of American Corners around the world funded by the U.S. State Department partnered with another nonprofit organization.
As for how our events have been shaped, I work very closely with the embassy, which means that all my work with them has been suspended until they come back.
Also, check your news Friday: we’re closing everything here and in Tunis because we expect many protests to occur, and we don’t want to take chances. Americans in Sousse, where I live, largely do not feel in danger. We live in a peaceful area, and most of them are married to Tunisians. In Tunis, I imagine they’re feeling much more apprehensive, especially given the embassy presence has left.
Success of extremist behavior depends on encouragement from the local population. In Tunisia in general, and especially the town I live in, such behavior is very shocking, and it would be very socially unacceptable to house or supply militants. In other places, like Afghanistan? Not so much.
TC: Has the media inaccurately portrayed anything about the protests in the Middle East?
DT: These riots are not caused by basic religious piety, period. Most articles that try to draw conclusions from these tragic events either infer that the Islamic religion is the driving force for the violence, or take the opposite, apologist approach: that Islam has nothing to do with the riots at all. Neither is true. Outrage from this [American-made film that is offensive to Muslims] or these cartoons is absolutely the trigger for these protests: one taxi driver in Tunis tried to describe the pain and rage this film caused for him by telling me, “You can violate my wife, you can violate my children, but don’t you dare violate my Prophet. He, and Islam, are my greatest love, it is my heart. If you are not Muslim, you do not understand that.”
It’s not surprising to me then, that in the Middle East there is also a very active “outrage industry”—a term coined by Salman Rushdie—that will seize on these events to make it seem like all Muslims are united in violence and anger. From what I have seen, heard, and studied, Arab countries have faced a lot of hardship: colonization, war, dictatorial rule and high poverty rates that mean unemployment, stringent restrictions on starting a business and acquiring capital, and lower standards of living. Religious extremism here, like it does anywhere, builds up around these kinds of factors.
Islam is not the reason for the violence: many Arabs, regardless of religion, have very real grievances against the United States that can be easy to nudge into action, especially if you can’t find a job—reading today, Tunisia’s unemployment stands at 11.5 percent.
So then, why do Arabs seem more prone to violence, even when there may be high unemployment around the world? Every society has its small and vocal underclass of religious extremists. The one in many Arab countries is simply large, more vocal and easier to recruit. The biggest lesson I’ve learned here, especially from the vast majority of Tunisians who have the same impression of this “Innocence of Muslims” film as most Americans do, is that religion is never, ever an independent impetus. It’s simply not a good enough explanation, and opinion columnists who try to draw that conclusion should feel ashamed of themselves.
TC: Why do you think these inaccuracies are reported this way?
DT: The thing about Middle Eastern news reporting is that it usually falls into two camps. The first is the urgent flare-ups when violence or other security-related events occur. The other type is an attempted characterization of its people as either helpless or, patronizingly, “pulling themselves up and embracing democracy”.
The problem with the first, sporadic type of reporting is that, while it is important, once Americans read about a riot or a bombing, we then move on to forgetting about the Middle East.
It may sound simple, but Americans have largely not been able to internalize the fact that once a protest is over, people in Arab countries still live their lives every day. They fix their cars and go to coffee shops and try to make it home on time for family dinners. They take days at the beach and wait for college acceptance letters. They’re always going to be there, and they deserve our respect just for being alive and in the world whether it’s in our political interest or not, or whether or not something makes interesting news or not.
TC: Having lived in the region, what’s your opinion of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East?
DT: I believe the biggest reason that American foreign policy in the Middle East, no matter what it may be, is very weak because we have inconsistent positions. We supported their dictators, but then we didn’t. We give them aid, then we threaten to take it away for good. We say a country is an ally, and then we say it’s an enemy, and then we say it’s neither. We use a local doctor to help us capture Osama bin Laden, and then we leave him out to dry when the Pakistani government throws him in jail for life.
Given the tendency to extremism that is present in these populations, if people want to support the U.S., we need to have their backs with unwavering political support, fortitude and amiable patience, aid that invests in future prosperity, and a strong articulation of what we value most and why we value it. Let people take it or leave it. For example, my personal opinion about this recent film is that we should support free speech. Full stop. President Obama and Secretary Clinton said the exact same thing in their statements.
TC: What would you tell Duke students about living in the Middle East post-graduation?
DT: I love what I do and I love where I am. I don’t think I could have found a better job after graduation. I would always insist that people who feel stuck in a corner about their ability to find jobs after graduation should consider coming abroad. Sometimes people do have real constraints and responsibilities that require them to stay in the U.S., but other times, it can be just a matter of whether you want to get outside your comfort zone, and whether or not you’re too scared to leave the nest and your regular bars. Trust me: you can find beer everywhere.