Excellent must-read by Alberto M Fernandez, a member of the board of MEMRI. Fernandez points out that the greatest cost of waning Middle Eastern diversity is to the very countries who expelled their minorities. (With thanks: Lily)
The procession of the Madonna of Trapani through the Tunisian resort of La Goulette was revived in 2017. It was the first since 1960.
A friend reminded me during a recent visit to
Tunis that it was the birthplace of both the famed historian Ibn Khaldoun and
the popular Italian actress Claudia Cardinale. The 80-year-old Cardinale still
has fond memories of Tunisia and made her feature film debut in a French-Tunisian
co-production of Goha (1958) starting Omar Sharif as the
eponymous Middle Eastern folk hero.
The Italian community of Tunisia she
belonged to had roots going back hundreds of years and Tunis provided refuge in
the 16th century to Jews from the Italian city of Livorno, Sephardic Jews from
Italy who had, in turn, been expelled from Christian Spain. Cardinale’s
ancestors came later, poor Sicilian Catholic migrants to the French
Protectorate of Tunisia arriving in the 19th century by the tens of thousands.
Many worked in ports and in fishing. The seaside town of La Goulette (Halk
Al-Oued) which had its picturesque “Little Sicily” Quarter, was a
famed center for this migration.
A 1959 French newsreel on the Feast Day
of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (August 8) in La Goulette showed a lively
community with a public procession of the Madonna of Trapani featuring
thousands of participants.
few years later that entire community was gone. The Virgin of Trapani would not
be carried in public ceremony again in La Goulette until 2017 when a much
smaller and largely Sub-Saharan African crowd of devotees would do so in a much
more modest ceremony.
Tunisia’s Italian minority was driven
out by state action spurred by a May 1964 nationalization law that targeted
European-owned farmland and other properties. In recognition of the end of a
once vibrant community, the Vatican reached an accord in July 1964 with the
Tunisian government handing over 107 now redundant churches, some of which are
still being used as schools or sports clubs or police stations or have fallen
As befits a country known for its
relative tolerance, the end of the historic Italian community in Tunisia was
not violent. Roughly contemporary with its disappearance was the rapid decline
of Tunisia’s Jewish community, which fled to Israel or Western Europe as part
of a cruel process of “decolonization” and nationalism well described
by the great Tunisian Jewish intellectual Albert Memmi. A person
who considered himself a Tunisian “Arab Jew,” who was strongly in
favor of the “oppressed,” found that he had no place in a nationalist
Arab Muslim state or society which was free of outside control but anything but
tolerant or liberal .
What happened in Tunisia happened in the
Republic of Turkey, in Nasser’s Egypt, and in Hashemite Iraq as ancient
non-Muslim communities were driven out in the 20th century. The 1955 Istanbul
riots organized by Turkish officials targeted, of course, a native Greek
community long established before the first Turk arrived in Anatolia. The
1961 and 1963 nationalizations by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser drove out a Greek
community with roots in antiquity.
1941 pogrom or Farhud of Iraqi Jews in Baghdad focused
on another community with roots dating to Ezra and Nehemiah and the Babylonian
Of course, the cases are different. In
Egypt and Tunisia, economic and political pressure forced out communities of
long-resident foreigners. In Iraq and Turkey, state-organized violence targeted
local citizens belonging to religious minorities.
But in all these circumstances, it was
modernizing nationalist or secular regimes that aggressively drove out these
minorities, not Islamists.
Whether done in the name of Turkification or Arab
Nationalism or Cyprus or Palestine, local innocent people had to be made to pay
for the supposed political transgressions of others elsewhere or for the mere
fact of being the wrong type of person in the wrong place and time.
These early rounds of ethnic cleansing
preceded most of the wars and revolutions that would wrack the Middle East and
North Africa, and preceded the rise of political Islam that would target still
other religious and ethnic minorities in the region. Whatever the tragedy of destroyed
communities, abandoned structures, and uprooted families, the greatest cost
was, in my view, to the countries doing the uprooting themselves. They became
duller, more monochrome and insular.
These emigres and refugees enriched
Europe, America, and the nascent state of Israel. They probably avoided worse
horrors if they had stayed where they were in the lands that would see decades
What the nationalists destroyed in that
frenzied period from the 1940s to the 1960s was an older, Arab, Turkish, and
Islamic tradition of cosmopolitan life which, while not to be romanticized,
brought great vitality to these crossroads, to the Mediterranean, to Anatolia,
and to Mesopotamia. Jews had once found refuge in the Muslim East from
The Ottoman Sultans had brought minorities from throughout
the empire and settled them in Istanbul to enrich their new capital. While
Greeks had an ancient history in Egypt, it was Muhammad Ali Pasha in the 19th
century who facilitated their flourishing. In Tunis, it was the Bey Al-Hussein
II who in 1830 granted the Catholic Church land to build and hold in perpetuity
the Cathedral of Saint Louis of Carthage (now a music hall).These nationalist regimes would
eventually falter and various strands of intolerant political Islam would, if
not always rule, strongly influence public opinion with xenophobia replaced by
That same hatred would, in the absence of these departed
communities, always find new targets for this ceaseless purifying war against
cosmopolitan diversity: secular or liberal Muslims, freethinkers, homosexuals,
Turkish Kurds, Copts, and Yazidis.