As a kid living in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, I sometimes experienced an ominous feeling about our nearest town – a town nine miles west of our village and one to which I would often accompany my mum on shopping trips and, later, I would travel to daily to attend secondary school. This was Enniskillen, a settlement of 14,000 people, located in the very centre of County Fermanagh and on the banks of the River Erne, the short, twisty artery that links the waters of Lower and Upper Loch Erne.
The ominous feeling came from the Northern Irish Troubles. At the time, these were at their bloodiest and even as a young child I was aware of them being reported in the newspaper that arrived in our house every morning and then again on the news programme that appeared on our TV at six o’clock every evening. And every couple of months the Troubles seemed to spawn a bombing atrocity. As the 1970s progressed, these happened both in big cities like Belfast, Dublin, Birmingham and London and in smaller places like Coleraine, Omagh, Bangor and Claudy. Although I was very young, I seemed to understand that the longer the Troubles wore on for, the greater the odds became that something similarly terrible would happen in Enniskillen.
This sense of awful inevitability was proved right eventually, though the atrocity didn’t come until November 1987, a decade after my family had left Northern Ireland. This was when the Provisional IRA exploded a bomb in the Reading Rooms next to Enniskillen’s war memorial at the start of the annual Remembrance Sunday ceremony. The bomb toppled a wall onto the crowd assembled on the pavement outside. 11 people died in the attack – a dozen if you include a victim who passed away 13 years later without ever reviving from a coma.
If there’s any consolation at all for the relatives of those who died that day, it might be that the Enniskillen Remembrance bombing is viewed now as a turning point in the history of the Troubles, an event that even some hardened terrorists felt was an atrocity too far. It possibly encouraged a few such people to become less intransigent and start off on the path of peace and reconciliation. It was a long and torturous path, admittedly, but it did wind its way through the Peace Process of the 1990s and arrive finally at the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Anyway, it wasn’t that long ago that I experienced a similar, ominous feeling – one of awful inevitability – about another town I was familiar with. Well, this time it was about a city: Tunis, capital of Tunisia, where I lived from 2010 to 2013. Among other things, those three years exposed me to the Tunisian Revolution and to the birth of the Arab Spring.
Looking at what happened subsequently in Egypt, Libya and Syria, it’s fashionable for commentators today to describe the Arab Spring as an out-and-out disaster, a movement that led to instability at best and to chaos and carnage at worst. But this attitude does a great injustice to Tunisia, which has been able in the years since to create a functioning democracy for itself. Last year the country even held an election and the first post-revolution party of government, the politico-Islamic group Ennadha, managed to bow out with a minimum of fuss when it lost. In the blog-posts I used to write when I lived in Tunisia, I would slag Ennadha off regularly. But hats off to them for being able to accept defeat gracefully.
It was never going to be anything like plain sailing for Tunisia, though. Especially not with unsavoury outfits operating in the neighbourhood like Al Quaeda-in-the-Maghreb next door in Algeria, Alsar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s own back yard and now, popping up on the other side of the fence in deeply-troubled Libya, the very unwelcome Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, aka IS. None of this lot have any wish to see a democratic Arab country survive and prosper, certainly not one that’s just voted an Islamic party out of office – though Ennadha’s brand of Islam is obviously pretty mild compared to that of IS – and replaced it with a secular one, the Nidaa Tounes party led by Beji Caid Essebsi.
So again, I suspected that, sooner or later, something bad was going to happen.
And two days ago, it did. Two gunmen, reportedly trained in Libya and acting under the auspices of IS, launched an attack on Tunis’s celebrated Bardo Museum that left 23 people dead, 20 of them foreign tourists. I’ve read suggestions that those gunmen were actually planning to target the Tunisian parliament building, which is next door to the Bardo. However, deciding at the last moment that a parliament-assault wasn’t feasible, they turned their attention to the museum and started machine-gunning tourists who were getting out of coaches in its parking lot.
When I first heard the details of the slaughter, an unwelcome piece of terminology from 1970s Northern Ireland came to mind, a term that’d once referred to the Northern Irish terrorist practice of running into a pub frequented by people of one religion or the other and shooting everyone in sight. What’d happened at the Bardo was a ‘spray-job’. Spray-jobs were, and are, hideous in their simplicity but always sure to generate – manna for terrorists – huge headlines.
IS have since described the attack as a ‘blessed invasion of one of the dens of infidels and vice in Muslim Tunisia’. The Bardo Museum boasts Punic artefacts from the ancient port of Carthage and the biggest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. So it doesn’t surprise me that IS, who’ve recently bulldozered the ruins of ancient Assyrian cities like Hatra and Nimrud into dust and rubble in Iraq, should regard the museum as a hotbed of infidelism and general evil. Museums have a habit of broadening their visitors’ minds and in IS’s book there is surely nothing more loathsome than broadening minds.
What this will do, of course, is deter many tourists from visiting Tunisia – a country where the tourist industry is vital to the economy, calculated to be responsible for 13.8% of overall employment and 15.2% of GDP. This has happened at a time too when Tunisia’s tourist industry was showing signs of improvement. When I went for a haircut while I was in Scotland last month, even the barber mentioned that he’d just lined up a beach-holiday there. Naturally, wrecking the tourist industry, and by extension the Tunisian economy, is IS’s intention. With more of the population living in poverty, and greater misery prevailing, and more people turning to extreme forms of religion for solace, the more favourable the circumstances are for gathering new recruits.
(Not that all recruits to IS, Al Qaeda and the like are the products of extreme poverty. Ayman al-Zawahiri, for example, who’s been the current leader of Al Qaeda since his more famous predecessor got it in the neck in 2011, was born into an upper middle-class family in Cairo and is a qualified eye surgeon. Evidently, some people just join because they’re immensely f***ed up.)
The answer, then, is for everyone who feels strongly about democracy, and about defeating terrorists and thwarting the goals of terrorists, to book a holiday in Tunisia this summer. To fly over there, get out and about, spend some money and generally do their bit to help the inhabitants of this courageous little country. But with news outlets already reporting that several cruise liners have changed their courses to avoid docking in Tunis, I doubt if that is going to happen.
Anyway, here is what the usually well-informed Robert Fisk of the Independent has to say on the matter: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/tunisia-shooting-when-isis-attacks-a-museum-to-destroy-the-culture-of-its-disbelievers-what-treasure-of-the-western-world-is-now-safe-10120487.html.