Abdelbaki Hermassi, a Tunisian sociologist who became his country’s minister of culture and foreign minister without ever joining a political party, died on October 23. He was 84.
Hermassi spent nearly 30 years in social research, especially of state and society in the Maghreb. He wrote several books and from 1970 to 1992 taught at the Universities of Tunis and California, Berkeley, before he was made his country’s ambassador to Unesco.
He also served as Tunisia’s minister of culture for eight years and, briefly, as minister of foreign affairs.
After his death, The Independent, a newspaper in the United Kingdom, quoted from a speech Hermassi made in 2002 at the University of Westminster, in London, explaining how his country had brought Islamic fundamentalists under control.
“In Tunisia the Islamic activists were rapidly brought to heel,” he said, “as the result of a multi-faceted approach that combined security handling (dismantling the networks), judicial action (bringing to trial those who had committed terrorist acts), economic action (drying up the springs of their funding), and lastly an educational and cultural approach (spreading the culture of toleration, freedom of expression and respect for others’ opinions.”
Hermassi had no time for the theory that the attacks on the United States’ World Trade Center and the Pentagon represented “a clash of civilisations.”
“Do not let us confuse our wars. The frontline is not between north and south, east and west, Christianity and Islam. It runs through mankind as a whole. The enemy is everywhere, lurking in the open wounds caused by injustice and fed by resentments inherited from the past.”
Hermassi’s Academic Career
Abdelbaki Hermassi was born to a poor family in Feriana, a town and commune in Tunisia’s Kasserine Governorate, in 1937, about 20 years before his country’s independence from France. He got his baccalaureate from the Lycee Carnot de Tunis before obtaining a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1962. Later he majored in sociology and got a Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, writing a thesis on Tunisia’s labor movement.
Hermassi deserves to be remembered “as one of the greatest men of sociology and culture the country has known since independence.Oussama Romdhani
A Tunisian journalist and former minister of communication
Munji al-Zaidi, a sociologist and professor of higher education at the University of Tunis, believes that Hermassi’s study of philosophy at a French university enabled him to possess a deep understanding of both Western and Arab thought.
Hermassi was one of the top professors in Moroccan and Islamic sociology, Al-Zaidi said.
An active researcher, Hermassi completed two field studies, one on smuggling and smugglers across borders, and the second on the bloody confrontation that took place in the Gafsa region in southern Tunisia, during the rule of former President Habib Bourguiba in the 1980s. Bourguiba was the first president of the Tunisian Republic, holding the post for thirty years (1957-1987).
Among Hermassi’s several books that enriched Arab social and political studies is “Society and the State in the Arab Maghreb” (Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, 1987). Hermassi also co-authored several publications, including: “The Crisis of Democracy in the Arab World” (Centre for Arab Unity Studies, Beirut, 1984).
Cultural Posts and Scholarship
The year 1992 marked a turning point for Hermassi from academia to diplomatic and political posts. He was first appointed as his country’s ambassador to Unesco, and later served as minister of culture, from 1996 to 2004, and as minister of foreign affairs for a brief time between 2004 and 2005.
‘‘Hermassi sought to spread culture throughout Tunisia, by “publishing the best Tunisian and Arabic books, taking care of the arts and taking Tunisian culture beyond its borders.‘‘Munji al-Zaidi
A sociologist and professor of higher education at the University of Tunis
When his political career ended Hermassi became an advisor to the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, in Abu Dhabi, but two years later returned to Tunisia to head the government organization that supervised the Tunisian media sector at the time.
Al-Zaidi said that Hermassi’s appointment as Minister of Culture represented a qualitative shift in the policies of the Tunisian state at the time, that the extensive intellectual production he fostered that “made him a friend of intellectuals and creators.”
“Hermassi sought to spread culture throughout Tunisia,” Al-Zaidi said, by “publishing the best Tunisian and Arabic books, taking care of the arts and taking Tunisian culture beyond its borders.”
In a commentary on the Al-Arab website, Oussama Romdhani, a Tunisian journalist and former minister of communication, wrote that Hermassi deserves to be remembered “as one of the greatest men of sociology and culture the country has known since independence.”
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
“The intellectual elite in Tunisia and the Arab world need to be inspired by … the fact that the intellectual must sometimes emerge from the mantle of elitism if he has something to offer to his nation and his country,” Romdhani wrote. “That was what Hermassi was really doing.”
To read more on Tunisian scholarship and academic thought, see the following selected articles and commentaries from Al-Fanar Media’s Tunisia archives:
- “Tunisia’s Hichem Djait Dies, Leaving a Prolific Record on the History of Islam”
- “Why Tunisia’s Once Superior Education System Needs to Reform Again”
- “Tunisian Researchers Probe the Roots of Radicalization”
- “Tunisian Academics Still Under Threat After the Jasmine Revolution”