Preserving religious moderation in Tunisia



 
Tunisia is struggling to preserve its religious tolerance in the face of the rise of radical Islam, writes Mourad Sellami.
 

In Tunisia, synagogues and churches stand side by side with mosques. Jewish and Christian minorities freely practice their religious rituals. This tolerant climate is ensured by the constitution which provides for habeas corpus, guarantees freedom of conscience and protects freedom of religious practice. But this open atmosphere for religious practices has been challenged in recent years by the rise of radical Islam in the Arab-Muslim world.

Dozens of young Tunisians have joined conflicts in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Bosnia over the past decades, and are flocking to Iraq in particular today. Within the country, the kameez (knee-length shirts worn by men in Afghanistan and Pakistan) is making an appearance on the streets of Tunisian cities as symbols of support to the people of these countries. For women, religious headscarves are now replacing the traditional Tunisian safsari (a large piece of white cloth worn by women over their head and clothes).

These changes worry a vast number of Tunisians, because they concern the pillars of their society, based on religious diversity and – almost – secular legislation. These two principles are under attack by more radical Muslims, who regard them as discordant with Islam.

Where else in the Arab world today would you find a Jewish community almost 6,000 strong? In Tunisia, the main body of the Jewish community lives on the island of Djerba, alongside a Christian community numbering over 20,000, comprised of Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Greeks. They share a mutual respect for the culture and rituals of the other faiths. In fact, Muslim Tunisians attend Christian and Jewish festivals, primarily Christmas and the Jewish pilgrimage to Djerba.

This tolerant and liberal approach also applies to the status of women. In 1956, the first president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, promulgated the Personal Status Code (CSP), the one and only piece of legislation instating monogamy in the Arab-Muslim world. The incumbent president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has further strengthened the CSP. In addition, Tunisia is one of the few countries in the world where religious ceremonial marriages are not conducted. Weddings are performed only by civil authorities, although they sometimes take place in a mosque.

The Tunisian people are not prepared to give up this rule of civil law under the pressure of a rising radical Islam that is using satellite TV channels to condemn religious freedom and the presence of non-Muslim tourists in Tunisia, and calls for the end of secular legislation.

Civil society supports the concept of a modern and tolerant society. Universities have staged seminars on the co-existence of religions and respect for cultural differences. And dozens of petitions have been circulated to promote support for the maintenance of women's rights in Tunisia and to call for their further strengthening.

The government has opted for extreme security measures. Any activities and media which could likely be infiltrated by fundamentalists – religious activities such as Islamic discussion circles and discussions for the elucidation of the words of the Prophet Muhammad – have been frozen. And the use of mosques has been restricted to the five daily prayers.

Any imams who may be suspected of religious extremism have been disbarred from Friday predication, when mid-day prayers are preceded by two predications by the preaching imam, and include precepts for daily life. Headscarves are banned in schools, universities and government offices.

For many human rights observers, such coercive measures have scant regard for religious freedom. By casting extremists in the role of victims, they glamorise extremism in the eyes of young people in search of identity or opposition. Such measures offer only cosmetic protection against rising fundamentalism.

An in-depth, pro-active discussion, based on tolerant religious discourse, is necessary to eradicate the ramifications of fundamentalism within society. The moderation of the Maliki brand of Islam (one of four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence) and the generally tolerant culture of the Tunisian people should be used to proclaim peaceful co-existence for all social classes and respect for others, including their differences.

Tunisia has always been at the crossroads of various civilisations. This cultural diversity should be conducive to the peaceful co-existence of all cultures and religions on the basis of mutual respect.

Only such a policy is capable of warding off the feelings of sympathy that may be garnered by extremists whose agenda is to create contention in society by branding as infidels all those who do not follow them. If a hard-line policy were adopted, the extremists might as appear as victims of intolerance, punished for their religious beliefs.

The ongoing struggle for tolerance in Tunisia is more nuanced than the fight for women's rights ever was. Now, as before, it is vital to wage and win this struggle by the force of argument.


Mourad Sellami is a Tunisian journalist working for the French-language daily Le Temps. His articles can be found at www.letemps.com.tn. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.