x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Challenge to Tunisia's secularism

With Ben Ali ousted, traditional Muslims assert their rights.

Men enter the mosque at Al Manar University for Friday prayers. Since Mr Ben Ali’s departure, conservative Muslims have taken to the streets to demand legal changes that would make it possible to live along what they consider more Islamic lines.
Men enter the mosque at Al Manar University for Friday prayers. Since Mr Ben Ali’s departure, conservative Muslims have taken to the streets to demand legal changes that would make it possible to live along what they consider more Islamic lines.

TUNIS // Every Friday, Abderraouf heads to a mosque near Al Manar University, where he and other traders sell Islamic books, alcohol-free perfume and face veils displayed on mannequins.

Under the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali they risked arrest. But since Mr Ben Ali was forced from office in January, Abderraouf, a recent university graduate, and other conservative Muslims have begun openly selling their wares to help Tunisians - as he puts it - "to know and follow Islam better".

In claiming their rights, Abderraouf and other more traditional Muslims are challenging Tunisia's secular values as the country struggles to reinvent itself in the post-Ben Ali era.

A council set up by Tunisia's interim government to oversee political reform finalised a new electoral law last week that reserves 50 per cent of places in electoral lists for women - a key goal of women's rights groups seeking to safeguard secular values.

"Islam is our religion, and it's not anything I want to hide or criticise," said Khedija Arfaoui, a member of Femmes Démocrates and the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development, two progressive women's organisations. "But I don't want anyone to impose the veil."

These contrasting views of religious practice reflect longstanding attitudes in Tunisia, said Sami Brahem, a specialist in Islamic movements at the Institut Préparatoire d'Études Littéraires et Sciences Humaines in Tunis.

During his three-decade rule, the president, Habib Bourguiba, a secularist, closed religious schools, outlawed polygamy and banned the Islamic headscarf in public places.

In 1987 an ailing Bourguiba was replaced by Mr Ben Ali, who jailed thousands of conservative Muslims after members of the moderately Islamist Nahda movement fared well in elections in 1989.

Within a decade, Salafism, an austere expression of Islam, was filtering into Tunisia from the Middle East via television stations and the internet, Mr Brahem said.

Calling for Islamic government and the strict segregation of the sexes, Salafis seek to emulate the salaf as-saalah, or "pious predecessors" - the first three generations of Muslims.

For some of Tunisia's estimated several thousand Salafis, doctrinal rigour is an antidote to what they describe as the spiritual ambiguity of modern life.

"Until I was 25 I had never read the Quran, never set foot in a mosque," said Abu Abderrahman, 34, a builder in Tunis who helps to run the mosque near Al Manar University. "Something was missing. I needed food and drink for my soul."

One day in 2002, Mr Abderrahman overcame his ambivalence and visited a mosque. Around him were men hunched in prayer. At first, he felt out of place.

"But whoever seeks and reads the Quran, the word of God plants a seed in his heart," he said. "Islam cannot be applied 70 or 80 per cent. It must be 100 per cent."

Since Mr Ben Ali's departure, conservative Muslims have taken to the streets to demand legal changes that would make it possible to live along what they consider more Islamic lines.

In February, hundreds demonstrated in Tunis's old city to call for the closure of a brothel there, prompting police to fire shots in the air to disperse crowds.

Two weeks ago, Salafis rallied and held evening prayer in Tunis's central boulevard to protest against a Ben Ali-era law banning the wearing of headscarves for identity card photos. Tunisia's interim government said the same day that it would remove the ban.

Such public activism has rattled more secular Tunisians, who often accuse Salafis of aspiring to impose a single brand of Islam.

"It's good to have people talking about Islam in public, since Ben Ali restricted it," said Adam Mars, 21, a medical student who prays every Friday at the campus mosque. "But the Salafis want to tell everyone how to live."

Others worry that if conservative religious practices are allowed to flourish, religious doctrines supporting violence will sprout alongside them.

In February authorities speculated that "terrorist fascists with extremist tendencies" had murdered a Polish Catholic priest, and secularist protesters rallied to condemn religious extremism. Police later arrested a local handyman in connection with the murder.

Meanwhile, authorities have barred the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir from legislative elections scheduled for July. In an interview with France's Jeune Afrique magazine, the prime minister, Béji Caid Essebsi, called the group's platform anti-constitutional.

While separate from the Salafi movement, Hizb ut-Tahrir similarly supports the strict application of Islamic law. Founded in 1953 in Jerusalem, the group seeks to weld Muslim countries into a single Islamic state through peaceful means.

"Tunisians want Islam," said Nabil Manai, a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir's political bureau in Tunisia. "They're fed up with the dictators and capitalism that have borne down on them for over a century."

According to Mr Manai, Hizb ut-Tahrir would impose the Islamic headscarf on women, ban non-Islamic political parties and partly collectivise the economy based on its reading of Islamic scripture.

Mr Brahem, however, said most Tunisians reject Hizb ut-Tahrir's style of political Islam, while the normal course of open public debate might actually moderate the views of Salafi activists.

"For example, Salafis are now obliged to express themselves through mixed-sex street demonstrations," he said. "Men and women have begun talking to one another."

Outside the Al Manar University mosque, the 25-year-old Abderraouf, who refused to give his surname, chatted with worshippers who passed by his stall while he struggled against the winds to keep his stock of abayas pinned to their line.

He insisted that his faith and his business were intertwined. "You can engage in trade that is either Islamically permissible or forbidden by Islam," he said. "I'm trying to sell what is permissible."

Then the adhan soared from the minaret, and he hurried towards the mosque gate.

"It's time to pray."

 

jthorne@thenational.ae