x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Tunisia's young Salafis claim they are being persecuted

Tunisia's growing ultraconservative minority say they are unfairly marginalised by teachers, peers and the public, as religious unrest bubbles across the country.

Salafist students shout ‘Allah hu Akbar’ during a protest at the humanities and literature faculty in Manouba University, near Tunis.  Their protest to demand the right for women to wear veils during examinations turned violent as they clashed with secular students.
Salafist students shout ‘Allah hu Akbar’ during a protest at the humanities and literature faculty in Manouba University, near Tunis. Their protest to demand the right for women to wear veils during examinations turned violent as they clashed with secular students.

MANOUBA, TUNISIA // On a drizzly morning in Manouba University just outside Tunis, students throng the campus, steam rising from paper cups of tea and gossip wreathing the concrete architecture. A rainbow of headscarves brightens the greyness, though many young women go without, and a boy swaggers in a red-and-purple sweater, with one purple Converse sneaker and one red one.

As his multicoloured feet stride to class, the dandy passes - and ignores - a cluster of young men, most with beards and wearing the monochrome tunic and trousers adopted by fundamentalist Muslims, hugging and greeting each other.

Like any university clique, they drape arms around each other and crack jokes, but they, and others from Tunisia's growing ultraconservative minority, say they are unfairly marginalised by teachers, peers and the public, as religious unrest bubbles across the country.

"The teachers look at bearded guys as if they are from Mars," said one of them, Mansour, laughing a little bitterly. Last winter, this arts campus of the university became the front line in Tunisia's war for cultural identity, when some students staged a six-week sit-in calling for the right of women to wear the niqab, or full-face veil. The issue is still unresolved.

Late last month, in a nearby neighbourhood, clashes between police and a group of hardliners killed two people. The fighting seemed to stem from earlier violence when a group targeted a shop selling alcohol and came after months of similar incidents, culminating in a fierce attack on the US embassy in Tunis in September.

There was international alarm after the storming of the embassy, and one extremist religious leader known as Abu Ayoub was jailed for a year. But most young, religious people say that only part of their theologically diverse community is violent, and that they do not deserve hostility from fellow Tunisians.

"Religious people are persecuted," says Bassam Zidi, 25, a student of Spanish who says he wishes to spread the word of Islam when he graduates. He blames Tunisian and global media for portraying religious Muslims as barbaric.

"The media in the whole world is making a war against Muslims, they show that people with beards are not polite, that they are violent," said another student, Muhammed. But the reality, he said, is the opposite.

Muhammed said that those who use violence are making a mistake. "Islam is perfect," he said. "but humans are not perfect, and from that the mistakes come ... We are not angels, but we are not demons either."

Some of them identify as Salafis - those who adopt the ways of early Muslims - and some do not. Some reject elections and democracy as un-Islamic, while others cautiously see a place for the voter in the Muslim world.

One of them, Bassam, said he follows the teaching of Ayman Al Zawahiri, the global leader of Al Qaeda, whose recent video statements have called for the kidnap of Westerners and railed against secularism. Others said they don't follow one high-profile leader but cautiously approved of most of the sayings of a Tunisian Salafist leader known as Abu Ayyad Al Tunisi - wanted in connection with inciting the US embassy attack.

These young men - and women, too - find themselves in a contradictory situation. After the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was swept away by widespread protests in January last year, more than 50 years of autocratic rule with a heavy emphasis on secularism came to an end. A moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, now dominates an interim government and many have chosen to intensify their religious practices in this atmosphere of freedom.

But as some of the emerging leaders have called for violent action against people, places or things they deem blasphemous, like art galleries or the US embassy, many genuinely secular Tunisians grew horrified. That surge in anti-Islamist feeling has left the newly devout minority not sure whom to listen to.

Many people question these violent demonstrations of faith, said Kamel Marzouki, a teacher at a small, recently-opened school for the study of Sharia.

Those studying at the Imam Malek School of Sharia Sciences are working adults and university students who come in the evenings to learn more about their faith. It is tucked away on the first floor of a faded, elegant building just by the bustling main avenue of the capital. To have a such an institution here, its green sign nestled alongside the Nike stores and tourist cafes, would have been unthinkable under Ben Ali, said Mr Marzouki. The country has changed but it is still unsettled.

Growing up in this flux, often frustrated by lack of opportunities, is "confusing" for young people, he said. "It's normal in this transition period. There are these violent demonstrations and they do not know whether to participate."

An unconventional-looking religious instructor, Mr Marzouki is tall and angular in a sharp tan suit, with matching socks and shades, and a buzz cut setting off his long beard. He gesticulates with long arms when he speaks.

"My own view of violence is that I reject such things. Islam is a religion of peace and freedom. The participants in these demonstrations are ignorant, if they knew about Islam, they would not do this."

Among all Tunisians, but perhaps most of all among the religious community, there are profoundly divergent views about how people want post-Ben Ali Tunisia to be. One young woman who attends Manouba University and the Sharia school, Hajer Trabelsi, 21, did not cover her hair before the revolution and bemused her family when she put on a hijab - albeit often in leopard print.

To this diminutive, determined person, the veil represented freedom and she demonstrated along with thousands of others outside government buildings for the right to unfettered piety. "We were there," she said. "It's our country, we want to be real Muslims, we feel it's stigma that we're not wanted in society, we could not pray in public."

Now, she attends the school, sitting in a separate room marked "sisters" where the women watch male teachers via a television screen. If they have a question, they write it on a piece of paper and send it into the room with the men.

Miss Trabelsi has seen teachers here and on YouTube preach against democracy, the West, sometimes calling for violence. She respects these views. But she supports elections, studies Hebrew to understand Judaism and is reading - in English - a book about Shi'ism.

"I refuse to follow one sheikh blindly," she said. "I like to make up my own mind."

afordham@thenational.ae