x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

With Ben Ali gone, repairs begin at Tunisia's closed mosques

Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's ousted president, spent years enforcing the country's secular order, controlling mosques and persecuting Islamist movements. His downfall has opened the door for a religious resurgence.

Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement An Nahda, waves upon arrival at Tunis-Carthage airport after 22 years in exile.
Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Tunisia's Islamist movement An Nahda, waves upon arrival at Tunis-Carthage airport after 22 years in exile.

TUNIS // It was 11 days since the fall of the regime and the university in the Tunisian capital was deserted, save for the mosque, where the sounds of hammering and electric tools floated into a grey winter morning.

Inside, Ibrahim Mansi, an accounting student with a black beard and wearing a blue knit cap, was pacing about with a clipboard and directing about 20 students restoring the holy place.

Some were whitewashing the walls and others were sanding and re-fitting the doors. Four girls in headscarves and wool coats buttoned against the cold were weeding the garden.

"The government closed this mosque in 2002," said Mr Mansi, 25. "Now we're re-opening it. It's not right that a mosque stand empty."

The regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's ousted president, spent years enforcing the country's secular order, controlling mosques and persecuting Islamist movements. His downfall this month has opened the door for a religious resurgence.

Tunisians from the secular liberals to the deeply pious welcome religious freedom, and the country's main Islamist movement is preparing to enter politics. But some worry that more greater participation by Islamists in politics could erode the country's secular values and reverse advances on women's rights.

Islam came to Tunisia in the 7th century with Arab armies sweeping across North Africa, and cities such as Tunis and Kairouan became centres of Islamic learning. French colonialism from 1881 injected secularist ideas into Tunisian society.

That set the stage for the policies of Habib Bourguiba, who ruled Tunisia after independence in 1956 and believed that Islamic tradition impeded the building of a modern state.

During Bourguiba's three-decade rule, a new family code was enacted that gave women equality with men in key areas, the hijab was restricted, and Islamic schools and courts were shut down.

Under Mr Ben Ali, who replaced Bourguiba in a bloodless coup in 1987, the government's tough stance on religion focused on Islamist movements deemed a political threat.

Thousands were imprisoned after members of the moderately Islamist An Nahda movement scored well in elections in 1989. Mr Ben Ali accused the group of plotting violence, which it denies.

In 2002, authorities closed the mosque at El Manar University in Tunis, ostensibly to make repairs, but let it fall into disrepair. The mosque's imam, Hassan Salmi, thinks there were other reasons for the closure.

"My sermons had nothing to do with politics, but I was getting up to 1,500 people for Friday prayer, which was a lot for a mosque of that size," Mr Salmi said. "The regime feared gatherings, especially gatherings of students."

State paranoia came to Mr Mansi's doorstep one night in 2007, he said, while he was discussing the hadith with friends.

"There was a knock at the door, my father opened it and police swarmed in," said Mr Mansi. "I spent a year in jail under Tunisia's anti-terrorism law, even though I've never had anything to do with violent groups."

Now that Mr Ben Ali's regime is gone, Islam in Tunisia is up for grabs. Some Tunisians remain staunch secularists, some want a more Islamic atmosphere, and some want Islam to inform governance.

Yesterday An Nahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, returned to Tunisia from two decades of exile in Britain, as thousands of cheering supporters mobbed the arrivals hall at Tunis's airport to greet him.

Thouraya Sebeg, 20, an engineering student attending Mr Ghannouchi's arrival with her mother, said: "He's been a source of inspiration during all the years I couldn't wear my veil. Tunisia can be a model for the Arabs if we have tolerance and the freedom to wear and say what we want."

An Nahda, or "The Renaissance", says it embraces democracy and plans to participate in elections expected in the coming months. While broadly supporting Tunisia's modern social values, it also calls for a return to the country's Islamic roots.

Abdel Karim Harouni, a human rights activist and member of An Nahda, said: "Islam is composed of faith, morals and laws. There's a legislative framework to which Muslims must refer, applied through modernity. Secularism is valid if people vote for it, but so far it has been imposed."

Such views worry some secular-minded Tunisians already alarmed by a recent rise in religious feeling they say could threaten the country's relatively liberal values.

The smooth curve of the headscarf has appeared in Tunisia's streets in recent years since Mr Ben Ali relaxed restrictions as part of eleventh-hour attempts to gin up popular support.

Khadija Cherif, a former president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats and a sociologist at the University of Tunis, said: "The rejection of the West is the rejection of modernity. But democracy will allow us to explain that religious faith doesn't mean you can't be modern."

An Nahda supports women's emancipation, Mr Harouni said. "And it's not linked entirely to secularism; we Islamists have also defended education, social rights and the rights of women."

Tunisians are exhilarated by the burst of freedom unleashed by the departure of Mr Ben Ali, who spent his 23 years in power ruthlessly crushing dissent. Central Tunis has become a carnival of demonstrations and impromptu street-corner speeches.

"You see? This is a pluralist society," said Murad Raissi, 26, an office manager watching groups of marchers with a mixture of pride and awe. "That means people must be free to wear a beard or a hijab, or go to the dawn prayer."

For Mr Mansi, the ousting of Mr Ben Ali prompted a flash of inspiration. Within 24 hours, he had begun recruiting fellow students and residents near the university to help refurbish the mosque. Some donated money for tools and supplies; one person created a Facebook page.

"Personally, I want a union between the government and Islam," Mr Mansi said. "But the mosque is for all Muslims, whatever their views."

On Friday, Mr Salmi, the imam, made his comeback sermon at the noon prayer. He disagrees with Mr Mansi's views on Islamic government, but he does agree that the mosque should be open to everyone.

"This wasn't the only university mosque that the government closed, and it's not the only one being restored by students like us," Mr Mansi said. "We're not alone."

jthorne@thenational.ae