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John P. Entelis, Stephen J. King, Lamia Zayzafoon
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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From almost the introduction of Islam in Tunisia, most Tunisians of the Muslim faith, like most other people of the Maghrib, have been Sunnī of the Mālikī rite dating back to the eighth-century scholar Mālik ibn Anas. However, many of the various dynasties that have ruled Tunisia, both of foreign and of Tunisian origin, have been of different persuasion. A Shīʿī dynasty, the Fāṭimids, overthrew the Aghlabid state between 905 and 909 and ruled Tunisia for most of the tenth century until it moved to Cairo in 1073. However, even then the Shīʿah were a small minority, and there is no Shīʿī community in Tunisia today. The Ḥanafī form a small but privileged minority of Tunisians, including the last dynasty of beys. Almost all of them are (or claim to be) descendants of the Turks who brought the Ḥanafīyah to Tunisia and who—at first through direct rule and later through a system of suzerainty—exercised substantial influence in the country from the early sixteenth century until the advent of the French protectorate.

During the course of the Ottoman Empire's influence in Tunisia, the Zaytūnah Mosque gradually became the center of all religious teaching, until it finally secured a virtual monopoly on it. According to rules established by Aḥmad Bey in 1842, which lasted well into the twentieth century, half the teachers were to be Mālikī and the other half Ḥanafī.

In much of rural Tunisia, especially in the northwest, popular Islam has been widespread for centuries. It fuses the teachings of the Qurʿān with ancient North African rituals such as saint worship and ecstatic cults.

The French Protectorate.

Although it is impossible to give definite figures about the size of Muslim religious brotherhoods in Tunisia in the early twentieth century, the membership was certainly much greater than the total of 58,143 reported at the time. The four biggest orders were the Qādirīyah, the Raḥmānīyah, the ʿĪsāwīyah, and the Tijānīyah; the ʿArūsīyah were also quite numerous. However, the political role of these organizations was practically nil, and even their religious influence was gradually declining. This trend has continued and, unlike the situation in Egypt, the recent Islamist revival movement in Tunisia has not taken the form of a brotherhood. The French, in accepting only formal Islam, forced many Krumirs (northwestern Tunisians) to adopt formal Islamic elements in place of their native popular Islam.

When the French protectorate was formally established in 1883 by the Treaty of La Marsa, the Zaytūnah Mosque's school had long been regarded as one of the leading centers of classical Islamic studies. Under the influence of French culture, both Zaytūnah and Khayr al-Dīn Pasha's Sadiki College, founded in 1875 with the intent of introducing modern education to Tunisia, became the heart of the growing nationalist movement in Tunisia, which was rooted in the schools rather than in a popular mass movement. Two early leaders of the movement at Sadiki College, ʿAlī Bāsh Hambak and Bāshir Sfar, split over the issue of how much of Western rationalism and French culture should be adopted. Sfar then established the revivalist Khaldūnīyah Institute in 1896, named after Ibn Khaldūn, in order to restrict the influence of French culture and restore Arab-Islamic culture in its pure traditional form. Hambak and Sfar later reconciled and went on to found the Young Tunisians.

At the beginning of the French protectorate both the Ḥanafī and the Mālikī schools of Islamic law were well established in Tunisia. Throughout the period of the protectorate the French left matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, and land ownership, to the jurisdiction of sharīʿah courts headed by Mālikī and Ḥanafī judges. However, through usage, principles of the French legal code were gradually imposed on Islamic law. There also were rabbinical courts for Jewish residents of Tunisia, as well as a separate, secular legal system staffed by French judges with jurisdiction over all cases involving non-Tunisians, as well as commercial matters and crimes.

The French administration discriminated against Tunisian Muslims in many ways, but it made it especially hard to remain a traditional Muslim and also participate in the advantages of the French sector of society. Often, this meant a choice between traditional Islam and socioeconomic advancement. Throughout the period of the French protectorate, there was a ubiquitous dualism of the traditional Tunisian and the French-assimilated or French-influenced sectors in Tunisia, which pervaded all aspects of life, including the educational and legal systems and the civil service.

That Islam should play a role in politics is not a new theme in Tunisian history. During the struggle for independence against France, Islam provided the moral, cultural, and ideological symbols needed to formulate popular resistance. Such leading nationalist personalities as Thaʿālibī, Sfar, Khiḍr Ḥusayn, and Ṭāhir Ḥaddād called for the defense of Islamic values. Even Habib Bourguiba, the “father of his country,” insisted in 1929 on the retention of the veil as a symbol of Tunisian identity. Following World War II, however, it was Ṣalāḥ ibn Yūsuf—a rival of Bourguiba—who wielded Islamic symbols and allied himself with organizations based around the university mosque of Zaytūnah in Tunis.


On March 20, 1956 France formally recognized Tunisia's independence. In the same year the new president, Habib Bourguiba, pushed through a controversial measure called the Personal Status Code, which replaced Qurʿānic law in the areas of marriage, divorce, and child care, not merely challenging some traditional Muslim practices but confronting them head-on, in a way the French never did. Tunisia became the first Arab country to outlaw polygamy. A skillful statesman and a hero of the independence movement, Bourguiba even managed to get partial support for the controversial Personal Status Code reform from influential circles in the ʿulamāʿ, thus taking a less radical approach to reform than Kemal Atatürk of Turkey.

In September of the same year, sharīʿah courts were abolished. By nationalizing the ḥubus (religiously endowed) lands, Bourguiba deprived the ʿulamāʿ of an important material source of independence, bringing the religious establishment financially further under the control of the government. Bourguiba's educational reform effectively neutralized Zaytūnah, at least temporarily, by integrating it into the University of Tunis. This was, in fact, part of a broad strategy of weakening independent sources of potential political power within the traditional religious establishment: Islamic officials exercising independent influence through sharīʿah courts, schools, and ḥubus lands lost their power base as a result of legal and educational reforms.

The strategy of the government did not end with the weakening or eliminating of potential competitors. The religious apparatus became an administrative body and an ideological intermediary of a central power eager constantly to increase its intervention in the religious sphere. Bourguiba actively sought to use the Islamic institutions now controlled by the state as a means to push for modernization and economic development. The reactivation of Islam as a state religion meant the use of religion to further goals determined by the state or, more accurately, the political elite in the ruling Neo-Destour Party.

The government actually increased the number of mosques in Tunisia from 810 in 1960 to 2,500 in 1987, and set aside prayer spaces in universities and government ministries. Yet since independence all Tunisian governments, in their quest for modernization, have opposed popular Islam. In the early years after independence, permissions for saintly festivals were refused, and a number of shrines were even demolished by the authorities. Certain elements of ritual practice were prohibited, and the orders were severely criticized. Yet while popular Islam has been weakening in a religious sense, it also has developed into a major symbol of growing peasant consciousness.

After his ascent to power Bourguiba did not openly advocate secular reforms. Rather, his ostensible aim was to reform Islam in Tunisia by putting its activities under the control of his new state apparatus and by correcting decadent practices that no longer accorded with their religious source. Instead of attacking what he believed to be fundamental tenets of Islam, he tried to project himself as a great Muslim reformer in the tradition of Muḥammad ʿAbduh of Egypt. Whether Bourguiba was seen as opposed to the tenets of Islam depended, of course, on one's perspective. For some, neither Bourguiba nor Bourguibism have ever been hostile to Islam; rather, Bourguiba merely opposed the insistence of fundamentalists that Islam should stand as the central axis of Tunisian identity. In this view, suppressing the traditional educational system at Zaytūnah and reinterpreting the basic tenets of Islam so as to make them more compatible with modernization was required in order to defend Islam from “Western contamination” through a selective borrowing of Western values in the context of a modern state system, and merely continued the legacy of earlier reformers such as Khayr al-Dīn.

On February 5, 1960, more than three weeks before Ramadan began that year, Bourguiba launched an attack on the core Muslim practice of fasting observed by most Tunisians. Asserting that it was his fatwā (Islamic legal edict) that economic development was a jihād or holy war—which, if accepted as true, would have permitted the temporary suspension of fasting—the president openly defied the fast and called upon Tunisians to do likewise. The policy proved unacceptable to most Tunisians, who defied the order, and it caused substantial unrest. Bourguiba's continuing attempts in the following years to eliminate the practice only made things worse, and eventually he capitulated.

Despite controversy and opposition, Bourguiba's policies had a determinative impact on Islam's role in modern Tunisia. Islam has been made subservient to a secular state, and its role in society has been progressively circumscribed. Although the constitution declares Islam the state religion, sharīʿah courts have been abolished, the state prepares the sermons to be preached in the mosques, the Personal Status Code is based on a liberal interpretation of Islamic law, and religious education itself has been secularized with the establishment of a faculty of theology to replace the Zaytūnah Mosque as the center of Islamic learning.

Despite the apparent victory of secular policies, three modes of Islamic practice continue to be important in Tunisian state and society: traditional practices including participation in religious brotherhoods, conduct influenced by the Salafī movement and the ideology of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, and rational religious behavior that gives precedence to reason in the interpretation of holy texts.

It appears that until about 1970 the government had reason to believe that it had eliminated all religious opposition through emasculation of the traditional religious establishment and neutralization of conservative fundamentalist forces. Except for a demonstration in Qayrawān in 1961, there had not been any serious criticism of a religious nature until 1970.

Rise of the Opposition and Current Configura-tion.

Like most of the region's Islamic revivalist groups, Tunisia's Islamic Tendency Movement (known by its French initials MTI) predates the revolution in Iran. Indeed, Iran's 1979 revolution can be seen as only the most visible example of a trend that can be traced to the aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War, when many Muslims felt that their devastating losses were tied to their abandonment of Islam. MTI members and supporters of other Islamist movements are not drawn from the traditional religious elites whose power and prestige were destroyed in the process of modernization, but rather from the urban petite bourgeoisie and the jobless, who felt that Bourguiba's secular state had failed to deliver on its promise of sociopolitical advancement and mobility.

The radicalization and politicization in the late 1970s of Rāshid al-Ghannūshī and others in the Islamist movement, who had initially been more concerned with religious and moral issues, are attributed to three factors: the exposure of militant Islamic secondary-school students to Marxist thought once they began university-level studies, the conflict between the Tunisian government and the labor federation, and the example of the Iranian revolution of 1978–1979. Feelings of dislocation and alienation turned an essentially apolitical group into an activist organization. There are a number of interesting parallels between the early nationalist movement and today's Islamic revivalists. Both started out almost exclusively as student movements; adjusting for socio-economic development, both appealed essentially to the same strata in society and were strongest in the same regions; and both used the symbolism of Islam as a unifying rallying point against the existing government, which they portrayed as lacking legitimacy largely because of its insufficient commitment to Islam.

As in most other countries that experienced Islamic revivalism, the movement in Tunisia was independent of the established ʿulamāʿ. The first attempt to organize an Islamist movement in Tunisia was made during the early 1960s, without much success, by a Pakistan-based movement called Group of the Call and Communication, or simply Daʿwah. The Islamic groups that emerged in Tunisia had distinctly different focuses. The Daʿwah's focus was on the individual rather than on Islamic society as a whole or on Islamic thought, which were characteristic of the MTI and the later Progressive Islamicists. The eventual goal of the Daʿwah was the building of an Islamic society, but its approach was bottom-up: as the building block of society, the individual had to be reformed before society could be. Their key reformist concept is taṣlīḥ (restore, fix, make right or righteous), and their goal is to create ṣāliḥ (righteous, virtuous, godly) individuals as a means to achieve a true Muslim society. The main reason the Daʿwah failed to catch on may have been its incongruence with Islamic practice in Tunisia.

In 1971, in one of history's ironies, the government actually helped the budding fundamentalist movement by giving the educational curriculum a more conservative cast and by supporting the creation of an Islamic group at the University of Tunis, in an effort to capture the growing Islamist sentiment and at the same time contain the influence of leftist university intellectuals. The organization, the Association for the Safeguarding of the Qurʿān, succeeded in wresting control of the university campuses from the left and supplanted it as the predominant force among the student body. Soon the association's publication Al-maʿrifah, founded in 1972, carried a number of articles by Rāshid al-Ghannūshī, a University of Tunis professor, and ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Mūrū, a lawyer, which conveyed a distinctly political message. There was, however, not yet any hint of the later politicization of the movement and of Ghannūshī's thought. Ghannūshī's early writings were not very original, often restating the ideas of those he had studied closely in Tunisia and Syria: al-Afghānī, Sayyid Quṭb, Ḥasan al-Bannā, Mawdūdī, and Ayatollah Khomeini. They shared a profound mistrust of Western secular ideologies and an idealized depiction of Islamic societies.

In 1981, in recognition of its greater focus on political and social activism and after two years of developing local and regional structures, the Islamic Group officially renamed itself Movement of the Islamic Way, more popularly known as the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), mentioned above. The MTI was officially founded in June 1981, with Mūrū and Ghannūshī as its leaders. It once again changed its name in 1988, this time to Ḥizb al-Nahḍah (Renaissance Party), in order to accede to government demands that no political party seeking legal recognition have the word “Islam” in its name. Until the regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali (who took office in 1987) took a hard-line, no-nonsense approach to al-Nahḍah, it remained not only the most active but by far the largest of the Islamist movements in Tunisia, with a platform calling for the reconstruction of economic life on a more equitable basis, the end of single-party politics, the acceptance of political pluralism and democracy, and a return to conservative moral and religious values. Al-Nahḍah did not consider itself the sole representative of Islam in Tunisia, as the government charged; rather, it claimed to represent a religious and political alternative to official Tunisian Islam. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, the Islamists succeeded in creating a parallel society, highly antisecular and antistate in its orientation.

In an attempt to appease, co-opt, or integrate the Islamist opposition, or at least to remove Islam as a symbol of opposition, President Ben Ali ordered various policy changes designed to give Islam a more prominent role in public life and to portray the state as a protector of Islam. The adhān and prayers were broadcast on television, Hijrah dates appeared on official documents, and the Zaytūnah was given the status of a university; the president's pilgrimage to Mecca was also made a part of this strategy. Ben Ali also enlarged the Higher Islamic Council in both size and budget and announced the revival of the virtually dormant Committee of Reflection on Religious Affairs.

When his attempts proved unsuccessful in withdrawing the base of support from the Islamist opposition, Ben Ali's stance hardened. The army and police were purged of Islamist sympathizers, and hundreds of people were arrested. After the 1989 local elections, al-Nahḍah was again refused recognition; Ghannūshī went into voluntary exile in Paris, and his deputy ʿAbd al-Fattāḥ Mūrū assumed leadership of the party.

Although al-Nahḍah was permitted to publish a weekly journal, Al-fajr, their journal Mustaqbal was closed down. Tensions between the government and the Islamist opposition continued to escalate, culminating in an all-out “war” that had effectively destroyed all public vestiges of al-Nahḍah by early 1993. This highly effective crackdown did not, however, put a definitive end to al-Nahḍah as a political force. It has held conferences abroad since 1992 for its rank-and-file members to set the movement's future priorities and strategies. In 1995 the movement held a general conference at which new leaders were elected. During that conference it reaffirmed public declarations of adherence to nonviolence and called for an end to political polarization by advocating for the political rights of all Tunisian political forces, including al-Nahḍah. The movement has proven its ability to withstand repression and reorganize. It is a dormant force that could be rekindled if political conditions in Tunisia change in a direction of increasing discontent with the authoritarian regime.

Ben Ali's repression of Islamists extended to other political forces as well. The promising political opening undertaken during the beginning of his presidency derailed into a regime seemingly unwilling to countenance any independent social force. The decision to foreclose all opportunities for moderate Islamists to engage in politics probably contributed to the radicalization of Islamists in Tunisia. Violent transnational jihadists have also made their presence felt in Tunisia since September 11, 2001. In April 2002, al-Qaʿida agents blew up a synagogue in Djerba, killing a number of people, including foreign tourists. In late December 2006 and January 2007 two intensive shootouts with the police occurred. A previously unknown Tunisian armed group, Youth of Tawḥīd and Jihād, claimed responsibility for the violent outbreak. The Tunisian Minister of the Interior blamed Salafists from Algeria. There was also speculation that al-Qaʿida of the Islamic Maghrib, formerly the GSPC in Algeria, plotted the attacks.

From his exile in London, Ghannūshī continued to serve as the symbol of a Tunisian Islamist movement that publicly accepts multiparty democracy and denounces political violence. Within Tunisia, the government continued its policy of rejecting all religious parties. In a televised interview in 2007 the Tunisian Minister of Justice, Bechir Tekkari, declared that “agreeing to establish a political party based on religion is tantamount to accusing all Tunisians of being non-believers.” Islamist commentators pointed out that several political parties in Europe carry “Christian” in their names without offending all other Christians who do not support those parties. Ghannūshī saw the comments as a setback. The Minister's comments followed several government steps that seemed to suggest a shift toward the political inclusion of moderate Islamists. Some jailed members of al-Nahḍah were released. A radio station for the recitation of the Qurʿān was authorized. Despite those steps, the policy toward Islamists in Tunisia remained one of containment through confrontation, arrests, and prosecution.

Islam after the 14 January 2011 Revolution.

On 17 December 2011, a 26-year old street peddler in Sidi Bouzid set himself ablaze in protest of police brutality. Initial media accounts depicted Muhammad as a college graduate turned street peddler to feed a family of eight. Because he did not have a permit, Fadia Hamdi, a municipal policewoman, slapped him and confiscated his fruit, vegetables, and scales. He was too poor to pay the usual bribes to reacquire his goods, and there was no justice system the poor like him could resort to. Thus, in an act of protest and desperation, he immolated himself. To polish his public image, President Ben Ali paid a visit to the dying Bouazizi at the hospital and put the blame on Hamdi, the policewoman who allegedly slapped the street vendor. Ben Ali’s attempt to contain the incident was unsuccessful as the news quickly spread through Facebook and other forms of social media. Ignited in the south, the uprising quickly spread to the northwest and other parts of the country, leading to the fall of the Ben Ali regime. Even though he promised political and social reforms in his January 13 presidential address, it was too late—hundreds of civilians had already died of government bullets and thousands more were injured. As cyber activists and the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians who turned out for the 14 January 2012 demonstration on Avenue Habib Bourguiba shouted: “Dégage! Game is over.” Ben Ali fled that same evening to Saudi Arabia.

Later, it turned out that Bouazizi was a high school dropout. The trial of Hamdi exonerated her of any wrongdoing; the story of the slap was a hoax. While the exact reasons why Bouazizi killed himself may never be known, it is certainly his suicide that served as a direct catalyst for the Tunisian Revolution. Identifying with the story of his unemployment, poverty, and frustration with bureaucracy and police brutality, Tunisian youths or netizens, wittingly and unwittingly, utilized this incident to demand justice, social, economic, and political reforms. As Jean Pierre Filiu succinctly put it, the Tunisian revolution is not the “Jasmine Revolution,” but the “Dignity Revolution” (thawrat al-karama). The Arab Spring is about “l’homo-democraticus” not “[l]’homo-Islamicus” (3).

In the early days of the Revolution Tunisians demanded jobs, justice, and social and economic equities between regions; the return of the political dissidents from exile; the creation of 81 political parties overnight; and the legalization of al-Nahḍah Party on 1 March 2011 after a twenty year ban. This newfound political activity led to a national identity crisis pitting Islamists against secularists. Even though suicide is categorized as a major sin (min al kabaer) in Islam, it is thanks to Bouazizi that the Islamist Party al Nahḍah came into power. When exiled Islamist leader Rashed Ghannūshī returned to Tunisia on 30 January 2011, he was welcomed in Carthage International Airport with “Tala’a al badru ‘alaynā” (“The Moon Rises”), a song Prophet Muhammad’s disciples performed when he arrived to Medina during his hijra or exile from Mecca to their city in 622 C.E. In the Islamist mythical narrative of the al-Nahḍah Party and its disciples, this song marked a return to Islam after decades of symbolic exile and alienation in the Meccan/Jahiliyan secular time frame of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Whereas over 98% of the Tunisian population is nominally Muslim and Arabophone, the returning Islamists, backed by televangelists in the Middle East and the Gulf countries (namely, Wagdi Ghānim), were presenting their return from exile as a new fath; i.e., as a twenty-first century Islamicization that would rescue Tunisia from the evils of Bourguibism and secularism. In the 23 October 2011 elections, al-Nahḍah won over 40% of the seats in the Constitutent Assembly. Soon afterwards, the troika consisting of Congrès pour la République (CPR), Ettakatul (The Democratic Forum for Work and Liberties), and al Nahḍah formed a new government to lead the country into this transitional phase. Moncef Marzouki became Interim President, Hamadi Jebali (Secretary General of al Nahḍah Party) as Prime Minister, and Mustapha Ben Jaafar as President of the NCA (National Constituent Assembly).

In Tunisian local mythology, many CPR and al-Nahḍah leaders claim spiritual ascendancy from Salah Ben Yūssef, Bourguiba’s main political rival in the 1950s. Although it may seem odd, the liaison between the Islamist party al-Nahḍah and left wing CPR leader Marzouki (also former president of the Tunisian Human Rights League) is the consequence of a common anti-Bourguibist sentiment that is deeply rooted in the Civil War that broke out between the Bourguibists and the Yūssufiya in the 1950s. While Bourguiba sought to forge political and economic ties with the West, Ben Yūssef was a Pan-Arabist who not only favored ties with the Arab and Islamic world, but also fought for the independence of the whole Maghreb, not just Tunisia. It was the memory of Bourguiba’s repression of the Yūssufiya in the 1950s and early 1960s, rather than a particular Islamic ideology, that was behind the rapprochement between CPR and al-Nahḍah leaders. Both fathers of Marzouki and Jebali were, indeed, from those Yūssufiya persecuted by Bourguiba. One of the first things the new government did after coming to power in the fall of 2011 October was to reopen the old file of Lazhar Chraïti, a former Yūssufiya sympathizer executed for his implication in the 1962 coup d'état plot against Bourguiba. His family never learned the whereabouts of his remains. On 5 April 2012, Marzouki invited to Carthage Palace the families, children and grandchildren of former Yūssufist militants to hear their testimonies. The official reinsertion of this lost generation into Tunisia’s national memory was an early step toward justice and national reconciliation. Rather than being merely a conflict between religious Arabophone zealots and secular Francophone extremists, the current identity crisis has been symptomatic of unhealed civil war wounds exacerbated by regional disparities in development, education, and distribution, of wealth between the Sahel (birthplace of Bourguiba and Ben Ali) and the poor southern and northwestern regions, the political bases of his rival Ben Yūssef.

In his book Dictateurs en sursis, Marzouki writes that Ghannūshī committed the biggest “mistake” in his “political career” when he announced in 1987 that he had “trust in God and Ben Ali” (86). To al-Nahḍah’s credit, many Tunisians welcomed the arrival of Ben Ali at that time, including disenchanted Bourguibists and secularists. After the bloody events of 26 January 1978, the Gafsa Rebellion of 1980, the Bread Riots of 1984, and the crackdown on student movements and Islamists in the early 1980s, the popularity of Bourguiba dropped, and the country was ready for a change. Separating himself from his predecessor, Ben Ali sought to gain political legitimacy by emphasizing the nation’s Islamic heritage. He restored saint worshipping, appointed imams in mosques, and reopened the Zaytūnah mosque. Even after he broke away from the Islamists in the early 1990s, he continued to cater to the religious right by creating the first Islamic bank and Zaytūnah radio station. He also attempted to restore the image of Qairawān as an Islamic cultural capital. Neither Ben Ali nor Bourguiba were secularists à la Atatürk; as their political detractors often argue, Islam was simply a convenient tool to defend themselves against both the Right and the Left (Bessis).

In Ben Ali’s Tunisia, especially in the aftermath of 9/11, the veil and the beard became visible markers of a mythical Islamic identity that derives its raison d’être by opposition to the Ben Ali regime and the West. During the anti-colonial struggle only the body of the Tunisian woman was visually exploited by Maghrebi male nationalists to resist French colonialism. In the postcolonial area, both the male and female bodies of Muslim men and women came to be utilized to oppose state hegemony. In the 1980s, male and female students affiliated with the Islamic Tendency Movement wore respectively short cut beards and veils to oppose the secular policies of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Just as the French and Tunisian nationalists alike transformed the body of the Tunisian woman into the symbolic site of the anti-colonial struggle, both Islamists and Salafīs presented Islamic identity as commodity spectacle rather than an internal or hidden belief, consisting of veils, niqāb, and gloves for women and jebba, chechia, qamīs, burnūs, kuntra (slippers), and Afghan clothes for men. The popularity of the niqāb and the beard in the Post-Revolution era among the young generations of Tunisians ought to be understood as a form of political of protest, not religiosity; a symptom of anxiety, not faith; and a cry to belong to the present, not the past.

Even though they came into power owing to the rules of a constitutional democracy, al-Nahḍah leaders gave mixed signals to their electorate. The declaration of Tunisian MP Su’ād Abdelrahim that single mothers were inconceivable within a Muslim country worried secularists and feminists, who took her statement as a threat to the legal protection given hitherto to single mothers and Tunisian children born out of wedlock. The fight over the wearing of the niqāb in academia, the place of the sharīʿah law in the new constitution, the creation of the religious or morality police on 17 February 2012, the ousting of unveiled religious expert Dr. Iqbal Gharbi from her position as Director of the Zaytūnah radio station, and the waving of the Caliphate black flag by Salafī hardliners on the Manouba Campus and the Clock Tower downtown Tunis in March 2012 raised concerns for Tunisians on both sides of the political spectrum. On 26 March 2012 the ruling al-Nahḍah Party said the sharīʿah law would not be included in the new constitution, but to the disappointment of the secular left, Article 1 of the old constitution holding Arabic and Islam as the state language and religion was preserved (Fahim). The adoption of this article was problematic because it excluded Tunisian Jews and atheists and did not recognize people’s right to change their religion if they so choose.

Central to the debate inside the National Constituent Assembly was a new clause the al-Nahḍah Party introduced to the new constitution stipulating that “Freedom of thought, expression, press, and publication are guaranteed while taking into consideration the sanctities of peoples and religions” (Guellali). For human rights activists, this clause curtailed freedom of speech, as seen in the lawsuit against Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nesma TV, for broadcasting the film Persepolis. 140 lawyers brought charges against him because he “disturbed public order” and hurt the “sanctity of their religious beliefs” by showing a picture of a little girl speaking to God (Ghribi).

In April 2012, two atheists were sentenced to a fine and seven and a half years in prison for attacking the “sacred symbols” of Islam. On March 8, a judge fined Nasseridine Ben Saida (the editor in chief of Attounisia newspaper) 1,000 dinars for publishing an indecent picture of Sami Khedira (a Tunisian soccer player in Real Madrid) with his girlfriend. No charges were filed, however, against a Salafī sheikh for his call to kill Jews (Trabelsi, “Tunisia”) or Sadok Chūrū (a Nahḍah MP) for saying in the National Constituent Assembly, on 23 January 2012, that religious texts allowed to “crucify” and “cut off the hands and feet” of the Tunisian demonstrators (Trabelsi, “Ennadah”). The double standards in the understanding and application of freedom of speech laws have sparked outrage among human rights activists in post-revolution Tunisia.

In Tunisian academia, the government’s reluctance to prevent the Salafīs from entering the universities during the controversy surrounding the wearing of the niqāb, along with and physical and verbal attacks against university professors, led many academics to suspect the government was using them to curtail academic freedoms. In 2011, a controversy arose in Tunisia surrounding an interview in which al-Nahḍah activist Moncef Ben Salem dismissed the Tunisian novelist Ali Dou’āgi (1909-1949) and his interwar literary circle Taht Essūr as a group of profligates and alcoholics who mocked Islam (Souissi). Because of these comments, Tunisian academics opposed his nomination to the post of Tunisian Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Just as al-Nahḍah has been focused on reforming academic programs to emphasize Tunisia’s Arabo-Islamic heritage, the Tunisian left has worried about the “de-Tunisification” of their national patrimony, which they have seen as pluralistic and multicultural. One of the most-widely circulated political pamphlets circulated by Tunisian academics and human rights activists has been an early 19th century letter in which the Zaytūnah Mosque scholar ‘Umar al Mahjūb rejected Wahhabi Islam. This letter has been used not just to reject non-Tunisian Islam, but also to counter the Islamist accusation that Tunisian secular traditions are alien French colonial imports.

Because of the clash between Salafīs and secularists in late March 2012, the government banned all demonstrations on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, which acquired a highly symbolic significance after the 14 January Revolution. This led to violent clashes on 9 April 2012 between the police and demonstrators who defied the ban to pay tribute to both the Revolution and the victims of French colonialism. The crackdown on the march of the unemployed on 7 April 2012 also undermined the popularity of the newly elected government among the lower classes, and highlighted the need for al-Nahḍah to depart from the politics of cultural identity to address the festering problem of unemployment, regional disparities, the deteriorating economy, and skyrocketing food prices. At the same time, many on the left still cling to Bourguibism, and have resisted attempts to reopen the national archives as a gesture to the thousands of Tunisians killed under his dictatorship. Still, al-Nahḍah must realize that not all Tunisian secularists are pro-Bourguibists and that Islamists were not the only victims of Bourguiba and Ben Ali. Having been exiled for over twenty years, it will take time for the government leadership to comprehend the reality on the ground.



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