Anti-Semitic rhetoric increasing in Tunisia under MB

Analysis: Muslim clerics believe regime will let them intensify their incitement against Jews.

January 6, 2013 00:49
Salafists call for Islamic law in Tunisia

Salafists protest in Tunisia 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Ennahda party in Tunisia, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, received 41 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections and is now ruling the country – and suddenly there are worrying manifestations of anti-Semitism – led by religious figures.

Tunisia had long been known for its pro-Western orientation and its fairly liberal attitude to issues such as the status of women, education and religious tolerance.

Its overall attitude toward the Jews was not, however, markedly different from that of other North African countries.

As long as they recognized the preeminence of Islam, respected their Muslim neighbors and generally behaved as befits second class citizens, they were allowed to live in peace within their communities and to take an active role in the country’s economic and commercial circles.

And in the not so distant past, Jews were treated to the full dhimmi limitations according to the Shari’a: They had to pay a special tax and wear garments identifying them as Jews; they were forbidden to buy real estate and could be drafted every year for a period of forced labor. At times they were accused of imaginary offenses and mobs would loot and burn their houses and shops. By the second half of the 19th century a deepening Western interest in the country led to a gradual lessening of the burden, and discriminatory measures were lifted with the French takeover of 1881.

Habib Bourguiba, first president of the newly independent Tunisia in 1957, was certainly not anti-Semitic, but he did little to stop attacks on Jews and Jewish properties whenever there was a flare-up between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Albert Memmi, the well-known Tunisian-born Jewish writer, noted in his memoirs that the police would always arrive after mobs had finishing looting and burning.

The Six Day War saw unprecedented attacks on the community: The Tunis Great Synagogue was attacked and Torah scrolls were burned.

The writing was on the wall.

The process of exile which had started in the early ’50s accelerated. There were more than 100,000 Jews living in Tunisia in 1948. Today there are an estimated 2,000 left, many of them living on the island of Jerba.

In recent months there have been more and more reports of virulent verbal attacks on Jews as a whole, coming mostly from extremist Islamic leaders. During the visit of Hamas’s Gaza head of government Ismail Haniyeh last November, Salfists, whipped into a frenzy, yelled slogans calling for the destruction of the Jews.

Quoting French sources, the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi reported on December 12 that Imam Sheikh Ahmed al-Suhayli, preaching from the pulpit of a mosque in Rades, delivered a lengthy tirade against the Jews: “O Allah, you know what those accursed Jews have done, the corruption they spread across Earth... Strike them so that there is not one of them left.

Allah, make the men and women sterile. Bring down your wrath and your hatred on them.”

He delivered the sermon on Friday, November 30, and it was broadcast live on Hannibal TV, a popular channel with a large audience, and later taken up by a number of Internet sites.

In all fairness, there was an immediate outcry and lawyers for an association defending the rights of minorities filed a complaint against the cleric on the grounds that he unlawfully incited hatred between races, religions and peoples. No condemnation, however, was forthcoming from the government.

Al-Quds al-Arabi stressed that since the fall of the Ben Ali regime there had been a number of blatant attacks against the Jews.

In February 2012, Islamists who had gathered to welcome Egyptian cleric Wagdi Ghanaim greeted him with chants of “Death to the Jews.”

In March, during demonstrations in Tunis, a Salafi sheikh called on Tunisian youth to train in order to kill the Jews.

In November, the police arrested four Libyan citizens and a Tunisian policeman who were planning to kidnap a young Jew in order to demand a ransom from his family.

Not all incidents find their way into print. Salafist organizations buoyed by the success of the Muslim Brotherhood in the parliamentary elections are demonstrating throughout the country, clashing with liberal forces and clamoring for the adoption of Shari’a laws. Unfortunately, hatred toward the Jews is part of their doctrine.

Rashed Ghannouchi, who heads Ennahada, has expressed his wish to come to an understanding with the Salafists’ movement. In the past, he had been known to call for the destruction of Israel.

In fact, Israel is very much on the agenda, since a disposition in the first draft of the constitution made public in September would have made it a criminal offense to normalize relations with the Jewish state. There were protests in Tunisia and abroad, with Human Rights Watch condemning the move. It remains to be seen whether the article will be retained in the definite draft.

According to reliable sources, the appointment of a Jew as minister of tourism was blocked last month by extremist members of Ennahada.

Moderate members of that party such as Prime Minister Hamadi Jabali had promoted the appointment of Rene Trabelsi, head of the Jewish Community of Jerba, in order to show the world that Tunisia was not anti- Semitic.

Thought the Tunisian government from time to time makes reassuring statements on the issue, it is obvious that Muslim clerics believe that a regime led by the Brotherhood will let them intensify their incitement against the Jews.

A similar phenomenon can be observed in Egypt, cradle of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Hassan al-Banna and Sayed Qutub, the founding fathers of the movement, in the 1930s transformed anti-Jewish hatred rooted in the Koran into a new anti-Semitism blaming the Jews for every evil under the sun and calling for their elimination.

It seems as if the Arab Spring which was to set the Arab world on the path of progress is morphing even in Tunisia into the most extreme forms of Islamic fanaticism.

The writer, a Fellow of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Romania, Egypt and Sweden.

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