Tunisian secularists take on Islamist extremists

Women received the vote shortly after independence in 1956 and unlike most Arab countries, polygamy is banned and abortions are allowed.

July 10, 2011 23:07
3 minute read.
A Tunisian woman holds the national flag.

tunisian flag_311 reuters. (photo credit: Louafi Larbi / Reuters)


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Fearing the gradual religious takeover of a country widely considered the most progressive in the Arab world, liberal and secular Tunisians have begun asserting their country's freedom of faith.

At least 1,000 Tunisians demonstrated in the capital Tunis on Thursday to voice their support for Tunisia's secular character which they feel is now under threat. They waved banners reading "I am free" and "Tunisia for all,” “Extremism out” and "A modern, independent Tunisia." 

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Many Tunisians fear the growing assertiveness of militant Islam following a June 26 attack on a Tunis cinema which showed a film advocating secularism. A gang of some 100 bearded men shouting "God it great" stormed Cinema Afrique, smashing windows and attacking the audience of the film Neither Allah, nor Master by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, a known critic of Islamization.

"A large part of Tunisian society feels it may lose many of its liberties," Rashid Khashana, a former editor in chief of Al-Mawkif, an opposition newspaper, told The Media Line. He said that the attack on the cinema was perpetrated by Tunisian Salafis, or Islamic fundamentalists, whose leader, Saif Allah Bin Hussein, was trained in Afghanistan and shared the ideology of Al-Qaida.

Khashana said that Tunisia has experienced a surge of Islamism since a popular revolution ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January. Women wearing bikinis at the beach have been harassed, while extremists in southern Tunisia expelled musicians coming to entertain Libyan refugees in May on the grounds that music was against Islamic law.    

"It's normal for differences to emerge in society after a revolution," Khashana said. "But at the end, Tunisians will return to what they have been for 14 centuries: Muslim, Sunni, moderate and open to other cultures."

Before January's Jasmine revolution, Tunisia was the most progressive country on women's rights in the Arab World. Women received the vote shortly after independence in 1956 and unlike most Arab countries, polygamy is banned and abortions are allowed in the North African country.

President Ben Ali, who took power in 1987, zealously guarded Tunisia's secular character, jailing opposition activists and journalists. The crackdown on the country's Islamists intensified following a 2002 terrorist attack on a synagogue in the resort city of Djerba, which dealt a dramatic blow to the country's vital tourist industry.  

But treatment of Islamist parties changed immediately after Ben Ali's flight to Saudi Arabia in January. In early March, the interim government finally legalized Ennahda, Tunisia’s once-outlawed main Islamist party modeled after Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, 30 years after its foundation in 1981.

Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi returned to Tunisia in January after two decades in exile, dismissing fears of an Islamic takeover and promising not to run for president. Ennahda is planning to participate in the parliamentary elections set for October 23 and recent polls said they would garner about 14% of the vote.

In early May, a group of 80 liberal civil society movements established Lam Echamel, Arabic for Reunion. The umbrella organization was created, according to its founding statement, to "oppose the forces of anti-modernity." It also stands for Republican values, total equality between men and women, and separation of mosque and state.

"An Islamist …has no right to impose his religion on me," Nadia El-Fani, director of the controversial film, told Tunisia's Hannibal TV in May. "That's his story, but I don't believe in God and I have the courage to say so."

But Hend Harouni, an English teacher from Tunis, said that in a traditional society such as Tunisia, films such as El-Fani's should be banned.

"This film is unacceptable," Harouni told The Media Line. "It doesn't fall under freedom of speech. There are red lines that you do not cross, and religion is one of them. The film offends the entire Muslim people."

She speculated that the men who attacked the cinema could well have been provocateurs hired by the film's producers to stir up emotions. She likened their demonstrations to the anti-Islamic scare campaign waged by Ben Ali in the 1980s and 1990s.   

"The demonstrators are preparing to exclude Islamists and create gaps within society," she said. "They have no respect for the majority, which is Muslim."

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