Opinion: Tunisia has a problem with internalised Islamophobia

More the tension between more conservative strains of Islam and more secular Muslims than Islamophobia:

On March 13, the Tunisian government announced emergency measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

The measures included closing its sea borders, suspending international flights, shutting cafes from 4pm and completely closing mosques.

It was this last decision that sparked controversy on social media and among religious scholars and reminded many Tunisians of something they have long suspected; a deep-seated Islamophobia that has framed internal Tunisian policies and politics since the country’s independence from French colonial rule in 1956.

While the importance of prevention measures and controlling the spread of the virus is not debatable, the choice to completely close down mosques while only partially closing cafes was met with dismay.

Hicham Grissa, president of Zitouna University in Montfleury, criticised the decision as being “unresponsive” to people’s need for religious and spiritual practices in these times.

Grissa said while the spread of the virus will determine future actions, right now “you should not be talking about prohibiting prayer in mosques, unless the same measures are being taken for cafes and clubs.”

One mosque-goer in Nabeul, where I am from, told me: “I went to pray at dawn and the mosque was closed.

“We are usually only a dozen people at the Fajr prayer in the neighbourhood mosque, and we’re only there for 10 or 15 minutes. I just don’t see how that poses a higher risk than cafes downtown that host hundreds of people throughout the day.”

As schools and universities were closed from March 12, Tunisian youth took to cafes, sitting in confined spaces, drinking coffee and playing card games.

The decision to suspend prayer in mosques was, therefore, perceived by many social media users as the continuation of a state tradition of what they see as internalised Islamophobia, and “problematising” Islam and Islamic practices as the first step in dealing with crises.

This is all reminiscent of another problematic decision illustrating the internalised Islamophobia of the Tunisian state – the niqab ban imposed in July 2019.

After a double suicide bombing in June, Tunisia’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, issued an order banning the wearing of the Islamic face veil in all state buildings and institutions for “security reasons”. This, despite the fact that the Ministry of Interior denied that the culprit had been wearing a niqab to disguise himself.

Several civil society organisations and politicians considered this to be a repetition of the hijab ban which has been imposed several times in Tunisia’s modern history. Over time, such bans have taken their toll on women’s rights and on freedom of religion, with resulting arrests, imprisonment, suspension from work and even police violence.

In 2019, activists argued that, if security is a concern, the state can take several measures to ensure security without infringing on freedom of religion and banning clothing. For example, female police officers or employees could carry out identity checks or searches at the entrance to public buildings in case of security concerns.

However, consecutive Tunisian governments from 1956, while more lenient today than in the past, have continued to exhibit an internalised Islamophobia that has propagated throughout Tunisia.

In the 1960s, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, sought to weaken Islamic culture and establish a secular national identity. He closed the historical Islamic Zitouna University and discouraged fasting, personally appearing on TV drinking orange juice during Ramadan and advising Tunisians to do the same.

The Bourguiba administration abolished the system of religious endowments and religious courts, banned groups and political parties with an Islamic focus and officially banned the hijab in 1981, a policy that remained in place until the Tunisian revolution in 2011.

This state-sanctioned anti-hijab sentiment can be traced back to French colonial rule when women were encouraged to remove their veils as a statement of modernity and civilisation. This began in Algeria, but it was this Western notion of “modernity” that Bourguiba later sought to enforce in Tunisia.

This imposition of secular national identity resulted not only in the persecution of large groups of people but also in a growing societal mistrust of certain Islamic practices.

Restrictions on Islamic practices intensified during the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali administration from 1987 to 2011, when the state leveraged the fear of the threat of terrorism to crack down even more on religious freedoms and further entice fear of Islam among its population.

The Ben Ali administration enacted the 2003 anti-terrorism law, for example, which served to further alienate and persecute political opposition and ordinary religious people.

According to reports by organisations such as Amnesty International, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were prosecuted under this law. The law was vague and activities that were deemed to warrant police investigation included praying in mosques and owning Islamic items.

Just like the Bourguiba government before it, the Ben Ali administration established an increasingly authoritarian rule, under the cover of “modernity” and “fighting terrorism”, amid silence from Western allies such as the United States and France.

People who wore the hijab, who went to the mosque regularly or who engaged in Quran studies or recitation were perceived as “too religious”, and as a threat to Tunisian homogeneity and state security.

Documents found by protesters in police stations during the 2010 to 2011 protests showed how informants would keep logs of the numbers of people who went to a specific mosque, who was in the front row, how many women wore the headscarf and even how many women wore the headscarf but with more conservative, loose-fitting dresses.

A classified internal document from the Ministry of the Interior dated 2009, which started circulating on social media a few weeks ago, reads: “I am honoured to let you know that on 18/03/2009, a girl wearing a headscarf was detained [….] after investigation it became clear that she practises her religious duties regularly. She was warned about the necessity to remove the sectarian dress and she showed willingness to do so.” “Sectarian clothing” was the term used by the government to describe the headscarf at that time.

The government’s use of both police and neighbours/colleagues to watch out for each other’s “level of religiousness”, has resulted in these policies being adopted at a societal and individual level.

Despite the political changes brought by the revolution in 2011, these policies seeped into certain domains and became part of the culture.

Women wearing the hijab are still discriminated against. They are prohibited from certain swimming pools for “hygiene reasons” while men with long beards are still perceived as a threat.

After the striking incident of the suspension of a hijab-wearing flight attendant from Tunisair in 2015, the then-Minister of Transport declared that the hijab reduces hearingby 30 percent, putting the lives of passengers in danger.

While the justifications switch from safety, national security and hygiene to health concerns, the Tunisian state continues a decades-long tradition of internalised Islamophobia and remains quick to pursue policies that target Islamic practices first and foremost.

Source: Tunisia has a problem with internalised Islamophobia

Islam – Tunisia Sharia put aside: women will inherit like men


A wind of freedom is sweeping across North Africa, in Tunisia to be exact. This small, Muslim majority country (over 98 per cent) is on the road to legally recognise equality for both sexes in matters of inheritance. This is a brave step and the first time in the history of the Muslim world since the early Caliphate era.

In general, women are placed in inferior conditions in Muslim countries. Under the Sharia, women (sisters, daughters, etc.) inherit half of what men get (sons, brothers, etc.) in terms of inheritance.

Last Friday, Tunisian President Caid Essebsi announced with clarity and courage that Tunisia will be a democratic and secular state, not a theocratic one. For this reason, he noted that “the Personal Status Code must be changed. This has no link to religion or the Quran.” Citing Article 2 of the Constitution, he said “We are a civil state and we must respect the Constitution”.

Caid Essebsi proposed that gender equality in inheritance be recognised in law, modifying the Personal Status Code. In his opinion, this step should have taken place in 1956, but the Constitution of that time did not provide for it, unlike the current one.

Thus, two days ago, the cabinet agreed to legalise equality between the two sexes in matters of inheritance. This makes Tunisia the first Muslim country to break from Sharia, Islamic (Sunni) law.

I am very happy for this because it is a good start to ending the unjust and misogynistic Islamic Sharia that has ruled the Islamic world since the Middle Ages. The new law does not contradict the Quran. Contemporary Qur’anic interpretations by the exegete Mohamed Shahrour, like those of current Quranist thought, explain with great clarity that women must have the same proportion of inheritance as men.

This kind of law and interpretations will certainly unleash waves of outrage on the grounds that they offend the precepts of Islam and deviate from the words of God. In other words: Islamists will see themselves as defenders of God himself. But is God so powerless that he needs to be defended?

As a Muslim and because I am interested in all the issues that touch the Islamic world, I think that the adoption of this type of law will play a fundamental role in the emancipation of Muslim women, held for centuries under male rule. This is justified in the name of God and his prophet.

I find we must break the taboo with courage and in depth, to allow women, religious minorities and peaceful and modern Muslims to free themselves from the yoke of the Sunni dictatorship.

Based on Islamic jurisprudence (Sharia), adopted centuries ago, Tunisia applied these medieval and rigid religious laws. Now, this country, which little by little has set itself on the path of modernisation, is gently but securely breaking away from the theological foundations laid down by ancient Sunni scholars and has chosen a modern and contemporary vision. And if we want to meet the objections of Sunni Muslims, by referring solely to the Quranic text, we realise that by establishing the equality of the two sexes, Tunisia has respected the religious text.

Tunisia today deserves to be celebrated and encouraged for this courageous achievement and for its challenge to everything concerning the Sunni religious dictatorship. It is another step that follows the adoption last year of the law that allows Tunisians to marry non-Muslims.

On my behalf and that of all the Muslims of the 21st century who want to modernise, update and free our religion from irrational readings, I would like to congratulate the Tunisian people for this result and thank them infinitely for this glimmer of hope sown in our hearts – even if the path will certainly be hard and full of obstacles – to be able to be completely free one day from the Sunni dictatorship. Things will be possible where there is the political will.

Other Muslim peoples must take Tunisia as an example and wake up before it is too late.

Source: ISLAM – TUNISIA Sharia put aside: women will inherit like men

And the counter reaction begins with Egypt’s grand mufti:

Mufti of Egypt Shawki Allam stressed on Monday that granting women and men equal inheritance rights violates Islamic Sharia.

In a statement, the Mufti said the concept of gender equality in inheritance is against Islam’s teachings.

Islamic Sharia allows men to inherit double what a woman would receive.

In Islam, Ijtihad is not employed where authentic texts (Qur’an and Hadith) are considered unambiguous with regard to the matter in question, he said.

All inheritance laws are detailed in Quran in a clear way, he added.

The remarks came after Tunisia’s president on Monday proposed giving women equal inheritance rights in a clear challenge to Islamic law.

Source: Granting women, men equal inheritance rights violates Islamic Sharia: Egypt’s mufti