In Tunisia, a Clash Between the Religious and the Secular

Fethi Belaid, AFP, Getty Images

Several hundred Tunisian Salafi students gathered at the U. of Manouba to demand a stop to mixed-gender classes and for females to have the right to wear full face veils.
December 18, 2011

The Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba, in northeastern Tunisia, has been closed for almost two weeks, paralyzed by a standoff between Islamist protesters who say the university is violating their religious rights, and administrators and professors who say academic freedom is under attack.

In recent months, the university has become the epicenter of a showdown between religious and secular elements in the country, a cultural clash that some fear could be repeated in other Arab nations, like Egypt, where conservative Muslim groups are pushing for a broader role in society and government.

At Manouba, Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities, hasn't been able to enter his office since December 6, when, he says, a crowd of Islamist students and their supporters from outside the university blocked his way. "They were playing the Koran on loudspeakers," says Mr. Kazdaghli. "They formed a human chain outside my office, they closed the door, they pushed me." They also knocked down a colleague who came to his defense, he says.

After that, faculty members decided to suspend classes, he says, "until the sit-in is lifted and people who are not part of the university are evacuated from campus."

The protesters belong to the Salafi movement, an ultra-orthodox Islamist movement that advocates gender segregation and a strict adherence to Islamic law. They are demanding a prayer room on campus and for women to be allowed to wear the niqab, the full-face veil. Their leader, according to Tunisian media reports, is Wissam Othmani, a Salafi preacher and the head of the Association for the Defense of Veiled Women.

Under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Islamists suffered severe repression. Wearing a headscarf was forbidden by law and sporting a beard was enough to attract the unwanted attention of the dictator's secret police, who monitored universities closely.

"Under dictatorship, for the last 50 years, people couldn't express opinions, express their faith, choose their way of life, choose their clothes," says Moadh Kheriji, a press officer for Ennahda, a moderate Islamic party that won the highest percentage of the vote in recent elections and will play a leading role in a new government. "It will take some time till groups learn the boundaries that govern the exercise of personal freedoms."

"We condemn people trying to impose their views," says Mr. Kheriji. "We condemn any act of intimidation, of violence against fellow students and academics."

But Mr. Kheriji argues that the incident has "been blown out of proportion" and that both sides are to blame. The handful of female students who want to wear the niqab at Manouba Universityshould be accommodated, he says. "The administration should have compromised with the protesters," he says. "We call on the dean to find a real solution, to accept that these students have the right to be there and to follow their religious beliefs."

For example, Mr. Kheriji said, if identification is a security concern, the administration could set aside a room to check the identity of female students wearing the niqab.

Mr. Kazdaghli, the Manouba dean, says the administration agreed to build a mosque outside its gates and to allow female students to wear the niqab on campus, but not in class.

"We are for the freedom to wear what you want," says Mr. Kazdaghli. But he says the face veil impedes "academic communication" and that for a professor to see his or her students' faces is a "pedagogical necessity."

The wearing of the niqab on campus hasn't been the only source of contention at Tunisian universities lately. The sit-in at Manouba University is just one of a series of confrontations between Islamists and professors and administrators, notes a recent Human Rights Watch report. In at least four other universities since October, Islamic students and their supporters have physically assaulted administrators, disrupted classes, and harassed female faculty members for their "non-Islamic" dress or teachings.

The report calls on the authorities and the police to "protect the right to security and education of students and faculty."

The Tunisian police withdrew from university campuses after the January revolution that ousted President Ben Ali and have so far refrained from intervening. The country's new government is now being formed. At this delicate time in Tunisia's transitional phase, the authorities have condemned the confrontations at universities, advised calm and compromise, but taken no tangible steps, says Amna Guellali, Human Rights Watch's Tunisia and Algeria researcher.

"Generally speaking in Tunisia there is ... a kind of power vacuum in terms of security, and people are taking advantage, invading public spaces, holding sit-ins and protests," says Ms. Guellali. "The Salafis are clearly targeting the universities," waging "a battle against freedom of expression and academic freedom."

So far, neither the newly empowered Islamist groups nor the administrators anxious to defend their universities' secular legacy seem ready to give in.

"We want the university's role to be clear in this post-revolutionary period," says Mr. Kazdaghli. "With all due respect for politics and for religion, we want the two to stay outside the university."