Tunisian Dean Is Acquitted in Setback to Islamists on Campus

Fethi Belaid, Agence France-Presse, Getty Images

Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the U. of Manouba, said of his acquittal that "attempts to attack the university's modernity have failed."
May 02, 2013

A high-profile legal battle that pitted a Tunisian university dean against Islamist students who demanded a greater role for religion on the campus ended on Thursday in a victory for the dean.

Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba, has been a vocal defender of the institution's ban on the niqab, or full-face veil, in classrooms. Last year he was accused of hitting two female students wearing the niqab who came to his office to argue with him.

The dean and his supporters said the charges were false and politically motivated, and a Tunisian court has now thrown them out. The two students were given suspended two-month sentences for ransacking the dean's office.

Islamist students argue that banning the niqab, which is worn by a small but growing number of conservative Muslim women in Tunisia, impinges on their freedom of belief. Mr. Kazdaghli has countered that seeing students' faces is a "pedagogical necessity."

In an interview with The Chronicle this year, he accused religious extremists of wanting to take over the university. He said if he were convicted, there would be a "domino effect" as other universities would give in to fundamentalists' demands.

After his acquittal, the dean told The Chronicle he was tired, was relieved, and bore "no hatred" toward the students. While the verdict in his case was "a big step," he said, "the battle for academic values and modern teaching continues."

The case at Manouba had become a highly symbolic and charged one in Tunisia, where the country's first free elections brought a once-banned Islamist party to power and where ultra-conservative Islamists have been pushing—sometime violently—for the imposition of Shariah law.

The polarization between secularists and Islamists in the country that launched the Arab Spring has led to sit-ins and clashes at a number of universities. Fundamentalists accused Mr. Kazdaghli of being a "Zionist" and "an enemy of God." Academics and human-rights activists in Tunisia and abroad have rallied around the dean.

Tunisian law allows universities to set their own guidelines for the niqab and religious activity on campuses. But the issue has become so divisive that Tunisia's minister of higher education, a member of the ruling Islamist Ennahda party, recently called on administrations to allow students wearing the niqab to sit for examinations "until the question is studied in depth." He said he might ask the country's constitutional assembly to vote on the matter.

Ennahda officials have tried to distance themselves from the controversy, while urging administrators and students to find a workable solution, such as having female security officials ascertain the identity of veiled students.

A source in Ennahda, who sought anonymity because he said he was not familiar with the details of the case, said: "For the students it's an issue of freedom of belief. It is their right to choose the way they dress as long as it doesn't get in the way of others. For the universities it's an issue of security. They should try to find a middle ground and compromise."