How Tunisia is Turning Into a Salafist Battleground

An interview with a professor who was attacked for standing up for secularism.
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Four ultraconservative hunger striking women students of the Manouba Arts and Humanities raise one finger to mean "There is only one god" in an apartment outside the university, near Tunis on Jan. 18, 2012. (AP)

After a trial lasting more than a year, on May 2 Habib Kazdaghli, dean of the faculty of letters, arts, and humanities at the University of Manouba, outside Tunis, was acquitted of charges that he slapped a veiled female student. He had faced a five-year jail term. Instead, the court found guilty the two women who had invaded Kazdaghli's office and thrown his books and papers on the floor. The women claimed to be protesting their suspension from the university for refusing to remove their full-face coverings, known as niqabs, during class lectures and exams.

The court sentenced the women to suspended four-month and two-month jail sentences for damaging property and interfering with a public servant carrying out his duties. Their lawyer said the women would appeal, and Tunisia's minister of higher education -- overruling Kazdaghli and setting him up for another round of conflict -- announced that veiled students would be allowed to take their final exams.

The Kazdaghli affair, a cause célèbre with more than 230,000 Google results, is part of a larger struggle for power in post-revolutionary Tunisia. After the uprising that toppled dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 -- sparking the onset of the Arab Spring -- the University of Manouba became a battleground between fundamentalist Muslims intent on turning Tunisia into an Islamic state and secular forces trying to maintain the country's existing constitutional rights and legal system.

Closed for almost two months in the spring of 2012, the University was rocked by strikes and pitched battles between progressive students and the ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims known as salafists. The lobby in Kazdaghli's building was turned into a prayer room. Protesters camped in front of his door for a month. "This was meant to intimidate me, but also to catch me in a kind of trap," says Kazdaghli. "You are not supposed to walk through a room where someone is praying." So every time he entered or left his office, Kazdaghli was demonstrating his lack of faith.

"They are embarrassed that we, as Muslims, have the same equality between men and women as one finds in the land of the 'nonbelievers.'"

Among the salafists targeting the University was Abu Iyad, nom de guerre of former Afghani jihadist Seifallah Ben Hassine. Abu Iyad heads Ansar al-Sharia, sister organization to the Libyan group believed to have killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other people in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Abu Iyad is also thought to have led the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, three days after the murder of Stevens, when four attackers were killed and the neighboring American Cooperative School of Tunis was destroyed. Still at large, Abu Iyad may also have been involved in the murder of Tunisian opposition figure and lawyer Chokri Belaid in January 2013.

Before it was taken down, Ansar al-Sharia's Facebook page called Kazdaghli an agent for the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. "This is a death sentence in Tunisia," says Kazdaghli. "When a religious figure accuses someone of being an Israeli agent, you have to kill them. It is a good act of jihad. You enter directly into paradise for killing a Mossadi agent."

Kazdaghli wrote his dissertation on the history of the Communist Party in Tunisia. He also studies Tunisia's Sephardic Jews, most of whom have left the country for France or Israel. "The salafists believe that if you study Jews you must be a Zionist. If you study Communists, you must be a Communist. These are the beliefs of people who are impoverished, materially and intellectually," he says.

As news of Kazdaghli's legal victory spread across the Manouba campus, students and faculty gathered in an assembly hall to celebrate. The meeting opened with the singing of Tunisia's national anthem. "Attempts at attacking the modernity of the university have failed," said Kazdaghli. One of the teachers in the room shouted, "We have won a battle, but the war continues."

Kazdaghli knows that his verdict, which took so long to reach because of pressure on the judiciary by Ennahda, the Islamist party currently heading Tunisia's coalition government, is a small step forward in a country rapidly sliding in the opposite direction. Before being assassinated, Chokri Belaid was one of the 40 lawyers defending Kazdaghli. "I'm number two on the list of people to be assassinated," Kazdaghli told me, when we last spoke at the university in April. A salafist enemy "blacklist," posted on their Facebook page, showed Kazdaghli's photo directly beneath that of Belaid.

Why is a rumpled, bespectacled professor of modern Tunisian history with a toothy grin and mop of silver hair being featured on a Muslim "blacklist"? (Although we are speaking in French, Kazdaghli uses the word in English.) He begins by explaining that money and influence are pouring into Tunisia from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. These patriarchal countries regard the secular traditions of Tunisia as a threat to their fundamentalist, Wahhabist strain of Islam.

"Tunisia is the only country in the Muslim world where women have the same rights as men to ask for a divorce," he says. "We don't practice polygamy. Tunisia is a special case. It is a counter model, which is why they want to get rid of it. Without Tunisia, they can say that certain customs are practiced only in the West. They are embarrassed that we, as Muslims, have the same equality between men and women as one finds in the land of the 'nonbelievers.'"

The pressure on Tunisia from the Gulf states is taking its toll, says Kazdaghli. "Political instability makes us ripe for their work. The salafists are the instruments for applying these policies. We are resisting, but every day the resistance grows weaker. At the university, we no longer have police defending our buildings. They have been removed, as the suspicion grows that we are no longer 'good Muslims.'"

"The salafists are violent and empowered in this violence by invoking the name of Allah," he says. "This gives them their credibility. A week can go by, or two weeks, and then suddenly they swarm into action."

The list of demands made on the university by the salafists comes entirely from the Wahhabist playbook. "They want the university divided in half, with a wall down the middle," says Kazdaghli. "One part will be reserved for women, one for men. The women will be taught only by women, the men only by men. 'This is how it works in Saudi Arabia,' they told me.

"'But we're in Tunisia,' I replied. 'We have a different history and culture. We have had two constitutions and are about to get our third. In Saudi Arabia they don't have a constitution. The Saudis say the Koran is their constitution. The salafists say that everything they need to know is in the Koran. You don't need a dean. You don't need professors. You just read the Koran, and when you're done, you'll know everything you need to know."

Several people witnessed Kazdaghli's office being trashed, and the president of the film club, who was in the building, shot a video of the event. One of Kazdaghli's attackers, after fainting and being removed from campus by an ambulance, found a doctor willing to say that she bore traces of a slap on her right cheek, for which he prescribed 10 days of bed rest. "I am right-handed; if had been able to catch her when she was running around my office, I would have slapped her on the left check," says Kazdaghli with a laugh. The doctor's testimony, lacking photos, measurements, or other evidence supporting the diagnosis, was thrown out of court.

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Thomas A. Bass

Thomas A. Bass is a reporter, a professor of English and journalism at the University at Albany, and the author, most recently, of The Spy Who Loved Us: The Vietnam War and Pham Xuan An's Dangerous Game.

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