How Tunisia is Turning Into a Salafist Battleground

An interview with a professor who was attacked for standing up for secularism.

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.

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.

The night after his office was attacked, a rock came sailing through Kazdaghli's window and nearly missed him as he sat at his desk. The following morning, two hundred strangers showed up on campus demanding revenge against the man who had insulted their "sister." Carrying the black flag of the salafists and shouting "Allahu Akbar," they demanded that the dean come forward for retribution.

Kazdaghli was watching from his office window when Khaoula Rachidi, a young woman majoring in French literature, climbed a wall and reached to tear down the salafist flag. She was tossed to the ground by a large, bearded man, but her bravery inspired her fellow students to swarm the parapet and run the Tunisian flag back up the pole.

"It was a woman who stirred them into action," says Kazdaghli. "The men had been standing around, watching what was happening, but as soon as a woman threw herself into the fray, they woke up and remembered who they were." Kazdaghli clearly admires the "beautiful" Rachidi, who possibly saved his life.

From the perspective of Kazdaghli and other supporters of Tunisia's constitutional democracy, the country has turned into a battleground in the Muslim culture wars, a prime target for the hardliners intent on restoring the caliphate. (This is the pan-Islamic dream of bringing back the Muslim empires that once stretched from Pakistan to Portugal. One of these empires, ruled by a caliph, or successor to the prophet Muhammad, and lasting from the 10th through the 12th centuries, was based originally in Tunisia.) Tunisia's Islamic government winks at attacks on journalists, teachers, musicians, artists, and anyone else deemed overly secular. It imprisons people for "blasphemy" and encourages the country's young men to sign up for jihad in Syria, where many of these untrained, poorly-armed recruits die on the battlefield.

Lately, Tunisia's salafists have begun recruiting young women for what they call "sexual jihad." As documented by investigative reporter Hanène Zbiss, girls as young as fourteen are being sent to Syria to service the sexual needs of the rebel soldiers.

"This is an ancient mentality in a modern world," says Kazdaghli. "Religion is being used as an instrument of fear and to valorize masculine power. 'Women are sacred,' they say, but sacred for whom? For the men who control them. To touch a woman, one needs the intervention of god, jihad, or a marital decree known as urfi. This is a marriage that dissolves after a couple of hours. It is not a legal contract. It is just another example of religion being used to control people."

Kazdaghli is steadfast in his resistance to segregating women at the university and forcing them to wear the niqab. This beetle-black bag, covering everything but a woman's eyes, is foreign to Tunisia, he says. It is an import from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In a joking reference to these outside influences, a book about the pitched battles at the University of Manouba (with an introduction by Kazdaghli) is called The Chronicles of Manoubistan.

"Our métier demands communication," he says. "Confidence is reciprocal. I have to know with whom I am speaking. Women can travel to the university and enter the gates wearing their niqabs, but in the classroom and during exams they have to show their faces."

Even something as simple as taking attendance or confirming the identity of someone sitting for an exam requires exposure. When Kazdaghli's office was sacked, he had no way of recognizing the two black-robed figures who were throwing his papers on the floor. Only when they yelled that they were the victims of unfair disciplinary procedures was he able to identify these two out of the university's 27,000 students.

"I can't have two kinds of students in class, those with whom I can communicate, and those with whom I can't. This is an important principle, that people have equal access to knowledge."

"Freedom is a principle in which I believe, and this includes freedom for women," he says. "The first freedom they should be guaranteed is equal access to knowledge. We have accepted that women can travel to the university wearing niqabs. This is their choice, and perhaps they feel safer in the street with this kind of covering, even if I personally and as a Tunisian consider it a retrograde custom."

In the 1930s, when Muslim girls began going to school in Tunisia (against conservative opposition), they wore white head scarves, a tradition borrowed from Egypt, says Kazdaghli. This loose covering left the face exposed. In the 1970s, the hijab was adopted. Originally a Christian tradition, borrowed from Syria and Lebanon, says Kazdaghli, the hijab was a veil that covered both the head and neck, but still the face was exposed. In 1981, Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba banned the wearing of head scarves.

"My generation witnessed women unveiling themselves, and now history is working in reverse," says the 58-year-old Kazdaghli. "The niqab, the full-face veil, arrived in Tunisia only after the revolution in 2011. It is a custom borrowed from Wahhabism. This is the retrograde version of Islam, the puritanical Islam of the desert." He repeats the word desert three times, to emphasize the alien nature of the beliefs currently flowing westward into Libya, Mali, Tunisia, and other Mediterranean countries.

"We are having a hard time accepting these changes in Tunisia, because we have known other ways of living," says Kazdaghli. "Women have been liberated in Tunisia, with equal rights, since 1956. This is a country open to the world," with millions of tourists and a beach culture that includes Tunisian girls wearing bikinis (a practice the salafists intend to end).

"Wahhabism is trying to restore male authority," says Kazdaghli. "When people speak of Al-Qaeda leaders, do you ever hear them name a woman? They need women, but subservient women. This is why they have introduced sexual jihad. They have given a religious name, jihad nikah, to something that is nothing more than prostitution. This is why I call it a masculine, misogynist ideology."

Kazdaghli believes that women professing to love their veiled state and clamoring for a segregated campus have been enlisted as pawns in a political chess game. Victims of false consciousness, they are ignorant about the nature of Tunisian culture and salafist violence, he thinks. "The people demanding a mosque on campus were the ones who had resorted to violence," says Kazdaghli. "I had no guarantee that this mosque wouldn't be used to attack the university."

Meanwhile, the university's salafi students say they faced oppression and discrimination under Tunisia's former, secular president, and that their minority rights should be respected.

"I offered them a package deal and told them they could take it, all or nothing. Stop forcing girls to wear the niqab. Stop attacking professors who ask their female students to show their faces in class. Remove the outside agitators from campus, and respect the rules of the university. Then you can have your prayer room, like in an airport, where people quietly come and go. They rejected the offer, believing they could force us to give them a mosque, the niqab, an end to coeducation, and everything else they wanted."

Other than Kazdaghli's values and historical method, the salafists are also unnerved by his sense of humor. (The same is true in other parts of the Muslim world, as shown recently by the arrest of Bassem Youssef, "the Jon Stewart of Egypt.") When he went to the police station to lodge a complaint against the salafists for their Facebook death threats, Kazdaghli joked about being an agent for the Mossad. "Supposedly, I had been doing this work for years; so I had a lot of money coming to me. I told the police that as soon as I got paid I would organize a big party for them."

Other than his sense of humor, Kazdaghli defends himself with a few common-sense precautions (such as a new lock on his office door). His main protection lies in feeling supported by an international community of shared values. "I have always been politically engaged. I am not afraid to die, but I don't want to help anyone kill me. I love life. I fight for life, while these people embrace death. They get off on it. I don't want to be a victim or a martyr. I don't want to be a suicide bomber."

"I am deeply committed to the ideals of freedom and peaceful struggle. I want to preserve this as a place for learning, a place for culture, tolerance, and contact with other people. These are universal values. My defense lies in knowledge and culture and sharing these values." Kazdaghli is talking about his University, but he could just as well be talking about his country. For the moment at least, his intellectual armor is impenetrable.