Secular Tunisians worried about rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism

The World

Tunisia has long been considered one of the Arab World’s most secular countries.

But that secularism, which ended with the Arab Spring, came only at the point of a spear, or the barrel of a gun.

Under the previous authoritarian regime, religious expressions in public were illegal. Women faced arrest if they wore a veil on the street. Men with beards faced harassment.

Now, Tunisia’s practicing Muslims have begun asserting themselves on the streets, in politics and in the media. After Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime fell earlier this year, the new government took over a religious radio station previously owned by a relative of Ben Ali’s. The government selected Iqbal Gharbi to manage the station – called Zeitouna Radio.

She hoped to inject a bit more professionalism into the place.

“Zeitouna Radio is in a transitional moment,” she said. “It was a private radio and now it became governmental. And the government has the right to watch over it and to see what’s going on in there.”

The appointment did not go over well at the station.

Gharbi is no stranger to controversy. As a professor of anthropology with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, she’s penned provocative essays on the role of women in Muslim societies, and on feminism and Islam. Even by those standards, though, what happened at Zeitouna was unique.

The staff went on strike. For days, a recording of the Koran played in place of the usual programming. There are three on-air preachers, including Ahmed Seelie, who have programs during the day. They discuss morality, ethics, and other religious matters.

“We are having a protest because this manager was appointed,” he said. “She’s a woman, and she’s a professor of psychology, but not of religion. So she cannot be the manager of this radio station. Zeitouna radio is focused only on the Koran and religion.”

Seelie said beyond her lack of qualifications, Gharbi was rude. He said she came into the station two months after she was appointed and immediately demanded the biggest office in the building. It was occupied at the time by the station’s most popular on-air personality — a preacher known as Sheikh Mohammad Meshfer. Meshfer said this was one of many disrespectful actions.

“It was humiliating,” Meshfer said. “This is not normal for someone who graduated from the Sorbonne. I’ve been here these past ten months working to try to fix the radio station, trying to get people to work together as a team. And she comes in here and humiliates me.”

Gharbi admits she could have handled some things better, but she said the real reason the staff rejects her is her gender.

Staffers dispute this, and have said the real disagreement is religious versus secular ideology.

“Now we’re in a fight between two kinds of people,” Gharbi said, “those who are reading and looking to Koran in a modern way, analyzing it with modern eyes, and those who are more conservative. And they’re against women in general.”

The staff at Zeitouna have never been raging extremists. That they were allowed on the air under the previous regime is testimony to their moderation. But Manouba University Professor Amel Grami said the dispute at Zeitouna radio is an indication of how Tunisia’s Islamists are using the weakness of the central government to assert their power in the streets and at universities.

“In some universities nowadays we have this type of conflict, because many students from Salafist groups or Islamist groups, they refuse to have unveiled woman teaching Islam, or methodology of works, or comparative religion,” Grami said. “They refuse to know even some religious texts from Judaism or Christianity. So they are trying to impose a new subject. So this is the big challenge for our educational institution.”

That's putting it mildly. On exam day, Islamist students shut down Manouba University. They demanded the right for women to wear the “Niqab,” a type of dress that covers the entire body, including the face, and also to have a prayer room in the university.

A YouTube video allegedly from the protest shows Islamist students chanting from behind the locked gates of the university, as other students look on from outside. Gharbi said the situation at the radio station is indicative of the Islamists asserting power after years of being stifled. She said the Islamist’s aggression, and sensitivity, is a result of Ben Ali’s repressive policies.

“Because we used to marginalize these Islamists," she said. Now, we need to accept them, and we need to know how to deal with everyone in society. Otherwise this will be a dictatorship again, and we don’t want that.”

Gharbi said she won’t back down. She’s still locked in the battle with the Zeitouna radio station staff over her management position. Zeitouna staffers would still like the newly elected government to appoint another boss.

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