State regulation of religious institutions

In 1956, following the end of the French protectorate, the new-born state quickly took over the Habus Council, which managed the distribution of land and other endowments to Islamic institutions.  The government monopoly of religious administration continues through the current day, with the Ministry of Religious Affairs taking on the duties of the former Habus Council and ordering the upkeep of Islamic sites, administrative and financial affairs to do with religion, and the management of public festivals and services having to do with pilgrimage to Islamic institutions.  According to the constitution adopted in January 2014, the president “is responsible for… appointing and dismissing the General Mufti of the Tunisian Republic.”  Of Tunisia’s Islamic sites, the most symbolically important was and remains the Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis, built in 731 CE.  As recently as 2012, the mosque hosted a number of government officials, from the president to the minister of defense, for a procession marking the religious occasion of Laylat al-Qadr.  The state judicial system also took over the two protectorate-era shari’a courts, one Maliki and one Hanafi, that Muslims had used to settle legal disputes.

The Zaytuna Mosque
Source: Reuters

The Zaytuna mosque was a center for not only religious practice but also for study and learning for many years until independence, educating such individuals as the later leader of Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, in addition to a host of scholars, judges, and authors.  Two years after Tunisia gained independence from France, Bourguiba abolished the Zaytuna educational system, judging it unnecessary for and dangerous to the building of the new nation-state (Hamdi, Politicization of Islam, 13).  Zaytuna University was then absorbed by the University of Tunis and became known as the Department of Shariah and Theology (Tamimi, 10).  However, the Islamist movement that later plagued Bourguiba and his conception of a modern Tunisia would take root in a cultural associated founded in 1970 at the Zaytuna Mosque, which remained open.  In March 2012, the First Court of Tunis ruled that Zaytuna’s university might once more open for students, responding to a petition from the organization “Alumni and Supporters of Zitouna.”  Classes began slowly, given a dearth of books and other materials, but are expected to form an important front in the government’s struggle against religious extremism.  Minister of Religious Affairs Noureddine Khadami expressed his hope that “if we succeed in establishing sound Sharia sciences, we will ensure that the country will be fine, with citizenship realized and human rights respected.”

The Zaytuna University
Source: Wikipedia

According to the US State Department’s 2010 Report on Religious Freedom, the 1988 Law on Mosques “stipulates that only personnel appointed by the government may lead activities in mosques and that mosques must remain closed except during prayer times and authorized religious ceremonies, such as marriages or funerals.” The report does mention, however, that a number of “historically significant mosques” were open at particular times for tourist visits.  The report noted that new mosques become government property upon completion.  The report also notes that imams were allegedly warned that they were forbidden from spreading “ideologies” while preaching.  Human rights lawyers told US Embassy staff preparing the 2009 Report on Religious Freedom that “the Government regularly questioned and detained some Muslims who were observed praying frequently in mosques,” as the report puts it. The report notes that the trend was not new in 2009, but that the same information had been reported by human rights lawyers in 2007 and 2008.

The government places and pays clerics of both Jewish and Muslim faith.  The 1998 Law on Mosques states that non-tourist mosques must remain closed except for during official activities such as prayers, marriages, or funerals, and bans non-government-appointed personnel from leading mosque activities.  Clerics who use mosques to “spread ideology” have been persecuted by the government, and newly constructed mosques become government property upon their completion.  The government is also responsible for security in synagogues and has subsidized maintenance for some.  The Grand Rabbi’s salary is paid by the Tunisian government and Jewish cemeteries are maintained by government employees.  All Christian religious organizations established prior to independence in 1956 were officially recognized by the government and fourteen churches were recognized to serve all sects in the country. 

However, even after the revolution, no move was made to revise the law banning proselytizing among Muslims (International Religious Freedom Report 2011).  A graphic video purportedly showing the beheading of a Christian convert in Tunisia gained infamy on the Internet in June 2012 after first being screened on an Egyptian television show, but other sources have argued based on geography and dialect that the video was probably, in fact, from Syria or Iraq rather than Tunisia.  In addition, religious tensions manifested in March 2012 with the use of anti-Semitic slogans at a pro-shari’a rally, and again in January and February 2013 with the desecration and destruction of Jewish cemeteries.  Leading members of Ennahda and the coalition government have condemned each instance of anti-Semitic language or violence, and in April 2012, President Marzouki visited a synagogue in Djerba to mark the ten-year-anniversary of its bombing by Al Qaeda.  However, attendance at traditional Jewish pilgrimages and festivals remains low due to security concerns, with one Jewish resident of Djerba remarking that after the revolution, “the police is weak, so racism is increasing. People are not afraid.”

Jewish cemetery in Tunis

After the 2011 revolution, the Grand Mufti Sheikh Othman Battikh in place under Ben Ali was retained, but the matter of mosque opening hours and other day-to-day affairs were assumed by local committees and some imams were reportedly replaced with Salafi clerics without government interference (US State Department Religious Freedom Report 2011).  In June 2012, the Ministry of Religious Affairs struggled to reassert its control over mosques and their personnel, releasing a press statement emphasizing its power to hire and fire as it sees fit following the issuing of an inflammatory threat by the chairman of the Scientific Committee at the Zaytuna Mosque.  In the context of the Palais al Abdellia controversial art exhibit, the chairman had declared the artists involved infidels and called for their deaths. 

In July 2013, shortly before the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, then-interim president Moncef Marzouki surprised the nation by replacing Sheikh Battikh with Hamda Said, in a move viewed by some with suspicion because of Said’s affiliation with the Constitutional Democratic Rally and past support for polygamy, and because of Battikh’s strident opposition to involvement in Syrian jihad.  Since his appointment, though, Said has made no unexpected moves, terming the government soldiers killed in an attack at Jebel Chaambi “martyrs” and calling on imams to respect mosques’ political neutrality by confining their purpose to “guide and reform.”  On the other hand, at the same time as he made the latter comment, Said also suggested a restructuring of the Ifta’ Department to expand its advisory powers, provoking worries about interference of purely religious actors in politics, and said that those who marched under the slogan “Islam outside [of politics]” should consider themselves outside of Tunisia.

Sheikh Hamda Said was appointed
Grand Mufti in July 2013

Sheikh Ferid Beji, president of the Dar al-Hadith Association connected with the Zaytuna and tasked with education of ulema’, likewise supported the government in condemning Ansar al-Sharia, adding that “concerning Abu Iyadh, we are in Tunisia and not in Tora Bora.”  By August 2013, however, he had been removed from his position through unclear circumstances following his harsh criticism of Ennahda and his calling for the government to step down.  The following month, the sheikh was put on trial for incitement to murder in the December 2012 assassination of Faouzi Mhamdi, a member of the Salafi organization Dawa wa Tabligh.  The sheikh was not imprisoned, but declared himself surprised by the interrogation.

In March 2014, Minister of Religious Affairs Mounir Klibi estimated 149 mosques in the country were outside of government control, many of them led by Salafist imams.  Abdessatar Bader, the Minister’s chief of staff, also stated that a government attempt to appoint 19 new imams had been prevented by “extremists.”  In response, the government launched an initiative to bring mosques and imams back under control, leading to the arrest of controversial imam Khamis al-Mejri on charges of “preaching without a permit.”  In the same vein, the Ministry announced standardized opening and closing times for all mosques.

Next: Ben Ali-era constitutional developments