In Tunisia after Arab Spring, Islamists’ new freedoms create new Muslim divide (WASHINGTON POST) By Marc Fisher TUNIS 04/29/12)
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TUNIS — Upstairs, Ibrahim Amara and his friends gather around the
computer to watch YouTube preachers offering a vision of Islam that
rejects democracy and elections. “Democracy’s freedom is absolute,”
Ibrahim says, “and we don’t accept that. In our religion, freedom is
limited to the freedom God gives you.”
Downstairs, Ibrahim’s father, Saleh Amara, explodes in frustration
over his son’s new, post-revolutionary passion. Saleh and his wife
have gone along with some of their 27-year-old’s new restrictions —
okay, they’d stop watching soap operas and “Oprah” on TV, because
there was too much sexual content — but Saleh says his son goes too
far. Growing the long beard of the pious is fine, though it will
probably limit his job opportunities. And if Ibrahim insists that his
secular-raised, college-educated wife cover her hair and wear gloves,
well, that’s his business. But how can he spurn free elections, the
sweetest fruit of Tunisia’s revolution?
One year after the uprising that sent autocratic leader Zine el-
Abidine Ben Ali packing to exile in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia stands
divided between two visions of its future. Last year’s street clashes
in this sun-spangled city by the sea have morphed into a different
kind of battle — more intimate confrontations in which many families
struggle with essential questions of identity.
Secular parents, surprised to find their daughter covering her hair
in public, worry they are losing their child to extremism. Moderately
religious families argue over a son’s decision to grow a beard and
demonstrate against aspects of Tunisian life they have always taken
for granted: beer and wine, bikinis on the beach, Hollywood movies on
TV. In workplaces, kitchens and sidewalk tearooms, one question
dominates: Can and should Tunisia’s blend of Western and Islamic
values and practices be maintained under the North African country’s
new freedom, or has that freedom unleashed a religious extremism that
threatens to push this land of 10 million people toward a new kind of
Sixteen months after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor named
Mohammed Bouazizi poured paint thinner on himself, lit a match, and
sparked a wave of revolutions across the Arab world, the birthplace
of the Arab Spring is in many ways better off than the other
countries where rulers were toppled. Tourists are starting to return
to Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, there is relative peace on the
streets, and fair elections were held, bringing to power a coalition
of Islamist and secular parties led by Ennahda, an Islamist movement
that asserts its moderation at every turn — even as many secular
families don’t believe a word of it.
But Tunisians are anything but flourishing. Jobs remain scarce, and
the sense of hopelessness that led to the uprising is little abated.
Hardly a day goes by without some new confrontation between Islamists
and secular Tunisians.
In a country that is nearly 100 percent Muslim, a growing rift over
religion threatens — in the view of the secular president of the new
parliament — to throw Tunisia into “chaos.”
“For 30 years, we had no freedom or democracy,” says Mustapha Ben
Jafar, who presides over the country’s Constituent Assembly in a
baroque, mirrored office from which the Ottoman Empire once ruled
Tunisia. “Now, our situation is so fragile and sensitive because we
are caught between two forces — one that wants progress and one that
wants to go back in time.”
Ben Jafar — who won his position when Ennahda sought to show it would
share power with secular parties — argues that “freedom always has
its costs. Before the revolution, these extreme movements existed but
they were forced underground. Now everything is in the open, and
thank God for that.”
But followers of an austere version of Islam known as Salafism,
including Ibrahim Amara, are not satisfied merely to exercise their
new right to demonstrate. “We must adopt sharia law,” making the
Koran the law of the land, Ibrahim tells his family in their stucco
house in the working-class suburb of Le Kram. If the state “tries to
silence us, we will use any means — violence, too.”
Ibrahim’s older brother, Ahmed, who is 29 and sports a fashionable
goatee, shudders at his brother’s anger. “Ibrahim used to be normal —
go to clubs, go to parties, not just pray all the time,” he
says. “I’m more open. I still think we can have that balance, to be
both Western and Islamic.”
Why Ibrahim, an educated young man from a middle-class family, turned
to Salafism is not clear to his family. What they do know is that,
like many well-educated young Tunisians who have had trouble finding
work in recent years, Ibrahim found structure and purpose in a
movement that paints the rest of society as hedonistic and
Ahmed gets exasperated just looking at his brother’s scowl as he
stares at the floor during arguments with their father, who calls
himself a “normal, moderate Muslim.” “People like Ibrahim — they’re
just so . . . I don’t know. They close themselves off,” Ahmed says. “I
mean, Ibrahim doesn’t even have any photos from his wedding. He
wouldn’t allow any pictures. He said it was against Islam.”
New fears of a hard line
Two neighborhoods away from the Amaras’ place, amid driveways full of
Mercedes-Benzes and Audis and a block from the Mediterranean beach
where French tourists sunbathe in bikinis, the Ayed family gathers
with relatives and friends for Sunday brunch. The chatter flits
seamlessly from French to Arabic to English.
The Ayeds — Adnen Ayed spent years in various world capitals as a top
executive for Sony, and his wife, Houda Cherif, is a former teacher
who co-founded one of Tunisia’s secular political parties — came home
from Japan a year before the revolution. Then, in January 2011, on
what Cherif calls “the dream day,” she and Ayed joined the huge crowd
downtown, got chased by security police and celebrated with strangers
at news of Ben Ali’s flight.
Ayed got a face full of tear gas and Cherif lost her car keys, but
their joy at the prospect of life after dictatorship overwhelmed any
inconvenience. Within a few months, however, that thrill began to
yield to worry over growing division. “We are all Muslims, but we
were starting to separate into one kind of Muslim and another,”
recalls Cherif, 42.
In the campaign leading to October’s elections and in the months
since, small but violent demonstrations by Salafists have frightened
Islamist preachers calling for sharia law, a return to polygamy and a
reduced role for women do not represent a majority but are making
headway, some secular Tunisians worry. At brunch, over spicy tuna
salad and brik — Tunisia’s fried phyllo snack — served on Royal
Albert china, Cherif tells of a well-educated friend whose mother
chastised him for voting for a secular party. “You voted against
Allah,” the mother said.
“How do you fight against that?” Cherif asks. “How do you educate
people about our mild Tunisian brand of Islam when Islamist parties
are telling voters that their path is the only one to paradise?”
In downtown Tunis, on the grand Avenue Bourguiba, a thousand well-
dressed people appear one afternoon and plop down on the sidewalk,
against tree trunks, on the steps of the National Theatre, each
person intently reading a book.
It’s a read-in, organized by secular parties to warn against the
ignorance they believe leads to religious extremism. Cherif takes her
place on the theater steps, reading a sociology book about rampant
egoism. Around her, professors, students, physicians and engineers
read Camus, Balzac, Beckett and other classics — almost all in French.
A professor of French literature, Maatallah Gleya, looks up. “See,
everyone is reading a different book,” she says. “If you went to a
Salafist demonstration, everyone would be reading the same book.”
Ali Gaidi, a college student who happens by the read-in, gets the
point. “They’re saying we shouldn’t just read Koran,” he says. “But
the extremists these people are so afraid of won’t pay attention to
this. All they would see is elitists reading French.”
What secularists don’t realize, Gaidi says, is that “even people who
wear the veil read books. These people are so afraid of the
extremists that they don’t see we are all Tunisians. We will stay
moderate, as we have always been.”
Cherif and her friends wish they could share that confidence. In some
ways, the country is embracing a Western openness. In the ancient
Roman city of Carthage, Tunisian designers this month staged a
Fashion Week show with thumping house music, daring displays of skin
and designs that served as a commentary on the hijab, the head scarf
some religious women wear.
In other ways, hard-line Islamist values are spreading. A mother at
brunch tells of girls at her daughter’s school who informed a secular
classmate they would no longer speak to her, because she did not wear
After the revolution, elite lawyers, academics and business people
scrambled to form political parties — 110 of them, including Afek
Tounes (Tunisian Aspiration), which Cherif and friends created to
focus on defending civil liberties.
“The secular message was aimed at the elite,” says Cherif, a slim,
elegant woman who drives a big sport-utility vehicle, a rare sight in
Tunis. “We targeted the brain, and the Islamists went for the heart.
They talked about honesty, faith and justice — and jobs. We were
completely wrong.” Her party won only four of 218 seats in the
Ennahda, which won a plurality of seats, put hundreds of volunteers
to work writing pro-Islamist, anti-secular comments on Tunisians’
Facebook pages. Ennahda portrayed the secular elite as dominated by
intellectuals who had spent too much time outside Tunisia or as
affluent capitalists who had remained silent under Ben Ali and were
complicit in his reign.
Now, with what some secular Tunisians call “the beards” on the rise,
some in the new government worry that Tunisian democracy could prove
brittle. “The people are losing patience, waiting for jobs,” says
Yadh Ben Achour, who ran the country’s constitutional
commission. “The risk is that protests could lead to chaos, which
could take us right back to dictatorship.”
But if the ruling coalition cracks down on extremists, he says, it
can buy time to rebuild the economy. “Radicals in Tunisia don’t have
deep social roots like in Egypt,” he says. “The average Tunisian
already has democracy in their heads.”
Cherif beams as her 16-year-old daughter tells of an Islamist man who
stood outside her high school, a French private academy, and told
students not to drink Coca-Cola, because it’s American and against
Islam. The kids laughed at the man until he went away.
Three worlds, one new one
It was in high school, in 1979, that Samir Layouni started to pray.
His parents were not religious; like most Tunisian women, his mother
eschewed the hijab. But Layouni found peace and fulfillment — and a
sense of rebellion — in the open expression of faith that Tunisia’s
government declared dangerous, even seditious.
Prayer, Samir says, “helps you disconnect from the material world,”
and when he stands up from five minutes of afternoon prayer with his
wife and two daughters, he seems lighter in manner and step than when
For most of his life, Samir, 50, lived in three worlds — in the
mosque, where regular attendance brought regular encounters with the
security police; in secular Tunisia, where his customers and
colleagues often took overt signs of devotion as evidence of
extremism; and in the underground cells of Ennahda, where Samir as a
college student joined other Muslim men who were organizing for
political revolution and religious awakening.
It’s all in the open now: His political work. His wife Hela’s
decision to wear the head scarf again, after 12 years of going
uncovered so she would not be harassed by Ben Ali’s security forces.
Their regular visits to the mosque in their village of Sidi Bou Said,
known for its artists colony and spectacular views of the sea.
Still, when fellow Tunisians learn of his Ennahda background, they
often seem frightened of him, he says. People like Houda Cherif see
Ennahda supporters as stalking horses for extremist clerics preaching
intolerance. People like Ibrahim Amara view Samir and his comrades as
sellouts, suspiciously clean-shaven captives of the West.
Samir has no beard — just a trim moustache. He says those who insist
on a narrow version of Islam will fall by the wayside as Tunisia
As for secularists, “our challenge,” Samir says, “is to show we are
not what they think. We do not want to oppress women or make them
stay at home or let people have four wives.”
Like Samir, Hela grew up in a secular home; she didn’t even pray
regularly. Her parents, suspicious of Samir’s activism, asked: Why
would you want to marry a zealot? Especially one who is in prison,
which is where Samir was sent after he joined the banned Ennahda
But Hela fell in love with Samir and his life of prayer. She remains
the only veiled woman in her family.
Samir escaped from custody and spent four years underground, moving
from one hideaway to another, missing his son’s early childhood.
Later, after turning himself in, he was regularly summoned by police
interrogators who beat and tortured him, he says.
When Samir set up a cheese factory, he says, he refused entreaties to
bribe regime officials. He figured they could not do anything to him
that he had not already survived. That same reasoning led him last
year to defy his mother and join the anti-government demonstration,
despite her fear of violence.
The revolution turned out to be mainly peaceful because “Tunisia’s
different,” Samir says. “The secular opposition and our party spent
years in prison together. We’re not out to change each other. This is
not an Islamic country — it’s a Tunisian country.”
One wall of the Layounis’ living room is covered with souvenir plates
from places Samir has visited — from Istanbul to Venice to London. In
an ornate, Ottoman-style room of deep red brocade, tasseled
tablecloths and prayer rugs, the plates stand out as a sign of
worldliness. As a businessman who sells his Gouda, Edam and pate to
all, he moves easily among Tunisia’s different factions. But some in
his party live more isolated lives, a separation many secular
Tunisians find alienating.
Bridging that divide is the task facing Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s
70-year-old spiritual leader, who spent more than two decades in
exile in London after his party was banned. Now, from his spacious
office atop Ennahda’s headquarters, he contends the party is more
moderate than secularists or hard-liners believe.
“When you want people to come together, you have to be in the
center,” he says.
Ghannouchi has steered Ennahda in a different direction from Muslim
Brotherhood-related groups in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
He made a show of meeting with Jewish leaders after an extremist
cleric called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. He says he supported
excluding Islamic law from Tunisia’s constitution because “we want to
bring the hoo-ha over sharia to an end and get on to the most
pressing problem — unemployment.”
Ghannouchi sees extremism on either side of him. In a rumble so soft
as to be barely audible, he talks of “inheriting an extremist
secularism where the hijab was banned. In Tunisia, we need time to
get used to the idea that the citizen is free to choose his own way
He says he wants Tunisia to become “a model of compatibility between
democracy and Islam — the Switzerland of the Arab world.”
That Tunisia is a long way off, Samir knows. But he and Hela are
emerging from a life led behind closed doors. She goes to the mosque
now without worrying that someone will call her a terrorist. He goes
to party meetings without taking circuitous routes.
“For the first time after 50 years, I am free,” Samir says. “I can
One suburb up the coast, Cherif feels her freedom slipping away. She
wants her children to grow up in her homeland, where her grandfather
fought against French colonizers. Now the opponents are religious
extremists. “We must stay and fight,” she says.
And one village in the other direction from Samir’s house, Ibrahim
Amara works on converting his family, and then his country. “Every
Muslim will reach our phase and be like us,” he says. “Our duty is to
convert others, and if they don’t let us express ourselves, we will
have to fight.” (© 2010 The Washington Post Company 04/29/12)
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