Tunisian Universities Under Islamist Siege (GateStone Institute) by Anna Mahjar-Barducci 05/08/12)
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The university has not received any support from government
officials; the Salafists seem to have met with no negative
consequences from their occupation of administrative offices.
Tunisian Universities are being threatened by Salafist activists.
Since late November 2011, the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and
Humanities at the University of Manouba, north of Tunis, has been
attacked by a group of Salafist students, demanding the creation of a
prayer room, and demanding that women wear the niqab (full-face
veil), and attend only segregated classes, In early December,
Salafists held hostage the department´s dean, Habib Kazdaghli, but he
courageously refused to fulfill to their demands. Liberal and secular
professors and students staged peaceful sit-ins to protest against
the Salafists and the Islamist-led government´s "double standards" in
refusing to do anything to stop the Salafists. As reported by Ahram
Online, until now, the university has not received any support from
government officials; the Salafists continue to have met with no
negative consequences from their occupation of administrative offices.
The professors of the Manouba have now written a petition, in the
hope that the international community will put pressure on the
Tunisian government, which prefers to turn a blind eye and let the
Islamist take over the educational institutions of the country. The
following is the English translation of the circulating petition,
sponsored by Dean Habib Kazdaghli.
Call for the setting up of a Committee for the defense of academic
values, institutional autonomy and support to the Faculty of Letters,
Arts and Humanities of Manouba (FLAHM)
Since the beginning of the academic year 2011-2012, "Salafist"
students supported by activists and militants and encouraged by
organized Islamist parties, have attacked several university
institutions, either to impose the niqab (full-face Islamic veil) in
classes and during exams, or to show their disapproval concerning the
dress code (which is judged disrespectful) of a female teacher, or
even to challenge the programs set up by departments and scientific
boards. Incidents have taken place at the Faculty of Letters and
Human Sciences of the city of Sousse, the Higher School of Commerce
of Manouba [in the capital Tunis], the Institute of Arts and Crafts
of the city of Kairouan, the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis,
and the Higher Institute of Languages in Tunis, as well as in other
However, it is the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba
which has become the main target of this [Salafist] small group.
These [Salafist] activists have scorned existing internal regulations
in force in all academic institutions which, essentially for
pedagogic purposes, ban the wearing of the niqab within university
premises, and particularly in classes, during exams and supervisions.
They have tried to impose their law by force, terrorizing their
fellow-students; sequestrating the Dean by preventing him from
entering his office; using physical and verbal violence against
teachers, administrative and working staff, and issuing death threats
against the dean and the teachers. Similar acts, albeit less serious,
and which did not benefit from the same media coverage, were recorded
in other academic establishments, creating anxiety among teachers,
students and their unions. Targeting FLAHM through a relentless and
harassment unprecedented in the history of the Tunisian university,
this group has managed to interrupt classes on several occasions, and
at times even prevented students from taking mock exams. The dean´s
office has been ransacked and his physical integrity was threatened
after a large chunk of concrete which could have struck him, was
hurled into his office breaking a window pane. In spite of these
continued harassments, FLAHM´s teachers, scientific board, Dean,
union, students and administration stoically resisted these
aggressions in order to salvage the academic year.
The banning of students wearing the niqab in classes during exams is
the result of the implementation of a tacit dress code in force in
all schools and academic institutions. It was confirmed at the local
scale by FLAHMS´ scientific board; nationwide by all university
presidents; by all academic institutions which have implemented the
decisions of their scientific boards, and particularly by the deans
of all faculties of letters and human sciences, and by the Deans of
the four faculties of medicine, who distinguished themselves by
addressing press communiqués about this. It was also endorsed by the
Administrative Tribunal. However, the ministers of the interior and
higher education [belonging to the ruling Islamist Ennahda party],
instead of taking up the defense of the teachers and the dean and
praising them for their determination to enforce the law, and instead
of going along with the decision of the Administrative Tribunal which
the minister of higher education himself consulted on the subject of
the niqab, have preferred to blame the "FLAHM affair" on the Dean,
handing him over to the vindictiveness of the Salafists.
The [Tunisian Islamist-led] government has also used the principle of
the autonomy of universities and non-intervention on campuses as
pretexts to eschew its duties as dictated by common sense, and
enshrined in Tunisian law and UNESCO´s recommendations: to ensure the
security of students, teachers, and administrative and working
personnel. Yet, neither at the Manouba University, nor elsewhere, was
the government asked to repress peaceful demonstrations, but to
dissuade intruders from disrupting academic activities and violating
the law and particularly article 116 of the penal code by virtue of
which "Whoever exercises or threatens to exercise violence on a
public agent to force him/her to perform or not to perform an act
pertaining to his duties," commits an offense which can be punished
by up to three years´ imprisonment. The conniving attitude of the
authorities has increased Salafist violence, which reached its peak
on March 7, during which we witnessed the profanation of the Tunisian
flag and injuries brought to five students.
Encouraged by the laxness of the ministers of the interior and higher
education and free to unleash all their violence, these Salafists can
go even further; and it is not precluded that the Tunisian university
witnesses other victims at FLAHM and elsewhere. The deans of the
faculties of letters did mention in a communiqué released in early
March that their institutions were threatened by a lost academic year.
The Dean of the FLAHM, whose institution was chosen by the Salafists
to test the capacity for resistance of higher education institutions
in the violation of their rights, has been seeing to it, along with
the scientific board, the teachers, and the local union, that the
university is preserved, along with knowledge, academic freedoms, the
dignity of students and teachers, including their physical integrity.
A partisan hierarchy is trying today to give the illusion that [the
Dean] is isolated with a view to bring teachers and students into
- Aware that "the Salafists" are jeopardizing academic values, the
principles of institutional autonomy, academic freedoms and that they
aim at confiscating the scientific and pedagogical prerogatives of
higher education institutions.
- Aware that the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of la
Manouba is targeted with regard to the pioneering role it has always
played in safeguarding academic values, institutional autonomy and
academic freedoms, as well as in fostering tolerance, critical
thinking and the renewal of research.
- Aware that the struggle FLAHM is leading is also that of the whole
university, and that of a whole society which has rid itself of a
dictatorship and does not want it to return to it.
- Tunisian academics and researchers, intellectuals, artists, members
of civil society and other signatories to this petition.
- Declare their readiness to take any legal action capable of
ensuring the primacy of the rule of law in institutions of higher
education, to defend all academic institutions against any attempt
likely to jeopardize knowledge, academic values, the physical
integrity of its leaders, its teaching staff, its students and all of
its personnel, in tight collaboration with all components of civil
- Commit themselves in particular, to support FLAHM, its Dean, its
personnel and its scientific and union bodies which are particularly
- Call for the setting up of a defense Committee for university
values, institutional autonomy, academic freedoms and support for
- Request of all Tunisian academics, researchers, artists and members
of civil society to answer this call by joining the Committee and by
mobilizing themselves to help achieve the objectives of the Tunisian
university to which their founding fathers and their peers have
always adhere, and which it has always sought to pursue.
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