Last weekend, vandals set on fire a shrine in Sidi Bou Said. Sidi Bou Said, the scenic tourist village in the northern suburb of Tunis took its name from the burnt Sufi mausoleum.
"We strongly condemn the crime against our cultural and religious heritage," said the presidency on the January 12 attack.
Even though the vast majority of Tunisians follow a mainstream form of Sunni Islam, the country also contains significant numbers of adherents to the more mystical Sufi traditions. In Tunisia, shrines represent a cultural and historical symbol and for decades people have been visiting shrines for worship and prayer.
Similar desecrations occurred in recent months to the shrines of Tunisia's best known Sufi saints including Saida Manoubia and Sidi Abdel Aziz. It is unclear who is responsible for the destruction of these Sufi shrines, however, on social media many have accused ultraconservative Islamists of committing such acts, since the radical version of Sunni Islam does not tolerate saints or shrines. These accusations have been denied. “Salafists are peaceful people, they don’t resort to violence. We try to speak to people peacefully to convince them of our ideas but we do not force anyone to do anything,” said Sofien Hosni, a salafist spokesman.
The attack was condemned by many parties as well as national and international officials. A symbolic march took place on January 13 condemning the act. Both the minister of the interior, Ali Laayredh and the minister of culture, Mehdi Mabrouk visited the burnt shrine.
“A plan of action will be worked out by the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Culture to preserve historical monuments, such as mausoleums and religious monuments,” asserted Laarayedh. The Director-General of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called in a press release last Wednesday, "on Tunisian authorities to take urgent measures to protect the heritage sites, which represent the country's cultural and historical wealth, from any attack against their integrity”
In its official statement, the ruling Islamist Ennahdha party condemned “this heinous crime” and called for an investigation into the fire and its causes. However, for many opposition parties the government is not doing enough to protect the country from extremism.
This phenomenon has not only occurred in Tunisia, but also in neighbouring country Libya, where at least three Sufi shrines have been vandalized. Interim interior minister, Fawzi Abdelali submitted his resignation after members of the parliament accused his ministry of not doing enough to stop attackers. However two days later he reversed his decision to quit, saying his resignation would, "further complicate security".
“These kind of violent acts should not happen in our country. People sacrificed a great deal to gain their freedom and they have the right to choose and exercise any kind of religious practices they want. Today they burn the holy shrine and tomorrow they will burn a church,” said Sarah Mahmoudi, a local resident of Sidi Bou Said.
“Books of the Qu’ran were burnt in the shrine. As Muslims we shouldn’t let this happen”, she concluded.