The visit of a controversial Muslim to Tunisia sparks debate


Tunisia is well known for its moderate interpretation of Islam. However during the last couple of years, a more conservative interpretation of Islam, or Salafism, has spread widely throughout Tunisian society.

Sana Ajmi
4 February 2013

The visit Nabil Al-Awadhi, a controversial Muslim figure, recently made to Tunisia has sparked off widespread controversy. Uproar has greeted the Kuwaiti, whether in support or in disagreement and from representatives of nearly all the demographics of Tunisian society.

Al-Awadhi who was invited to Tunisia by a civil society group, arrived to last week and was received by Imed Deymi, the presidential spokesperson. In the new democratic Tunisia, it seems everyone is welcome. “I don’t agree with this man, but he has the right to express his ideas freely. We have to accept the fact that in a democracy, everyone has the right to follow whatever ideology they believe in,” said Samir Ben Hamouda, a Tunisian student. “This is called freedom of speech, and this is what Tunisians have fought for during the revolution,” Ben Hamouda added.  

“Al-Awadhi and many other clerics couldn’t come to Tunisia in the past, but now we can have them in Tunisia and they are welcome,” said Marwa Laabidi who attended Al-Awadhi’s lecture in Tunis.

However for many others this visit serves only to interfere in Tunisian politics. “This man wants to implement a Saudi Arabian interpretation of Quran in a Tunisian society. This can never happen. I heard his lectures and the fatwa he made.  He is encouraging little girls to wear the veil which deprives them of enjoying a normal childhood. This is not the kind of Islam we want in our moderate country. He is only aggravating social divisions and spreading regressive ideas,” asserted Mohamed Belamin, a Tunisian professor.

Tunisia is well known for its moderate interpretation of Islam. However during the last couple of years, a more conservative interpretation of Islam, or Salafism, has spread widely throughout Tunisian society. Youssef Seddik, a well-know Islamic scholar, puts this new phenomenon down to the religious oppression that people went through during the former regime. During Ben Ali’s regime, women were banned from wearing the veil:

Salafism is spreading especially among younger generations because they are adopting the ideas of Salafi clerics and preachers they watch on TV or online. The Zitouna School which is one of the major schools that adopts a moderate interpretation of Islam was closed for a long time, so people resorted to other sources of information to learn about Islam which contributed to the birth of this ideology” explained Seddik.

Al-Awadhi’s visit is not the first one to have sparked debate in Tunisia. Last February, the visit of Wajdi Ghoneim, the fiery Egyptian cleric notorious for his controversial stances on a number of social and political issues, also caused a storm.  A team of Tunisian lawyers threatened to build a case against Ghoneim on charges of inciting hatred as well as the unauthorized use of public spaces for the purpose of worship. Ghoneim on his part issued a challenge – via Facebook – against his “secular and liberal” Tunisian critics, calling upon them to face up to him in a live, televised debate.

It is true that Tunisians are now enjoying a well-earned freedom; they are able to express their opinion about the visit of the cleric. However, such fracas shouldn’t hide the real problems in Tunisia, poverty and unemployment.

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