Not so long ago, a dozen Salafis occupied the campus of Tunis University. Two months had gone by and students weren’t allowed into the classrooms because a handful of niqabi-wearing students insisted on infringing the rules governing the university’s dress code.
A week ago, Salafis rioted in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. Their presence is more and more apparent in the streets. They seem to be omnipresent - your local grocery owner, the taxi cab driver, the DVD shop salesman and your city’s municipality employee. They believe in one truth, theirs. They contrast in this with the overwhelming majority of Tunisian society who firmly believe in the separation of the state from religion, freedom of faith and gender equality – all beliefs which have made Tunisia one of the best places to live in the Arab Muslim world. They are a threat to our revolution.
What do these Islamists have to offer Tunisia? Is Islamic fundamentalism a threat to the emerging democratic modern state of Tunisia, and how shall we deal with these fanatics? I say that it is up to the youth, including me, to answer these questions and to take action. But what about Dorra Agrebi, 21, a student at the University of Arts in Manouba, where the Salafi sit–in took place, who missed two months of her education? What does she say about this? She is a lively and passionate co-founder of AMENA, one of the first associations to combat sexual harassment in Tunisia, and also the coach of an all-girl basketball team. Dorra Agrebi thinks that, ‘Tunisia needs not only its Islamists, but all the constituencies that exist in our society. Islamists – those who are not extremists - can bring some balance to the Tunisian landscape”.
She thinks that Salafis came out of the woodwork all of a sudden - with the ascent of the Islamist Ennahda party to power; and that they will disappear just as swiftly once the party is voted out.
But Dorra is wrong. Ennahda has a good party profile that will hugely influence Tunisian politics for decades to come. They represent the hopes and the aspirations of hundreds of thousands of the forgotten ones, persecuted and marginalized during more than a half century of dictatorship. Salafis think that the modern state of Tunisia conflicts with their Arab Muslim identity, and that society should comply with Islam, only one interpretation of it, theirs.
Salafi views are conservative not only in economic terms, as in their stance on jijya, but also in such areas as gender equality. Isn’t Dorra afraid that a more patriarchal society will marginalize her opinions and deny her equal opportunities? She remains optimistic:
“Our hard work and consistent quest for perfection as females are the things that make us count in such a society. I personally do not blame patriarchy for everything; on the contrary, underestimating my abilities always motivates me to go further. It is true that there are always men ready to take a stand, saying, “I’m a man, I can do it. You’re a woman, you cannot” - but I don’t really care. All I have to do is to prove him wrong - which would be a great pleasure.”
But Dorra may have to deal with more than fanatical patriarchs if this phenomenon grows. She might need to set up another association, this time against religious harassment.
Salafism has become a much-feared, inflammatory topic in recent weeks in Tunisia. On the one hand there is a certain thrill in the way they have brought together Tunisians from different parts of the spectrum of political ideology in condemnation of their unrelenting campaign for new recruits. However, their way of combating individualism, creativity and capitalism is also increasingly feared. Tunisians now have to think twice before manifesting any religious, sexual or ideological identity.
Dorra, like many people of her age, thinks that society can still absorb Tunisia’s young Salafis and perhaps help them soften their narrow views on Islam. She says:
“Most of them are just young people driven by the desire to do something useful with their lives. When you get to know some of them and really talk to them as I have done, you will notice that they are as afraid as anyone else and just trying to find a place in this world, by trying to define who they are.”
Dorra is certainly not the only Tunisian who thinks that it is important to include every Tunisian citizen in Tunisia’s democratic transition with no exception. Intellectuals and artists have long fought for a more liberal and democratic Tunisia of this kind. But photographer Hela Ammar has a rather different approach to this challenge:
“Ideological violence in my opinion is the result of decades of frustration and humiliation of all kinds. Given the situation that prevailed in Tunisia, it was inevitable. Now we need to address and counter it by the most appropriate measures: education, dialogue and sanctions for a violation of the law.”
Hela Ammar is a Tunisian painter, photographer and law instructor. She recently exhibited, at the “Printemps des arts” fair, a photograph of a Tunisian woman, struggling somehow between her femininity, the wave of the Arab Spring, and the male-dominated world around her.
E.Ammar – Printemps des arts 2012
Her message to the youth is simply, “to open their eyes and their hearts. Art is synonymous with freedom: it is of the essence of humanity and bears no hindrance.”
This article is the weekly-featured-column for Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.