By Houda Trabelsi
Once banned under Ben Ali, many Middle Eastern Muslim scholars are now flocking to Tunisia to partake in the nation’s newfound political freedoms.
This unprecedented wave of visits sparked several interpretations online and has become a hot topic in newspapers as well as for some radio and television programmes. The influx of Middle Eastern preachers includes Amr Khaled, Safwat Hejazi and Wagdi Ghoneim, who arrived in Tunisia February 11th. But the visits have caused concern among some, including the mufti of Tunisia.
“We have to avoid people whose calls are strange to us in order to avoid commotion, which is deadlier than killing itself,” said Othman Battikh, the mufti of Tunisia. “We don’t need divisions and differences because we carry the same belief and believe in the same sharia. We recommend good choice; otherwise, we don’t need those preachers from the east.”
Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri told Magharebia that Tunisia was open to all ideas “provided that they don’t undermine people’s freedom and security”.
“The Tunisian government doesn’t want to go backward when some thinkers and religious scholars were prevented from visiting our country because of their opinions,” he said. “Tunisia is still the country of moderate Islam and moderation that rejects violence and extremism whether from the extreme left or extreme right.”
Citizens, for their part, were divided on the issue. Some worried about the potential impact while others saw no harm in engaging the hard-line theologians.
Mounir Masmoudi, a young man, said he didn’t think visits by preachers from satellite TV channels would be effective in solving Tunisia’s problems. “We’re now living a strangling crisis and seeing an increase in the number of unemployed people, a high cost of living, and natural conditions that have hit some inland areas. Therefore, we’re waiting for realistic, rather than spiritual, solutions,” Masmoudi said.
Maysem Mahmoud, 23, told Magharebia that Ghoneim’s approval of female genital mutilation angered her. “I wonder how that man’s visit to our country will benefit us. What will he add to a country of 3,000 years of civilisation, the country of Zitouna Mosque that was full of scholars?”
She added that she saw video of Ghoneim’s visit to Mahdia, where she said the preacher “was inciting commotion among the Tunisian people by saying ‘No to secularists! No to infidels! Tunisia is a Muslim country.’ He said that after some had objected to his presence at the hall by singing the Tunisian national anthem.”
Mahdia wasn’t the only region to reject Ghoneim’s visit. The preacher’s controversial views caused civil society groups in Sfax province to file a complaint February 14th with the Tunisian judiciary.
The complaint stated that the preacher was known for “his extremist ideas and fatwas, for charging those who have different opinions from his of apostasy and has been particularly known for his express call for mutilating female genitals, considering this act as ‘doing honour to women,’ and as this call is considered an express incitement for harming girls physically”.
But some Tunisians have supported the visits, saying everyone has a right to free speech.
Abou Yaareb Marzouki, representative of Ennahda Movement in the Constituent Assembly, said that “the presence of various types of ideas, like that of Ghoneim, in the field of public thought in Tunisia is a part of freedom of expression that undoubtedly includes all types of thinking and is not restricted to theirs.”
“The content of this thinking includes things that are accepted and others that are rejected, exactly like any other type of thinking, as long as it doesn’t breach the law by, for example, promoting violence or racial discrimination,” Marzouki added.
Meanwhile, the opinion of independent Islamist Abd Fatteh Mourou has appealed to many Tunisians. Speaking on television, he said Tunisia had its own rich Islamic history.
“With all due respect to the preachers and scholars from the east, whose call no one can doubt, but they are coming to us with fatwas aimed at their societies,” he said. “We know that transferring fatwas from one society to another that lives under different conditions is a gross mistake.”
“Tunisia is a Muslim country, and Islam didn’t come to it in 2011,” he added. “Tunisia has Zitouna Mosque and scientific heritage. Our country is the land of the Maliki sect. Tunisia has known intensive scientific activities that made it a scientific authority in the history of fiqh and Islamic legislation.”