ISSN 2330-717X

Thousands March For Secularism In Tunisia


By Jamel Arfaoui

A 43-year-old Tunisian man was arrested on Tuesday (February 22nd) in connection with the murder of a Polish Catholic priest, which stunned the nation.

The alleged killer, Chokri Ben Mustapha Bessadek Mestiri, worked as a carpenter at the school in Manouba where Marek Marius Rybinski was serving. According to TAP, Mestiri confessed to the homicide, saying he did it to cover up the theft of funds used to buy building materials.


The killing outraged many Tunisians and led activists to organise a march for secularism and religious tolerance on Facebook. The first-of-its-kind rally took place on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis on Saturday and was reportedly attended by more than 15,000 people.

“Our planning for the march for the defence of secularism is aimed at calling for co-existence among Tunisians of different religions and ideological and intellectual convictions,” Tarek Sliti told Magharebia.

Sliti added, “We want to say to all people that Tunisia today can accommodate everyone, including secularists, Muslims, atheists, Jews and Christians.”

Rally participant Saida Garrache lauded the role played by young men and women in holding the protest, saying that it was “an opportunity to correct the misconceptions that many people have about secularism. Most of the people think that secularism equals atheism, which is wrong. Secularism is for sure the biggest guarantee for freedom of belief.”

Meanwhile, Zaineb Ben Mlouka, who was carrying a banner reading “We should all live together, as Muslims, Jews and Christians”, told Magharebia: “We didn’t expect that this would happen one day and that we would raise the issue of secularism with all freedom. We used to be afraid when we thought about this issue. In addition, the authorities were preventing us from making any moves. However, our revolution gave us this opportunity.”

March organisers were keen to obtain a permit from the security authorities to protect the rally against any interference by extremists.

“The march went in the best possible circumstances without any aggressions from anyone. Everything just passed in peace,” said Abderrahman, an academic who brought his two daughters with him to the rally.

However, a woman wearing the niqab stood at the opposite street carrying a banner denouncing secularism because “it calls for atheism”. She was joined by other anti-secular protestors, who debated the issue with secular marchers.

“We made her understand that secularism alone can guarantee her the freedom to wear the niqab,” Ibtesam Maghrabi said.

But some Tunisians said that it was too early to talk about these issues.

“I’m not against secularism, but it’s not one of my priorities,” said student Mehdi ben Ezzedine. “What I’m interested in right now is the establishment of security and return of factories to work with their productivity before the revolution, or even more than that if necessary.”

Meanwhile, a message sent to the Committee for Political Reform Sunday (February 20th) from Tunisian Grand Mufti Othman Batikh called for protecting the identity of people, their cultural and religious originality, and for “carefulness not to touch the first article of the constitution”, which states that the official religion of Tunisia is Islam and that its language is Arabic.

According to the mufti, “Islam has always been the main component of culture of this people and the religion of the overwhelming majority of Tunisians. Arabic is also the language of this people.”

The mufti, who rarely interferes in public affairs, said that “the constitution must also guarantee the freedom of religion and protect it against any form of domination, aggression and violence which are rejected by free people everywhere in the world. It’s a religious duty of every Tunisian man and woman to respect this freedom in the framework of mutual respect between the observers of different religions.”

However, Yadh Ben Achour, a specialist of constitutional law and head of the Committee for Political Reform, has confirmed in more than one press meeting that his committee has no intention to touch the first article of the constitution.

“The best way to deal with the projects that may run into conflict with the goals of revolution and gains of enlightenment is to provide greater margins of expression for everyone, including the proponents of these ideas,” Islamic group specialist Sami Brahim told Magharebia.

Protestor Faten Yahiaoui said she originally didn’t plan to attend the event. “However, after hearing about the killing of that priest, I decided to take part in it in order to denounce what has happened and to expose the perpetrators of that crime.”

“Today is our opportunity to say to the proponents of extremism and killing that the Tunisian society rejects you, and that our revolution is a just revolution that calls for fraternity, co-existence and love,” Yahiaoui said.

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The Magharebia web site is sponsored by the United States Africa Command, the military command responsible for supporting and enhancing US efforts to promote stability, co-operation and prosperity in the region.

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