Tunisia’s Close Call
Hearts and Minds
The curfew had been imposed earlier in the week following violent riots by Salafist groups over an art exhibition that was deemed insulting to Islam. Concerns increased when the moderate Islamist leader, Ghannouchi, called on those who supported the values of the revolution and of Islam to protest following Friday’s prayers. Additional conflict was avoided at the last minute, as the Ministry of the Interior refused to issues licenses to the protests organizers. Fortunately, everyone’s worst fears were avoided, but it was certainly a close call.
Tensions between conservative Islamists and more liberal factions within the country have been on the rise since the revolution took place. Under the previous regime, Islamist parties as well as conservative behaviors were either explicitly or implicitly prohibited. Women were not allowed to wear the veil in public and it was rumored that security forces persecuted individuals who participated in the early morning prayers. Tunisia’s democratic wave changed these restrictions. Symbolically, Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party, won the majority of the votes in last year’s election.
Though democracy has supported freedom of religion in the country, it has also raised an important issue that Tunisians will have to address if they are to guarantee the return of long-term stability to their country. Tunisia is now a country split along religious lines— between those who espouse a more conservative view of how Islam should be practiced and the impact it should have on society, and those who have kept the more liberal perspective upheld by the previous government.
The beauty of participatory governments and civil rights is that no one should have to be forced to choose one of the two options. Yet as the protests demonstrated, in order for peace to be maintained leaders of opposing views must come together to discuss and agree as to how they will co-exist in the country.
The government should continue to uphold the values of religious freedom. However, it should ensure that it is also creating the necessary conditions for dialogue to take place. By ensuring that the rule of law is respected, the government will send a clear message to both sides that religious freedom will be upheld. Violence should not be tolerated, lest a culture of intimidation replace the nascent democratic values of the new Tunisia.