by Anna Mahjar-Barducci
A "committee for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice" has been launched in Tunisia. It is not an official committee, but it is supported by Salafist groups there. Political parties are remaining astonishingly idle, totally incompetent to stop a violent minority that is threatening personal liberties. The Tunisian civil society is active against the committee, but does not have the political instruments to take action against this newly formed organization.
These self-appointed custodians of Islamic virtues are aggressively intervening in public life: They occupy mosques and Quranic schools, and are trying to impose on them imams with Salafist views. They are verbally and physically aggressive towards women who do not abide by their code of dress, they also physically and psychologically assault intellectuals and film makers.
Lately, they have come under the spotlight after they decided to forbid Professor Ikbal Gharbi, appointed by the government to the post of director of the religious radio station Zitouna FM, to enter her office. The reason, according to them, was that Prof. Gharbi had no religious background, despite her being an eminent professor of at the Theological Zitouna University in Tunis. In reality, this committee objects to a woman being in charge of a religious radio station, and for Prof. Gharbi being known as a reformist with a modernist interpretation of the Quran.
The Tunisian media outlet Kapitalis asks in an article what the objectives are of such a committee and what the effects will be over the different classes of the population. The editorial writer, Meriem.Kh, on the media outlet Investir en Tunisie reminds us that the religious police were created in Saudi Arabia in 1940 to implement Islamic rules and prescriptions, and that nowadays there are still countries with special police forces dedicated to force people to observe religious rules. But then she asks the central question: "Is this the fate of Tunisia? Is this post-revolutionary Tunisia?"
Certainly, many liberal and secular Tunisians, worrying if their liberties are at risk, are asking the same question,and if the liberal political parties, now in the opposition, are capable of fighting for individual rights. The response from the government on the committee was formal. Contacted by the press, Mr. Hichem Meddeb, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, said that the ministry had not received any official request for the recognition of the said committee. He added that, if such a request should be presented, no authorization would be granted. It could not be otherwise, he said, because in Tunisia the law on associations forbids members to break into the lives of other people. However, the so far government has failed to take action against these Islamic zealots.
Only a firm reaction from the secular and liberal sector of the country -- a majority if only they had been united and not fragmented into a myriad tiny parties -- can prevent Tunisia from becoming a confessional country. This is the second phase of the revolution after the fall of former dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali -- the real battle ahead for democracy in Tunisia.
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