TUNIS — The foreigners began trickling into a waiting room inside the sprawling, colonial-era prime ministry building here around 9 a.m. They carried files of official-looking paperwork. Most were accompanied by a Tunisian.
Ninety minutes later, the group was ushered into a cavernous hall with tiled walls and patterned red carpets the size of swimming pools. Behind a large desk sat a man with a big title and a demeanor so unimposing you could almost miss him: The Grand Mufti of Tunisia.
It is Sheikh Othman Battikh’s job to settle major religious questions and announce the onset of Eid and other Muslim holidays in this North African country, whose revolution 17 months ago sparked the Arab Spring.
On this morning, though, he was officially converting a half-dozen foreigners to Islam — most so they could marry the Tunisian partners who accompanied them. The men were dressed casually, the women unveiled.
Battikh, his traditional cream robe and red-and-white cap lit by morning sun streaming through tall windows, greeted his audience in soft-spoken Arabic as a man to his left translated his words to French and another to Italian. Islam is a religion of peace and love, he explained, one that respects all faiths, encourages dialogue and never imposes its doctrine.
He finished his address with a query: Did the converts have any questions?
‘’What about extremists?” a Danish man, originally from Benin, asked in French. “What should be done about them?”
It was a reasonable question. Ten days before, amid a wave of outrage across Muslim-majority countries over a crude American video that mocked Islam, protesters had breached the U.S. Embassy grounds outside Tunis, burning dozens of vehicles and replacing the Stars and Strips with the black flag of Islam. The mob then made its way across a highway to the city’s American school, where it torched buildings and buses, ransacked classrooms and stole about 300 computers and dozens of musical instruments.
Tunisian security forces were slow to respond and did little once they arrived, Allan Bredy, the school’s director, had told me. A band of about 20 school staffers eventually armed themselves with baseball bats and “recaptured the campus” from the final 50 or so looters, Bredy said.
Battikh shook his head. Extremists were nothing to worry about, he responded. They represented a tiny, simple, misguided minority, he said.
“Only crazy people will vote for the Salafists,” he said, referring to adherents of an ultraconservative brand of Islam that is challenging Tunisia’s moderate Islamist governing party.
Many liberal Tunisians do not share the mufti’s confidence. But the Dane nodded vigorously, apparently satisfied.
“You see? Our daughters are free, unveiled, and they are converting people!” Battikh said, looking at me.
The ceremony ended with each convert trying to recite from memory the Shahada, the Muslim declaration of faith, in Arabic: There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his messenger. None succeeded without prompting. There were smiles and giggles.
Afterward, the men happily shook hands. And the Italian translator angrily demanded that I delete all photos I had taken of him or his clients. They were Italian executives, he huffed, and they might lose business if their adoption of Islam became public.
The mufti, apparently resigned to the image problems of his religion, simply shrugged.