In Tunisia after Arab Spring, Islamists’ new freedoms create new Muslim divide

April 28, 2012

Upstairs, Ibrahim Amara and his friends gather around the computer to watch YouTube preachers offering a vision of Islam that rejects democracy and elections. “Democracy’s freedom is absolute,” Ibrahim says, “and we don’t accept that. In our religion, freedom is limited to the freedom God gives you.”

Downstairs, Ibrahim’s father, Saleh Amara, explodes in frustration over his son’s new, post-revolutionary passion. Saleh and his wife have gone along with some of their 27-year-old’s new restrictions — okay, they’d stop watching soap operas and “Oprah” on TV, because there was too much sexual content — but Saleh says his son goes too far. Growing the long beard of the pious is fine, though it will probably limit his job opportunities. And if Ibrahim insists that his secular-raised, college-educated wife cover her hair and wear gloves, well, that’s his business. But how can he spurn free elections, the sweetest fruit of Tunisia’s revolution?

One year after the uprising that sent autocratic leader Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali packing to exile in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia stands divided between two visions of its future. Last year’s street clashes in this sun-spangled city by the sea have morphed into a different kind of battle — more intimate confrontations in which many families struggle with essential questions of identity.

Secular parents, surprised to find their daughter covering her hair in public, worry they are losing their child to extremism. Moderately religious families argue over a son’s decision to grow a beard and demonstrate against aspects of Tunisian life they have always taken for granted: beer and wine, bikinis on the beach, Hollywood movies on TV. In workplaces, kitchens and sidewalk tearooms, one question dominates: Can and should Tunisia’s blend of Western and Islamic values and practices be maintained under the North African country’s new freedom, or has that freedom unleashed a religious extremism that threatens to push this land of 10 million people toward a new kind of dictatorship?

Sixteen months after a humiliated Tunisian fruit vendor named Mohammed Bouazizi poured paint thinner on himself, lit a match, and sparked a wave of revolutions across the Arab world, the birthplace of the Arab Spring is in many ways better off than the other countries where rulers were toppled. Tourists are starting to return to Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, there is relative peace on the streets, and fair elections were held, bringing to power a coalition of Islamist and secular parties led by Ennahda, an Islamist movement that asserts its moderation at every turn — even as many secular families don’t believe a word of it.

But Tunisians are anything but flourishing. Jobs remain scarce, and the sense of hopelessness that led to the uprising is little abated. Hardly a day goes by without some new confrontation between Islamists and secular Tunisians.

In a country that is nearly 100 percent Muslim, a growing rift over religion threatens — in the view of the secular president of the new parliament — to throw Tunisia into “chaos.”

“For 30 years, we had no freedom or democracy,” says Mustapha Ben Jafar, who presides over the country’s Constituent Assembly in a baroque, mirrored office from which the Ottoman Empire once ruled Tunisia. “Now, our situation is so fragile and sensitive because we are caught between two forces — one that wants progress and one that wants to go back in time.”

Ben Jafar — who won his position when Ennahda sought to show it would share power with secular parties — argues that “freedom always has its costs. Before the revolution, these extreme movements existed but they were forced underground. Now everything is in the open, and thank God for that.”

But followers of an austere version of Islam known as Salafism, including Ibrahim Amara, are not satisfied merely to exercise their new right to demonstrate. “We must adopt sharia law,” making the Koran the law of the land, Ibrahim tells his family in their stucco house in the working-class suburb of Le Kram. If the state “tries to silence us, we will use any means — violence, too.”

Ibrahim’s older brother, Ahmed, who is 29 and sports a fashionable goatee, shudders at his brother’s anger. “Ibrahim used to be normal — go to clubs, go to parties, not just pray all the time,” he says. “I’m more open. I still think we can have that balance, to be both Western and Islamic.”

Why Ibrahim, an educated young man from a middle-class family, turned to Salafism is not clear to his family. What they do know is that, like many well-educated young Tunisians who have had trouble finding work in recent years, Ibrahim found structure and purpose in a movement that paints the rest of society as hedonistic and directionless.

Ahmed gets exasperated just looking at his brother’s scowl as he stares at the floor during arguments with their father, who calls himself a “normal, moderate Muslim.” “People like Ibrahim — they’re just so . . . I don’t know. They close themselves off,” Ahmed says. “I mean, Ibrahim doesn’t even have any photos from his wedding. He wouldn’t allow any pictures. He said it was against Islam.”

New fears of a hard line

Two neighborhoods away from the Amaras’ place, amid driveways full of Mercedes-Benzes and Audis and a block from the Mediterranean beach where French tourists sunbathe in bikinis, the Ayed family gathers with relatives and friends for Sunday brunch. The chatter flits seamlessly from French to Arabic to English.

The Ayeds — Adnen Ayed spent years in various world capitals as a top executive for Sony, and his wife, Houda Cherif, is a former teacher who co-founded one of Tunisia’s secular political parties — came home from Japan a year before the revolution. Then, in January 2011, on what Cherif calls “the dream day,” she and Ayed joined the huge crowd downtown, got chased by security police and celebrated with strangers at news of Ben Ali’s flight.

Ayed got a face full of tear gas and Cherif lost her car keys, but their joy at the prospect of life after dictatorship overwhelmed any inconvenience. Within a few months, however, that thrill began to yield to worry over growing division. “We are all Muslims, but we were starting to separate into one kind of Muslim and another,” recalls Cherif, 42.

In the campaign leading to October’s elections and in the months since, small but violent demonstrations by Salafists have frightened many Tunisians.

Islamist preachers calling for sharia law, a return to polygamy and a reduced role for women do not represent a majority but are making headway, some secular Tunisians worry. At brunch, over spicy tuna salad and brik — Tunisia’s fried phyllo snack — served on Royal Albert china, Cherif tells of a well-educated friend whose mother chastised him for voting for a secular party. “You voted against Allah,” the mother said.

“How do you fight against that?” Cherif asks. “How do you educate people about our mild Tunisian brand of Islam when Islamist parties are telling voters that their path is the only one to paradise?”

In downtown Tunis, on the grand Avenue Bourguiba, a thousand well-dressed people appear one afternoon and plop down on the sidewalk, against tree trunks, on the steps of the National Theatre, each person intently reading a book.

It’s a read-in, organized by secular parties to warn against the ignorance they believe leads to religious extremism. Cherif takes her place on the theater steps, reading a sociology book about rampant egoism. Around her, professors, students, physicians and engineers read Camus, Balzac, Beckett and other classics — almost all in French.

A professor of French literature, Maatallah Gleya, looks up. “See, everyone is reading a different book,” she says. “If you went to a Salafist demonstration, everyone would be reading the same book.”

Ali Gaidi, a college student who happens by the read-in, gets the point. “They’re saying we shouldn’t just read Koran,” he says. “But the extremists these people are so afraid of won’t pay attention to this. All they would see is elitists reading French.”

What secularists don’t realize, Gaidi says, is that “even people who wear the veil read books. These people are so afraid of the extremists that they don’t see we are all Tunisians. We will stay moderate, as we have always been.”

Cherif and her friends wish they could share that confidence. In some ways, the country is embracing a Western openness. In the ancient Roman city of Carthage, Tunisian designers this month staged a Fashion Week show with thumping house music, daring displays of skin and designs that served as a commentary on the hijab, the head scarf some religious women wear.

In other ways, hard-line Islamist values are spreading. A mother at brunch tells of girls at her daughter’s school who informed a secular classmate they would no longer speak to her, because she did not wear the hijab.

After the revolution, elite lawyers, academics and business people scrambled to form political parties — 110 of them, including Afek Tounes (Tunisian Aspiration), which Cherif and friends created to focus on defending civil liberties.

“The secular message was aimed at the elite,” says Cherif, a slim, elegant woman who drives a big sport-utility vehicle, a rare sight in Tunis. “We targeted the brain, and the Islamists went for the heart. They talked about honesty, faith and justice — and jobs. We were completely wrong.” Her party won only four of 218 seats in the parliament.

Ennahda, which won a plurality of seats, put hundreds of volunteers to work writing pro-Islamist, anti-secular comments on Tunisians’ Facebook pages. Ennahda portrayed the secular elite as dominated by intellectuals who had spent too much time outside Tunisia or as affluent capitalists who had remained silent under Ben Ali and were complicit in his reign.

Now, with what some secular Tunisians call “the beards” on the rise, some in the new government worry that Tunisian democracy could prove brittle. “The people are losing patience, waiting for jobs,” says Yadh Ben Achour, who ran the country’s constitutional commission. “The risk is that protests could lead to chaos, which could take us right back to dictatorship.”

But if the ruling coalition cracks down on extremists, he says, it can buy time to rebuild the economy. “Radicals in Tunisia don’t have deep social roots like in Egypt,” he says. “The average Tunisian already has democracy in their heads.”

Cherif beams as her 16-year-old daughter tells of an Islamist man who stood outside her high school, a French private academy, and told students not to drink Coca-Cola, because it’s American and against Islam. The kids laughed at the man until he went away.

Three worlds, one new one

It was in high school, in 1979, that Samir Layouni started to pray. His parents were not religious; like most Tunisian women, his mother eschewed the hijab. But Layouni found peace and fulfillment — and a sense of rebellion — in the open expression of faith that Tunisia’s government declared dangerous, even seditious.

Prayer, Samir says, “helps you disconnect from the material world,” and when he stands up from five minutes of afternoon prayer with his wife and two daughters, he seems lighter in manner and step than when he began.

For most of his life, Samir, 50, lived in three worlds — in the mosque, where regular attendance brought regular encounters with the security police; in secular Tunisia, where his customers and colleagues often took overt signs of devotion as evidence of extremism; and in the underground cells of Ennahda, where Samir as a college student joined other Muslim men who were organizing for political revolution and religious awakening.

It’s all in the open now: His political work. His wife Hela’s decision to wear the head scarf again, after 12 years of going uncovered so she would not be harassed by Ben Ali’s security forces. Their regular visits to the mosque in their village of Sidi Bou Said, known for its artists colony and spectacular views of the sea.

Still, when fellow Tunisians learn of his Ennahda background, they often seem frightened of him, he says. People like Houda Cherif see Ennahda supporters as stalking horses for extremist clerics preaching intolerance. People like Ibrahim Amara view Samir and his comrades as sellouts, suspiciously clean-shaven captives of the West.

Samir has no beard — just a trim moustache. He says those who insist on a narrow version of Islam will fall by the wayside as Tunisia matures.

As for secularists, “our challenge,” Samir says, “is to show we are not what they think. We do not want to oppress women or make them stay at home or let people have four wives.”

Like Samir, Hela grew up in a secular home; she didn’t even pray regularly. Her parents, suspicious of Samir’s activism, asked: Why would you want to marry a zealot? Especially one who is in prison, which is where Samir was sent after he joined the banned Ennahda party.

But Hela fell in love with Samir and his life of prayer. She remains the only veiled woman in her family.

Samir escaped from custody and spent four years underground, moving from one hideaway to another, missing his son’s early childhood. Later, after turning himself in, he was regularly summoned by police interrogators who beat and tortured him, he says.

When Samir set up a cheese factory, he says, he refused entreaties to bribe regime officials. He figured they could not do anything to him that he had not already survived. That same reasoning led him last year to defy his mother and join the anti-government demonstration, despite her fear of violence.

The revolution turned out to be mainly peaceful because “Tunisia’s different,” Samir says. “The secular opposition and our party spent years in prison together. We’re not out to change each other. This is not an Islamic country — it’s a Tunisian country.”

One wall of the Layounis’ living room is covered with souvenir plates from places Samir has visited — from Istanbul to Venice to London. In an ornate, Ottoman-style room of deep red brocade, tasseled tablecloths and prayer rugs, the plates stand out as a sign of worldliness. As a businessman who sells his Gouda, Edam and pate to all, he moves easily among Tunisia’s different factions. But some in his party live more isolated lives, a separation many secular Tunisians find alienating.

Bridging that divide is the task facing Rachid Ghannouchi, Ennahda’s 70-year-old spiritual leader, who spent more than two decades in exile in London after his party was banned. Now, from his spacious office atop Ennahda’s headquarters, he contends the party is more moderate than secularists or hard-liners believe.

“When you want people to come together, you have to be in the center,” he says.

Ghannouchi has steered Ennahda in a different direction from Muslim Brotherhood-related groups in Egypt and elsewhere in the region.

He made a show of meeting with Jewish leaders after an extremist cleric called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. He says he supported excluding Islamic law from Tunisia’s constitution because “we want to bring the hoo-ha over sharia to an end and get on to the most pressing problem — unemployment.”

Ghannouchi sees extremism on either side of him. In a rumble so soft as to be barely audible, he talks of “inheriting an extremist secularism where the hijab was banned. In Tunisia, we need time to get used to the idea that the citizen is free to choose his own way of life.”

He says he wants Tunisia to become “a model of compatibility between democracy and Islam — the Switzerland of the Arab world.”

That Tunisia is a long way off, Samir knows. But he and Hela are emerging from a life led behind closed doors. She goes to the mosque now without worrying that someone will call her a terrorist. He goes to party meetings without taking circuitous routes.

“For the first time after 50 years, I am free,” Samir says. “I can breathe.”

One suburb up the coast, Cherif feels her freedom slipping away. She wants her children to grow up in her homeland, where her grandfather fought against French colonizers. Now the opponents are religious extremists. “We must stay and fight,” she says.

And one village in the other direction from Samir’s house, Ibrahim Amara works on converting his family, and then his country. “Every Muslim will reach our phase and be like us,” he says. “Our duty is to convert others, and if they don’t let us express ourselves, we will have to fight.”

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