MANOUBA, Tunisia — The serene university in this Tunis suburb hardly looked like a tinderbox of religious strife on a recent sunny morning. Young women in snug T-shirts lounged next to young men on benches. Veiled women strolled with male classmates.
But inside his second-floor office, Dean Habib Kazdaghli only half-joked about the University of Manouba evolving into “Manoubistan.” He paged through his binder of evidence — news clippings chronicling a nearly year-long campus battle that he says pits “modernist” academics like himself against fundamentalists who want to take Tunisia back centuries.
The struggle began several months after this nation’s revolution sparked the Arab uprisings last year, when a few ultraconservative students and their backers launched a protest. It became a weeks-long sit-in over demands for a prayer room and for the right of women to wear face-covering Islamic veils called niqabs. Kazdaghli — who heads the arts, letters and humanities faculty — and his administration said no.
The saga will continue later this month, when Kazdaghli faces trial and a potential five-year prison sentence for allegedly striking one of the pro-niqab female students. He denies the accusation, and he and his supporters argue that the case will actually serve as a barometer of the moderate Islamist government’s tolerance for creeping religious extremism.
“The niqab and the prayer room are pretexts,” said Kazdaghli, 57, a sedate and bespectacled historian. “The aim is another vision of society.”
Clashes like this have become the defining conflict of the new Tunisia, where a staunchly secular despot was ousted in a revolution centered on economic grievances. Ennahda, the Islamist party that now heads the government, has pledged to restore the public role of Islam to a society where piety was long repressed. But what that means is the source of almost daily disputes.
Critics say the government has gone too far. Human rights groups point to prosecutions of Tunisians accused of disrespecting Islam, including a television executive whose network aired a controversial film and two sculptors whose works, displayed this summer in a tony Tunis suburb, were deemed harmful to public order and morals. One showed a trail of ants forming the word “Allah.”
The problem, said Amna Guellali, a Tunisia-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, is that hard-line Islamists who have attacked the art gallery and other events they deem offensive have not faced trials.
“There is now quite an alarming trend of selectively prosecuting people,” said Guellali, who added that the judiciary, like most state institutions, has yet to be reformed and remains controlled by the executive branch.
Kazdaghli’s unwavering stance has made him a minor celebrity, and he is at turns lauded by secular activists, scorned by Islamists and criticized by some like-minded elites who think he has gone too far to make a point.
“I am adored by some and diabolized by others,” he said with a touch of pride.
Kazdaghli said his résumé — a thesis on communism, research on Tunisia’s Jewish minority, membership in a leftist political party — made him especially reviled by the hard-line Salafists who launched what he calls an “occupation” of his faculty building for several weeks in December and January.
Dozens slept in the halls, sometimes trapping Kazdaghli in his office, and they scuffled with faculty members and students. Classes were canceled for weeks. In March, Salafist protesters removed a Tunisian flag and replaced it with an Islamic banner.
Police helped little, he said, including on March 6, when, by Kazdaghli’s account, two female students in niqabs barged into his office, called him a “dictator” and began ransacking the space. Kazdaghli telephoned police, who told him to come to the station to file a report. Police later accused him of striking one of the students.
Similar disputes have played out at other Tunisian universities, most of which have agreed to allow niqabs. Kazdaghli is unmoved. Professors must be able to identify exam-takers and spot listening devices that might facilitate cheating, he said.
“We are firm. They can go through the courtyard, the library, to the restaurants. But in class, they have to reveal their faces,” Kazdaghli said. As for the prayer room, there are two mosques a short walk from campus, he said.
Salafists who participated in the protest, of course, see it differently. In interviews, they said revolution had delivered the religious freedom to wear niqabs and pray at public institutions. To identify students, the university need only find women who can do so, they said.
Mohamed Amine, a student at another Tunis university who slept at Manouba for six weeks during the sit-in, said Kazdaghli is a secular extremist whose scholarship on Judaism makes him particularly suspect.
“This shows his loyalty to Israel and his hatred of Islam,” said Amine, 24.
The niqab debate at Manouba is calm for now. The handful of female students who wanted to wear the garments either gave up or left the university. The male student who spearheaded the protest was among many Salafists arrested after an attack on the U.S. Embassy last month.
Both the protesters and Kazdaghli say they want the Tunisian Higher Education Ministry to take a stand, but a ministry spokesman said it is leaving the issue up to university administrators.
Kazdaghli said that neutrality encourages extremists. His Salafist opponents have the same complaint.
“My generation dreamed about having freedom,” Kazdaghli said. “This is the danger: that the revolution is derailed.”