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.