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The battle between secularism and Muslim identity in Tunisia during Ramadan Open in fullscreen

Alessandra Bajec

The battle between secularism and Muslim identity in Tunisia during Ramadan

Around 200 people gathered outside ministry of tourism in Tunis to stage a demonstration [Getty]

Date of publication: 8 June, 2018

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Before 2011, many cafes and restaurants stayed open throughout Ramadan, but post-revolution, religion seems to have become a more public affair, as non-fasting people are targeted, writes Alessandra Bajec.
Commonly perceived as the most secular Arab country, Tunisia largely hangs on to its Islamic tradition during Ramadan while claiming respect for freedom of conscience. 

Last Wednesday, the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and three other civil organisations held a press conference at Tunis' journalists syndicate calling for an end to violations of individual liberties and reminding the state's obligation to protect freedom of conscience and belief for all.

Just before the start of Ramadan, in an open letter to the president, parliament, prime minister and power judicial bodies, a group of human rights groups demanded authorities to enforce these freedoms, constitutionally guaranteed, by authorising the right to eat or smoke in public during the holy month.

"A democratic state is one that protects minorities. Our constitution safeguards freedom for all citizens, it doesn’t make distinctions," stated AFTD head Yosra Frawes after the presser, alluding to a recent statement by the Tunisian interior minister that drew heavy criticism among civil rights activists.

Minister of Interior Lofti Brahem reportedly declared before parliament that "the non-practicing minority must respect the beliefs and faith of the 98 percent to 99 percent majority of Tunisians," a reverse reading of the common rule that the majority shall respect the basic rights of minorities in a society.

In Frawes' view, Brahem needs to address his citizens as "cosmopolitan and pluralistic" people, given that Tunisia is historically a country of tolerance and coexistence. She argued that the minister's declaration reveals a conservative view that is at odds with the diversity and social cohesion embraced by Tunisians.

Tunisian protesters raised placards reading 'Live and let live,' to slam the interior minister's decision to close cafes and restaurants during Ramadan daylight hours, and to denounce the arrests of non-fasting people
It comes as dozens of Tunisians rallied in the capital late last month to demand the right of choice to not fast during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in compliance with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of conscience.

Around 200 people gathered outside the ministry of tourism in downtown Tunis on May 27 to stage a demonstration called 'Mouch Bessif' ('not against our will') to denounce the arrests of non-fasting people and ask for the July 1981 circular, forbidding restaurants and bars owners to open their shops during the fast of the holy month of Ramadan, to be stopped.

The demonstration, held under the slogan 'All for a secular country, all for a better Tunisia,' claimed respect for individual freedoms and the right to not fast in the holy month of Ramadan if people chose not to.

Tunisian protesters raised placards reading "Live and let live," "Secularism to live together," and "Secularism is the only way," to slam the interior minister's decision to close cafes and restaurants during Ramadan daylight hours, and to denounce the arrests of non-fasting people.

Read also: 'The citizen is tired': Tunisia's quiet class struggle against austerity measures

Most cafes and restaurants close in the daytime, and those that open do so discreetly with windows and doors duly covered. 

Most cafes and restaurants close in the daytime during Ramadan [Getty]

"Right now you find the city sadly deserted," lamented protester Zaimi Mokhtar, who has been advocating for freedom of thought throughout his life.

"As a student in the 70s, I remember Habib Bourguiba Avenue used to look like Paris' Champs-Élysées, with cafes open and busy with people."

Activist Fatma Matoug agreed. "Now we hide away just to have a drink or some food, as if we were criminals," she said while carrying a bottle of water. "This bottle is not a weapon".

Now we hide away just to have a drink or some food, as if we were criminals

She cited the closure of two cafes in Tunis' neighbourhood of Ennasr where several customers were harassed and arrested.

"We're simply asking to leave the choice of whether to remain open or to close their businesses during Ramadan to the owners of these public places. Not imposing either way by force," pointed out Wahid Ferchichi, president of the Tunisian Association Defending Individual Liberties.

Demonstrators recalled the civilian character of the Tunisian state and the freedom of conscience guaranteed respectively by Article 2 and Article 6 of the 2014 Constitution.

The crowd chanted slogans such as "A secular state safeguards all of us" and "Our constitution must be respected."

Activists say every year cafes are forcibly shut in the Muslim holy month. Tunisians found eating, drinking or smoking in public places are rounded up and these non-fasters are subjected to shame or insult on social networks.

The crowd chanted slogans such as 'Our constitution must be respected' [Getty]

There have also been reports of physical violence perpetrated against non-fasting Tunisians.

Such is the case of Hatem Limam, the president of ALP, (Association des Libres Penseurs or Association of Free Thinkers), who was brutally assaulted in late February by five men suspected of being religious extremists, as he was on his way home in Tunis' Bab Saadoun neighbourhood.

The assailants later reached Limam on the run, entered his house, attacked him again and left the activist with severe injuries.

Although there is no official law against not fasting in public during Ramadan, a circular issued in 1981 forbids restaurants and bars owners to open their shops during the Islamic holy month, which runs counter to the freedom of conscience guaranteed respectively by Article 2 and Article 6 of the 2014 Constitution.

Many protesters heavily criticised the recent statement by the Brahem.

"I wish the minister could substantiate that 99 percent figure," said Abdelhamid Khairi while joining other demonstrators as they marched along Mohammed V Avenue.

He is the head of Terre des hommes-Tunisie, an organisation that works to promote awareness and the amendment of laws, as well as an active member of the civil society.

Khairi said that with the number of Tunisian atheists, believers who identify with other faiths, and Muslim non-fasters, it is unrealistic to estimate that they contribute to a tiny 1 percent of the population.

The question is not about keeping cafes and restaurants open. The political discourse needs to change in line with our democratic transition underway

The rally in May went ahead despite the Tunisian interior ministry's refusal to authorise it. But demonstrations only require prior notification, not authorisation.

The stated reason for the refusal was allegedly that the protest would pose a threat to public order, and that security forces would be unable to ensure the protection of the participants. 

"So when Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir rallies downtown in Tunis, the authorities don't fear public disturbances?" asked ALP member and activist, Mounir Baatour.

"We free thinkers pose more danger than radical Islamists?" he added.

The association ALP disapproved the interior ministry's decision, highlighting that the ministry's role should be to protect participants and not to deny the right to protect. 

Khairi argued that the state should ensure the security of all citizens rather than protecting a religious majority.

Tunisia is a Muslim majority country with a secular orientation that guarantees freedom of religion for everyone, however the state is also the "guardian of religion."

"The question is not about keeping cafes and restaurants open. The political discourse needs to change in line with our democratic transition underway," said activist Mourad Lakhal.

"Democracy is also based on the respect for minorities. Those who are true believers think that faith is something personal, they will practice their religion without disrespecting others," he added. 

The Muslim holy month is that one month of the year for Tunisians to rediscover their religious heritage, a cultural Islamic identity to cling on to. 

While the Constitution says specifically that Tunisia's religion is Islam in Article 1, Article 2 clearly states that Tunisia is a civil state. Otherwise put, Tunisia is a Muslim-majority country with a secular orientation. Rather than acting as a "guardian" of the religious majority, the Tunisian state should ensure everyone's protection, activists say. 

"Tunisia legally guarantees freedom of conscience, but on a practical level it upholds its Islamic identity often through informal means around what is and is not permissible," said Belgian-Egyptian journalist and writer Khaled Diab who is currently based in Tunis. 

The writer observed that as much as Tunisia is liberal, Islam is central to its identity. That is reflected in the religious moral behaviour enforced in the public space, which explains de facto restrictions to personal freedoms like the ban on alcohol sales, and the prohibition to serve food and drinks during fasting hours.

"A lot of Tunisians would be totally secular for 11 months in the year, but when Ramadan comes, that is sacred," the author of Islam for the Politically Incorrect commented.

In Tunisia, a large part of the Muslim community respects the freedom of others to practice another religion or not to have a religion. Some Muslims even defend other people's right to eat in public during Ramadan.

Those who are true believers think that faith is a personal matter, they will observe their religion without disrespecting others

"Those who are true believers think that faith is a personal matter, they will observe their religion without disrespecting others," said Lakhal.

Other Muslims are okay with non-fasting people enjoying some freedom in the holy month, as long as they keep away from the public eye.

"To each his own. I'm not bothered," an elder with the name of Yousef said after his prayer outside a mosque in downtown Tunis.

"There are places that stay open during the day, others are closed."

Sipping coffee and smoking inside a café in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, a young man called Walid supports individual freedoms within certain boundaries. He does not feel restricted and believes that non-fasters like him have enough options during Ramadan, whether to go to cafes that are open, consume at their workplace or at home.

"I don't see the problem with it. I live my life, but I also respect others," Walid said.

Other Tunisians stand against not fasting in public, mainly claiming the society must respect the Arab-Muslim heritage of the majority, and people must show sensitivity toward fasters' feelings and "not hurt them."
 
In regards to the 'Mouch Bessif' rally, Sami Brahem, political scientist at the government-run Centre for Economic and Social Studies (CERES) described the protest on his Facebook page as part of the "Tunisian tourist and cultural folklore."

He wrote that the event "will not succeed in breaching the collective conscience," and "the private space will not prevail over the public one."
 
The researcher questioned the motives of secularists to protest publicly, instead advising a more moderate attitude during the current crucial phase of Tunisia's democratic transition.

Many other non-fasting people did not protest and continue to eat or drink in open public places while respecting the spirit of Ramadan

"Can we expose a private act in the street? Many other non-fasting people did not protest and continue to eat or drink in open public places while respecting the spirit of Ramadan," Brahem said.

Others, meanwhile, have used a more radical form of expression towards their hostility of free conscience. Since the holy month began, controversial preacher Sheikh Adel El Almi has been carrying out a campaign targeting non-fasters to pressure Tunisians into fasting, threatening to publicly shame anyone who eats during the fast.

The imam previously filmed customers through hidden cameras inside the few cafes and restaurants which chose to remain open. He has described cafes serving food and drinks during Ramadan as a "contravention of Sharia (Islamic law)" and a "desecration of the holy month."

Before 2011, many more cafes and restaurants used to be open throughout Ramadan and there was no police control like there is today.

Post-revolution, with the rise of Islamists in the nation's politics, several liberal Tunisians claim that religion has become more of a public, less private, affair over the past few years.

Some would even argue that the issue has turned political, parallel by a growing trend toward authoritarianism, whereby conservative forces would live by their values and impose those on others.

Besides that, religion has become a cultural identity "maker," as hinted by Diab, with Tunisians wanting to connect with their Muslim roots and display a pious behaviour in the most conspicuous manner.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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