Tunisia has always been a crossroad of cultures. The Arab-Muslim identity of many Tunisians cannot hide the Berber culture surviving beneath it, and now battling to acquire official status. Other minorities are equally part and parcel of the Tunisian landscape: Jews, Italians (especially Sicilians), and French communities have been present in the country for centuries. Since the beginning of the Arab revolutions, that in Tunisia saw their first spark, the traditional subtle blend of tolerance and moderation which cemented this cultural mosaic has been under threat.
The spirit of solidarity that immediately followed the revolution has been fast taken over by talks about the Arab-Muslim identity. Anti-Semitic and homophobic slogans, desecration of places of worship, anti-Black racism, confrontation with those supporting the rights of minorities, all these were just behind the corner. The president of the Tunisian Association for support of minorities (ATSM) – Yamina Thabet – says that in the past few months “we observed a disturbing accumulation of incidents”.
Before the revolution, there was a ban on men growing beards and women wearing headscarves. The ban was lifted in the spirit of free choice. Now, there are Islamic-looking men and women everywhere, to the dismay of middle-class Tunisians who prefer jeans and T-shirts, or skirts and revealing dresses. People complain that the government’s moderate Islamists are soft on the hardliner, giving the impression that an Islamic takeover is about to happen.
The newcomers on the social scene are the Salafists, young Muslim radicals who reject the moderate Sufi version of Islam. Soon after the revolution, they took over from the police in many rural areas. They organise street cleaning teams to sweep away rubbish, and vigilante groups who patrol at night to prevent crimes. They also imposed a restriction on restaurants and hotels selling alcohol. Many Tunisians fear that they went from the persecution of Ben Ali’s police to that of Islamic hardliners, not the best of revolutions.
Those who like a cold beer are not the only one suffering: Salafists started harassing artists and threatening journalists who write unfavourably about them. They pursue the cancellation of the Spring Arts Festival in La Marsa, on the pretext that the artists were advocating homosexuality. “Artists are homosexuals” could be read on the leaflets distributed in the city. Homophobia is growing. After all, Samir Dilou, Minister of Human Rights, has been on the record for saying that “homosexuality is a sexual perversion, a mental illness requiring medical treatment”.
Last September, when riots broke out after a well orchestrated campaign against an American produced film offending Mohammed, Salafists broke into the US embassy in Tunis and looted the American school nearby. Tunisians are now frightened of them. Salafists have repeatedly called for the death of Jews. The 2000 or so strong Jewish community is concerned.”This is only the beginning. Nobody can predict what will happen in the next two or three years”, a faithful said.
Most of the 32,000 Christians present in the country are foreigners, but there is a small local community. These are converts who now are afraid of being accused of apostasy by the Salafists. Maroun Lahham, Catholic Archbishop of Tunis, says “we do not fear, I feel that all doors are open”, but perhaps his faithful do not agree. Who could forget the persecution of Copts in Egypt, or – to remain at home – the desecration of the Russian Orthodox church last April in Tunis.
The problem is not only religious. Berbers also fear the arrival of a radical form of Islam. The Salafists claim that all Tunisians are Arabs, and that their language id Arabic. Yet, the original people of Tunisia were not Arabs. Today the Amazigh, as Berbers are known locally, are weary of the intolerant and reactionary positions held by Salafists. Gathered under the Tunisian Association of Amazigh Culture, they claim to be more than 100,000 and willing to fight to preserve their culture and language. “We must ensure the survival of our heritage and its protection under the rule of law” says Khadija Saïdane, president of the association.
“Slavery was abolished in 1846, but we are still treated as second-class citizens. This is a topic that remains taboo, “says Jelloul, a black Tunisian. Black people – both of local origin of belonging to the growing diaspora community from South of the Sahara – are considered and treated as lesser human beings. Racism is clearly present and never subtle. A press campaign against Nejiba Hamrouni, Secretary General of the National Union of Tunisian Journalists, did not hesitate to insist on his skin colour to denigrate his skills.
Tunisia is on the verge of a cultural change. The majority of the population does not share views with radical Islamists, however they seem unable to sideline the extremists and open a true national platform for dialogue. At the moment, it is not advisable to be Jewish, Christian, gay, black or artist in Tunisia.