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Islamist "Religious police" threaten civil liberties in Tunisia

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia

An unofficial “committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice” has been launched in Tunisia as the country moves in an increasingly Islamist direction.

Tunisian-Constituent-Assembly-4X3.jpg
The Tunisian Constituent Assembly in session
Parti Mouvement Ennahdha / CC BY 2.0

The newly-formed organisation, which is supported by Salafist groups, does not have government recognition, but no action has been taken to stop its activities.

The committee for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice – a phrase that relates to a Quranic verse commanding good and forbidding evil – has taken it upon themselves to see that Islamic virtues are upheld in public life: they are aggressive towards women who do not abide by their code of dress, and they make their presence felt at mosques and Quranic schools, where they are trying to impose imams with Salafist views.

In one case, they objected to the new female director of a religious radio station taking up her post. Professor Ikbal Gharbi had been appointed to the position by the government; it seems the committee were opposed to a woman being in charge of a religious radio station, and especially one with a reformist and modernist interpretation of the Quran.

The formation of the committee has sparked fears among many liberal and secular Tunisians about the risk it poses to civil liberties.

Highlighting the example of Saudi Arabia, where official religious police strictly enforce sharia law, one Tunisian commentator said, “Is this the fate of Tunisia? Is this post-revolutionary Tunisia?”

Hichem Meddeb, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said that no request had been received for official recognition of the committee and that no authorisation would be granted. The government has not, however, taken any action against them.

Increasing Islamism

Since the Islamist Ennahda party emerged with the largest share of the vote in the Tunisian elections in October, there have been growing concerns that the country – long-recognised as one of the most Westernised, secular and liberal Arab nations – will move in an increasingly Islamic direction.

The party’s deputy leader Hamadi Jebali, a frontrunner to become the new Tunisian Prime Minister, raised alarm among some observers when he referred to the country’s future as a “Caliphate”. This term refers to one trans-national Islamic state based on sharia and ruled by an autocratic Caliph, as in the early Muslim state. Ennahda issued a quick retraction, saying Jebali was quoted out of context and insisted that the party was committed to republican principles.

Some of those who protested back in January for a more secular, liberal Tunisia feel that the revolution has been hijacked.

One such demonstrator, Maryam Hamim (20), said:

The Islamists didn’t go out with us on January 14th but then they took the revolution for themselves.

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