Preachers take over public spaces in Tunisia

Photo of a preacher in front of a school in the city of Sousse.
 
In front of schools, on buses or in public squares, and for several months now, a new phenomenon has been spreading across Tunisia: religious preachers. Whether they are originally from Tunisia or come from the Gulf States, more and more of them are using public spaces to promote their vision of religion.
 
The internet is awash with their videos, and there are pages on social media devoted to their beliefs. These preachers, whose messages can more or less be considered as radical, are imams who venture out from mosques to preach on the streets and call on people to “return to God’s path”. With microphones and loudspeakers in hand, they improvise sermons in ‘conversion tents’, or out on the street.
 
An imam preaching in front of a school in Sousse.
 
The same imam on a bus.
 
This form of public preaching is new to Tunisia, where the regime of former dictator Ben Ali outlawed any political or religious gatherings not organised by the government. There is no law banning or regulating preachers in public spaces. However, the authorities need to be notified of any public gathering before they are held. Lotfi Hidouri from the public communications office of the Interior Ministry told FRANCE 24 the ministry is aware of the phenomenon. However, he declined to say whether the ministry authorised gatherings held recently.
Contributors

“People are often intimidated and don’t dare confront them”

Messaoud Romdhani is the vice president of the Tunisian League for Human Rights.
 
People here have been so deprived of freedom for so many years that, today, they have a poor understanding of freedom of expression and how to express this, sometimes confusing it with anarchy. But being free doesn’t mean having the right to say anything you want to say, wherever and whichever way you want!
These practices are being encouraged by the wave of preachers visiting Tunisia from the Gulf or the Middle East. Even though some of them have extremist views, these foreign imams often come to Tunisia with the blessing of the government or the Islamist party Ennahda, the party in power, which accommodate and welcome them.
 
Here in Sfax, the second largest city in the country, an Ennahda MP uses a speech to welcome an Egyptian imam visiting the country.
 
On the other hand, regular citizens are not always aware of their rights. In the video of the bus, for example, no one had the reflex to tell this man that his speech may disturb the passengers, no doubt because they felt intimidated. Tunisians quite often think of religious proselytism as a form of extremism. Therefore, they avoid interfering for fear of provoking them.
 
A day after the video showing the imam preaching on a bus was broadcast, other Tunisians recorded this video on a bus and uploaded it onto social media, calling it: “Response to the salafist preacher who tried to convert people on a bus”.
 
We have tried several times to warn the authorities against the spread of this practice in the country because we think it could have adverse consequences for our society. The imams split the society [Editor’s note: in several speeches, the preachers pit believers against “laymen”] by advocating, for example, that men and women be separated in learning institutions, or encouraging people to make four-year-old girls wear veils. Some speak to young people, who are more easily influenced, and can thus be enticed towards extremist religious practices. This doesn’t encourage harmony; instead, it spreads a message of hate.
 
The authorities have not reacted to our warnings, and no concrete measure has been taken to stop these practices. However, civil society organisations also have a duty to act. People need to be aware of the dangers of this type of preaching and understand that they have the right to challenge the preachers’ presence. It’s every citizen’s role to ensure public spaces are protected. Unfortunately, civil society organisations don’t have the same presence on the ground as the imams.
 
 
 
This article was written in collaboration with France 24 journalist, Sarra Grira (@SarraGrira),

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