Cross-posted from Open Democracy and the Colorado Progressive Jewish News. This series, of which Part Two is below, is dedicated to the memory and contributions of Alexander Cockburn. See part 1 — Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok.

Until late last November, when a Salafist storm broke out at the University of Tunis’s Manouba Campus, Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, was living a generally quiet life. But since late last November, much has changed both for Kazdaghli and the University at Manouba.

Kazdaghli is currently the defendant in a law suit, forced to face charges stemming from an incident earlier this year in which he manhandled two female students, both wearing full veils (niqab in Arabic) who had barged uninvited into his office and were destroying his papers. Originally charged with assault and facing 15 days in prison, on July 5, Kazdaghli’s case was postponed until October 25, but the charge was changed to ‘violence committed by an official while carrying out his duties’, which could result in a five-year prison sentence.

Among his academic interests, Kazdaghli was known as one of the few Tunisian non-Jews with genuine interest and expertise concerning the long and rich history of Tunisian Jewry. He has been an active member of the Société d’Histoire des Juifs de Tunisie, a secular historical society bringing together historians of different religions and backgrounds to study Tunisian Jewish history. While this affiliation is perhaps not the central reason for the Salafist campaign against Kazdaghli, it undoubtedly added fuel to their bigoted fire.

Manouba’s calm was shattered in late November of 2011 when angry Salafist demonstrators began what would become more than six months of protests at the Manouba campus. There are some 13,000 students at the Manouba campus; left-wing and secular influences are strong there. It is likely that this explains why the Salafists have targeted the place and why Ennahda, the ruling party, has done so little to interfere with the disruptions and put an end to them. I happened to be in Tunisia at the time that this incident erupted and kept waiting, to no avail, for the authorities to step in and defuse the situation. They never did for the three weeks I was in the country. Instead, for its own reasons, the government simply let the crisis fester.

Reshaping Tunisia’s political class

Breaking the influence of the country’s student movement, an integral part of the coalition that overthrew the corrupt Ben Ali regime, is a key strategy of the current Tunisian ruling elite in its attempt to form a new political consensus, stripped of the more left-oriented and secular elements involved in the uprising. While the coalition that overthrew Ben Ali did not have a coherent programme – the themes that emerged from their demonstrations were clear enough: end to corruption, an economic programme that could raise wages and shrink unemployment, freedom of speech and expression, including for previously repressed religious institutions and an independent (independent of foreign powers – France and the USA in particular) foreign policy.

Why might global powers like the United States, Great Britain and France be so blasé about the rise of the Islamic fundamentalism in Tunisia (and elsewhere in the Middle East) they so criticize to home audiences? The unspoken, but unambiguous goal of Tunisia’s Salafists is to help the country’s new ruling elite split the revolutionary movement that toppled Ben Ali in the first place. That alliance which came together with such speed included a goodly portion of the country’s youth, its student movement, its trade union, human rights fighters, its intelligentsia as well as many from the country’s professional and entrepreneurial class.

Rather than integrating the students, the labour movement and the like into the new order, the ruling Ennahda Party has gone a long way to integrating many elements of the Ben Ali regime along with the country’s hitherto marginalized extremist radical fundamentalist elements – the Salafists – into its new coalition, leaving many of those who actually brought down the Ben Ali and Trabelsi clans out of the mix, in the dust.

Key to isolating the more democratic and militant elements of the revolutionary coalition was to dampen and then in large measure to silence the national narrative that had exploded with the revolutionary upsurge: it was about jobs, higher wages, some reshaping of the economic model, ending corruption and extending democracy, neutralizing the role of the country’s secret police and ensuring greater freedom of expression.

What stood out about this national dialogue at the time Ben Ali was forced to flee (January 14, 2011 – now a national holiday), is how little religious considerations entered into the discussions. The atmosphere was not anti-religious, religious elements were involved in many levels of the revolt. But they were just a part of the mix, and by no means the dominant part; nor were their more radical Islamic fundamentalist elements a part of the revolutionary upsurge at all.

Tunisia: the socio-economic crisis discussions turn to religion

Shortly prior to the October, 2011 national elections for a constituent assembly, the national narrative shifted sharply from the socio-economic crisis which fuelled the revolt in the first place to matters of religion. (I’ve written extensively about this elsewhere.) The issue shifted from being a good citizen, regardless of religion or ethnic background, to one of being a good Muslim. More and more, the essence of ‘good Islam’ was shaped by the more radical, medieval elements within the Muslim community, elements essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, Salafism.

The political consequence of this shift was to tear at the fabric of the left-centre coalition that had given their blood, sweat and tears, and their lives to kick out Ben Ali. Unable to stand the religious pressure, that coalition has lost a good deal of its energy and finds itself more and more isolated. A key element in undermining the revolutionary energy which could have propelled Tunisia to new political and economic vistas has been the sustained and completely cynical attack on the country’s university system in an attempt to tame it, bringing it under the control of more conservative (and not just religiously, but politically conservative) elements now in power.


Salafists are radical Islamic fundamentals whose stated goal is to turn Tunisia (and other places) into Islamic states ruled by Shari’a law. The Salafist movement is essentially foreign to Tunisian Islam, but has gained something of a foothold in the country since the overthrow of the Ben Ali government. Salafists had no role whatsoever in overthrowing the former regime. Their ranks continue to grow, especially among Tunisia’s rural and increasingly unemployed youth whose anger and frustration the Salafists are effectively manipulating.

Salafists thrive in increasingly dysfunctional societies; theirs is a toxic effect. They are beneficiaries of the chaos they have done much to create and enhance. In the end, they help the powers that be ‘divide and conquer’, pitting potential strategic allies against one another: religious against secular, men against women, etc. In Tunisia they are being used in an effort to change the political and social map of the country through what are in essence brownshirt tactics.

What is the end game? Where is all this cultural turmoil headed? The goal is nothing less than to re-shape the Tunisian national project away from its more secular origins as far as possible. To accomplish this, the Ennahda-led coalition needs to deconstruct, if not destroy, the great social movement that brought down Zine Ben Ali, while at the same time claiming to be the inheritors of that revolution.

One hypothesis put forth is that the Salafists are heavily infiltrated by elements of the former Ben Ali secret police, a 250,000 member spook and intimidation force. There is probably some justification to this allegation, although its main argument falls flat as it lets the current government off the hook for its collusion/cooperation with the Salafists. It also ignores the deals that have been cut between the Ministry of Interior, where most of these spooks were employed, the cadre of the former ruling Rassemblement Constitutionel Democratique (RCD) Party of Ben Ali, and the post Ben Ali ruling elite in which Ennahdha has a decisive role.

The growing Salafist influence in Tunisia can be explained both by the refusal of the ruling Ennahda Party to prosecute Salafist excesses – on the contrary it has in many cases encouraged them – and as a result of considerable financial and political support of the movement by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Add to this that the United States and its European allies have turned a blind eye to Tunisian Salafist excesses and an explanation to their rapid growth in influence emerges.

Habib Kazdaghli (APF)

While a few of those demonstrating for the niqab at Manouba are university students, many were outsiders, shipped in from one Salafist demonstration to another. The demonstrators had three demands, cutting edge of what is surely a more encompassing agenda: to turn the University of Tunis into an Islamic University based upon Salafist values. Among the specific demands: the ‘right’ of women to wear the niqab to class – including exams; separate spaces within the university for prayer; and a curriculum that reflects ‘Islamic values’ to a greater degree than at present. The niqab is something virtually never seen in Tunisia in the past 60 years until now. It was illegal to wear it until a year ago.

The Salafist demonstrations provoked counter demonstrations from university students wanting to protect their hard-won academic space. The confrontations between the groups turned increasingly angry and violent and eventually had to be broken up by the police. As has been the case with many other Salafist intimidations, the police, held back by the authorities – the latter now controlled by Ennahda – reacted with glacial slowness, letting the crisis fester far beyond reasonable bounds.

As dean of the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences, Kazdaghli stood right in the Salafist line of fire. His integrity, openness to serious academic inquiry and dialogue, his refusal to give an inch to Islamic fundamentalist thuggery and more than likely his interest in Tunisian Jewish history, together made him – and the faculty he leads – a target. The Salafist protests continued into the new year with the tactics becoming more and more aggressive.

What is a bit curious is how few pro-Salafist people participated in ‘defending the right’ for women to wear the veil. There were no more than a handful of them – maybe 50 in all – trying to intimidate a campus of 11,000 students. The Salafists could have been easily countered by the authorities if the will had been there. But aware that they could function with impunity with the weight of the currently constructed Tunisian state on their side, the Salafists compensated for their paltry numbers with increasingly aggressive tactics.

University entrances were blocked preventing normal access; students were harassed and prevented from studying, disruptions caused class cancellations; 2011 end-of-year exams had to be cancelled and the university temporarily closed; female students were intimidated for their dress and bullied; they occupied a part of the faculty permanently.

Salafists target Tunisia’s Jews and women

These Salafist protests also contained extreme expressions of anti-semitism and overt hostility to women’s rights. Understanding well that the women of Tunisia are in a harsh battle to defend hard-won human and social rights, there was a marked female presence among those students protesting against the Salafist presence and demanding that the authorities act.

In response to this religious offensive, Habib Kazdaghli attempted to maintain the dignity of the University of Tunis as an academic institution based upon Tunisian law and university policies. On November 2, 2011, about three weeks before the Salafist disruptions began, the faculty board had voted to ban the niqab on campus. According to a Human Rights Watch report, “in practice though, niqab-wearers were allowed on campus and in the library but barred from classes and exams.” It was probably this faculty vote, initiated in response to the growing Salafist influence nationally that provoked the Islamic fundamentalists to act.

At about the same time, similar provocations took place throughout the country, suggesting an orchestrated campaign. There were Salafist disruptions at the business school of the University of Manouba (same campus as the Faculty of Lettres, Arts and Sciences), at the School of Arts and Humanities of Sousse, the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Kairouan and the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis. Demands varied with the institutions. At Manouba they focused on the niqab; at the Institute of Theology in Tunis Salafists were demanding that moderate Islamic scholars be replaced by those more closely in tune with Salafist thinking and values.

His continued refusal to be cowed by this Salafist offensive made Kazdaghli a target of the demonstrators, but apparently also of the Tunisian authorities. The latter are probing – using the Salafists as their battering ram – just how far they can go to undo the achievements of the country’s founder and first president, Habib Bourguiba, in terms of secular education and women’s rights.

Kazdaghli’s initial response to the Salafist disruption was to deny outsiders permission to enter the campus in order to maintain order and the continued smooth functioning of the university. Upping the ante, two niqab-ed female students forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office and started to disrupt his papers. His response was to bodily toss them out of his office and in the aftermath, to press formal charges against them. These charges were never processed by the Tunisian police. But when the two women responded by pressing charges against Kazdaghli, the authorities acted swiftly, indicting the dean on charges of assault.

Kazdaghli rejects the charges and describes the lawsuit as having no merit. Defending himself, he commented, “This case was brought up by people who want to reshape our society, but I trust Tunisian justice.” One of his lawyers, Ahmed Brahim added to this, “The dean who represents the university, is being sued, while those who have disrupted classes and attacked Manouba University are free. This is not the message this country has been waiting for… Protecting our universities from aggression should be the primary concern.”

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