Countering extremism is priority for first woman provost of Tunisia’s religious university
Tunis - The first female provost of Tunisia’s Higher Institute for Sharia and Religious Studies said battling the influence of Islamist extremists is part of a broader goal of providing spiritual calm for a Muslim population tormented by anguish and uncertainty.
“The fight against terrorism is my concern and a top priority because terrorism is not perpetrated only by those who have their hands stained with blood. Terrorism begins with discourse. It starts from ideas and grows into hatred, exclusion and rejection of others before turning into killing and bloodletting,” Bouthaina Jelassi said in an interview at her office.
Jelassi, who has a doctorate in Islamic studies, in July was appointed chief officer of an institute that trains thousands of mosque imams and preachers as well as teachers for Quranic schools at mosques.
Most of Tunisia’s 5,600 mosque imams and preachers were trained at the institute, which operates under the supervision of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
The Tunisian government declared a “war on terrorism” after jihadists killed 61 people, mostly foreigners, in two attacks in 2015 that devastated the country’s tourism industry and frightened away investors.
Government officials agree with experts that such a war must be buttressed by a comprehensive strategy that includes countering radical Islamist messages aimed at radicalising and recruiting youth to join extremist groups.
An estimated 5,000 Tunisians have joined the Islamic State (ISIS) and other extremist organisations in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Radical Islamists were said to have found it easy to seize control of mosques and other public spaces following the overthrow of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011 as the main ruling Islamist Ennahda Party that replaced him viewed the inclusion of Salafists and other radical groups as necessary for a “comprehensive democracy”.
Secularists and liberals in Tunisia accused Ennahda of practicing “double-talk” by assuring Tunisians and sceptics abroad that the party was a bulwark against extremism while at the same time encouraging Salafists and other radical allies to push for Islamisation of society through their attacks on cultural events and symbols of a secular state.
“I believe in the importance of the discourse and exchange of ideas to influence and convince people and shape vision,” Jelassi said. “This is why my project is to focus on the mechanisms of the discourse.”
She noted “the importance given to the interpretation, comprehension and understanding of Quran and Sunna and exegesis,” referring to the holy book of Islam and the words and deeds of the Prophet Mohammad.
“Extremist thought and ideas are relying on sacred texts for arguments to bolster the narrow interpretations they extract from verses and words from the Prophet that are taken out of their contexts and timelines,” Jelassi said. “Extremists do not respect the spirit of the religion and the sharia in their discourses.”
She pledged to adapt the education programme to the necessity and urgency of fighting fanatical ideas. “I will work with imams, preachers and teachers to improve the substance of the Islamic discourse and the ways they relate and connect with the faithful,” she said.
In addition to Islamic teachings, the institute’s curriculum includes biology, psychology, sociology, anthropology and other fields.
Ali Ghorbal, a preacher at the Assalam mosque in the wealthy Tunis neighbourhood of Ennasr, said there was a need to mobilise enlightened imams to counter the influence of extremists.
“Young people from well-to-do families join mosques to discover new spiritual strength. At first, they come to the mosque with smiling faces. But they change when they are picked by extremist operatives for brainwashing,” Ghorbal said. “I knew at least four who died in Syria [fighting for ISIS],” he said.
“Youth in poor districts or remote areas in the countryside are recruited with promises of money, a gun and a wife, three components of virility that they yearn for. They are easy prey for recruiters,” he said.
Jelassi said Muslims in general and young Tunisians in particular need a moderate Islamic discourse at a time when people feel stress, anguish and uncertainty.
“People seek salvation through the traditional values of Islam, which gives importance to dialogue, compromise and respect for difference,” she said. “Youth are experiencing hard times with massive unemployment and poverty… Imams and preachers can help them by reminding them of the Islamic values of patience and optimism,” she said.
Jelassi wants to open the institute to local and foreign civic organisations as well as to Christian universities and institutions.
“I want them to discover the truth of Islam, which does not necessarily stem from the interpretations of others,” she said.