Struggling for the rights of religious minorities in an Arab land

Sunday 29/05/2016

Tunis - Yamina Thabet said cel­ebrating Jewish events in a predominantly Muslim country such as Tunisia is an opportunity to stress the importance of diversity and shed light on the situation of reli­gious minorities.
Jewish Tunisians are deeply root­ed in the history of the country, with their presence dating to the Punic era two millennia ago. Despite the dwindling number of Jews in Tu­nisia since independence in 1956, the annual pilgrimage of Jews to the Ghriba synagogue in Djerba remains at the centre of the traditions and culture of Tunisia, especially since the Ghriba synagogue is the oldest in Africa.
Thabet is president and one of the founders of the Tunisian As­sociation for Support of Minorities, established in 2011 to ensure the protection of individual liberties, including freedom of religion. The association strives to end all forms of religious discrimination in the country.
“The association aims to work on building a favourable ground in society to accept all differences and to promote open minds. We hope to end all suffering of individuals as a result of discrimination, anti-Semi­tism or racism,” Thabet said.
The number of Jews in Tunisia dropped from about 100,000 during the second world war to fewer than 1,500 today. Thabet insisted that Jewish Tunisians are not a group apart but an important component of society that has contributed sig­nificantly to Tunisian culture and history.
“They are not a separate commu­nity but rather the most well-known non-Muslim religious group of Tu­nisians in the country,” she said. “We also have Christians, Baha’is and atheists. All these groups de­serve to be recognised.”
Thabet added that while Tuni­sia is a country that recognises its multicultural history, the rights of religious minorities are not guaran­teed.
“The situation of religious mi­norities remains a bit ambiguous. It is true that the constitution ensures freedom of belief but the problem is that the same constitution that guarantees freedom of religion also bans non-Muslims from running in presidential elections,” she said.
“Presenting one’s candidacy in elections is not a luxury. It is not a privilege but rather a right among other rights that are guaranteed by law. If we respect Tunisian citizens, then all should be treated as equal.”
Thabet said she regards the Ghri­ba pilgrimage as an important event in the history of Tunisian spiritual­ity as it has a symbolic value — that of tolerance and co-existence.
“It is an opportunity to declare that we are not all Muslims and it is a beautiful thing to witness,” Thabet said. “It is important to acknowl­edge the presence of Tunisian Jews and that these are able to practice their religious beliefs in peace.”
She said it was important to “dis­sociate the status of Tunisian Jews from the Palestinian-Israeli-con­flict”.
Thabet also warned against keep­ing silent about abuses and discrim­ination based on religion.
“It is true that Tunisian Jews are able to practice their religion in peace,” she said. “This does not mean we should avoid talking about abuses. We must do this to improve the situation of religious minori­ties.”
Thabet expressed worry about the absence of laws banning and pe­nalising discrimination.
“In Tunisia,” she said, “it is still not possible, in the absence of a strict and clear law, to file a com­plaint about religious discrimina­tion.
“This is what the association has been fighting for during the past five years. If people committing discriminatory acts are sanctioned, others will think twice before doing the same thing.”
Thabet said Jewish history should take more space in the history of Tunisia as taught in the country’s schools and that children should know about Muslim families in the country who fought to protect Jew­ish families during the Nazi occupa­tion of Tunisia.
“This is an important part of his­tory that should be also taught in schools. This is part of the history of the country where all religions, all colours and all races coexisted,” she said.
Thabet said Tunisian society is es­sentially tolerant and that Tunisians are using newly won freedoms to uphold values of tolerance. She cit­ed as an example a recent hidden-camera programme on Tunisian television.
“It is a spark of hope to see how Tunisians reacted in a social experi­ment segment staged by a TV show,” she said. “They all defended an ac­tor pretending to be a Jew who was denied service at a local café. They all came to his rescue and defended him against the owner of the coffee shop thinking the discrimination was real.”
She added: “Tolerance is a work in progress, something to be imple­mented, to be deeply rooted in the Tunisian mindset.”