Tunisia survey points to enduring intolerance

Friday 14/08/2015
A question of tolerance. Young Tunisian people sit on a café terrace in Tunis.

Tunis - If the Tunisian constitution guarantees the right of citizens to freedom of conscience, it remains that there is a large percentage of Tunisians who do not believe in the right of a fel­low citizen to convert to another religion or to marry someone from another faith.

This is one of the main conclu­sions which can be drawn from a recent survey, which was carried out by the Tunisian Social Sciences Forum, the Arab Institute for Hu­man Rights and the Tunisian Na­tional Youth Observatory. Prelimi­nary results of the survey, which polled 1,200 individuals of all ages and social milieus, were released in June.

The new Tunisian constitution, which was adopted January 4, 2014, consecrated “freedom of con­science” as a fundamental right to be protected by the state the same way the latter has to serve as “the guardian of religion”.

The survey indicates a broad definition of religious identity that is increasingly acquiring sectarian overtones. Some 60% of the Tuni­sian respondents identified them­selves as “Muslim”, while about 32% describe themselves as “Sunni Muslims”, 6% as “culturally Mus­lims”, 1.5% as “Salafist Muslims” and 0.1% as “Shia Muslims”.

The overwhelming majority of Tunisians belong to the Maliki school of Sunni Islam (founded by Malik Ibn Anas in the eighth cen­tury). For decades after independ­ence, religious self-identification in the Maghreb has been based on dif­ferentiation with Christian French colonists.

A Sunni religious identity started to emerge much later as the Shia sect gained a higher profile in the Middle East and was the subject of vehement rejection in Salafist nar­ratives.

Also, the survey shows a lim­ited degree of religious and sectar­ian tolerance. If 76% said they see the conversion of non Muslims to Islam as “acceptable”, only 1% deems the converstion of Muslims to non-Muslim religions “accepta­ble”. About two-thirds of Tunisians asked said they resent specific as­pects of Shia faith and about 53% said they do not accept that a Tuni­sian be a Shia.

Just 12% of Tunisians accept the conversion of a Tunisian Sunni Muslim to the Shia faith. Conver­sion to Christianity is described as “acceptable” by only 7% of re­spondents.

Religion plays an important part in the value system of Tunisians. About 70% of Tunisians describe themselves as “religious” and 2.4% as “very religious”; while 7% see themselves as “non-religious”. A total of 1.5% of the “non-religious” say they are “atheists” and 9% de­scribe themselves as “agnostic”.

But a large segment of them puts a limit to that role. While 34% say they consider Islam as “a compre­hensive life system”, about 23% de­scribe it as a “private matter”.

Interestingly, clear majorities do not want imams to talk about politics (53%) or politicians to talk about religion (56%).

Tunisians’ relative secularism does not stand the test of marriage. More than of 50% of respondents (55%) reject the marriage of a Tuni­sian woman to a non-Muslim man; while 19% reject the marriage of Tu­nisian men to non-Muslim women.

The most intriguing part of the survey is the relatively high de­gree of readiness among Tuni­sian respondents to accept jihad­ist Salafism, despite the known involvement of jihadists in terror­ist incidents that cost the lives of scores of Tunisians and foreign tourists in the country during the last few years.

About 58% of respondents said they see “scientific” (or “scrip­tural”) Salafism as “acceptable”. No less than 28% of respondents do not reject Salafist jihadism, the avowedly violent brand of salafism. Among this segment, 23% find Salafist jihadism “acceptable to a certain extent” and about 5% said they consider it “acceptable” or “very acceptable”.

The appeal of the Salafist jihad­ist narrative has led about 4,000 young Tunisians to seek jihad in Syria and Iraq and other places such as Libya and Mali.

The survey indicates that about 75% of those who describe Salafist jihadism as “very acceptable” are 18-35 years of age.

It is probably to this type of fringe that the terrorist shooters of the Bardo Museum and the Sousse beach hotel can be traced.