Tunisia survey points to enduring intolerance
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.