'Zakat fund' sparks heated controversy in Tunisia over role of religion in politics

This fund is "an attempt by Ennahdha movement to create a parallel state," said former Tunisian Finance Minister Hussein Dimassi.
Tuesday 19/05/2020
El Kram mayor Fathi Laayouni. (Tunisie Numerique)
El Kram mayor Fathi Laayouni. (Tunisie Numerique)

TUNIS - The creation of a Zakat fund in Tunisia has sparked fierce backlash from defenders of the country’s civil state, who argue that religious initiatives should not replace the government’s civic duty. 

The Zakat fund was inaugurated by El Kram mayor Fathi Laayouni on May 19 to coincide with the Islamic “Night of Destiny,” which Muslims believe marks the night Quranic verses were first revealed to the Prophet Mohammed.

El Kram is a northern suburb of the capital Tunis.

In Islam, Zakat is a religious prescription to donate a portion of one’s income to the poor.

Laayouni, a controversial lawyer with close ties to the Islamist Ennahda party, announced his intent to create the fund last November, appealing both to Sharia law and a Tunisian ordinance that allows local authorities to create funds "to assure public services to the citizens.”

A few weeks later, Ennahda’s parliamentary bloc officially submitted a proposal to create a Zakat fund in the 2020 state budget draft. Ennahdha's proposal, however, was rejected by deputies who considered the project incompatible with the foundations of Tunisia’s civil state.

In a response to Laayouni's move, Tunisia’s Ministry of Local Affairs published May 18 a decree affirming that the president of a local authority has the right to open a bank account for the deposit of free funds (donations) for the benefit of the community in accordance with the provisions of chapter 138 of the code of local authorities.

A day later, however, the ministry published a post on its Facebook account specifying that Zakat is not the same as a donation, suggesting that the creation of such a fund is not legal.

Critics of the Zakat fund believe that Laayouni is taking advantage of legal loopholes to secure religiously-inspired funds that could draw increased popularity to Ennahda, which has lost significant popular support in recent years.

This fund is "an attempt by Ennahdha movement to create a parallel state," said former Tunisian Finance Minister Hussein Dimassi, noting that the aim of such an initiative is strictly political and "has no economic feasibility."

"The Zakat Fund is a step that contradicts the foundations of the civil state, which is supposed to have a specific and unified budget. Only the state controls this budget and defines its plans and resources," Dimassi added in a statement to local media.

Speaking at a press conference in parliament, Abir Moussi, president of the anti-Islamist Free Destourian Party (PDL), said that the project "is a blunt violation of state institutions," stressing that parliament had opposed a similar proposal in December last year.

Moussi called on Tunis’s governor to convene an extraordinary council of regional MPs and mayors to denounce the initiative, stressing the need to seek administrative justice to prohibit the execution of the fund.

Laayouni's move also sparked backlash from Tunisian civil society groups, with many voicing concerns that the fund could benefit parallel political groups at the expense of the state.

The National Observatory for the Defence of the Civil Nature of the State said the move reflected “disrespect for the State's institutions,” and was “an act of defiance against the constitution,” which affirms the civil nature of the Tunisian government.

The observatory also said the fund’s creation raised further concerns about a gradual progression towards theocratic tendencies that “damage the very foundations of the modern civil state."

By making a religious prescription part of public policy, the state is violating citizens’ rights, the observatory argued, adding that citizens should fulfil their economic and social duties to the state by paying taxes. The observatory also recalled that similar funds had been accused of contributing to corruption and mismanagement.

The Tunisian Human Rights League (LTDH) also denounced the establishment of the Zakat fund, arguing that the initiative “reflects a blatant disrespect of state institutions, especially since this project had been rejected by the House of People's Representatives.”

In a statement published May 16, the league reiterated that Tunisia is a civil state and that Laayouni's initiative is an "attempt to introduce some bases of a religious state and replace the state social services.”

"Under the guise of social action, the establishment of a zakat fund is actually a political move," said the Human Rights League, which urged authorities to intervene to stop the fund from moving forward.