A New Turn in Tunisia?

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Lindsay Mackenzie/LUZphoto/Redux
Female student protesters from Manouba University at an apartment in Tunis, January 2012. The text on the banner behind them says, ‘Yes to niqab-wearing women to study and sit exams. A prayer room is the right of every male and female student.’

One morning in mid-May I drove to Manouba University, the largest in Tunisia, to meet Habib Kazdaghli, the dean of the Faculty of Letters and one of the most prominent critics—and victims—of a campaign by Salafist radicals to Islamize the country. An avuncular man with a shock of white hair and a trim gray mustache, Kazdaghli is a secular scholar of ethnic minorities in Tunisia who has fought to keep religion out of university affairs. He received me in his office, which he had fortified with extra locks. “In the current atmosphere, I have to be careful,” he told me.

Kazdaghli’s troubles began during the first days of the academic year two years ago. A Salafist and former student at Manouba named Mohammed Bakhti—who had been released from prison in January 2011, after serving six years of a twelve-year sentence for jihadism—confronted Kazdaghli in his office. He demanded that women be permitted to wear the face covering known as the niqab in class. “I told him, ‘The niqab cannot be permitted, I need to see the students I’m dealing with,’” Kazdaghli said. That, however, seems only part of the explanation. Kazdaghli, a former member of Tunisia’s Communist Party, has made no secret of his antipathy toward the Islamists; he also believes that capitulating to the religious extremists on one issue would open the university up to other demands, and radically change its secular nature.

Days later, fifty Salafists invaded the campus and held a sit-in outside the dean’s office. “I had to climb over mattresses to get in and out,” Kazdaghli said. Besides the niqab, the extremists demanded an on-campus prayer room for students, segregated faculty rooms, and separate classes for men and women. Kazdaghli refused, saying that he opposed gender segregation and was unwilling to give up one of his already overcrowded classrooms for religious purposes. Salafist protesters then overran the university during exam period and occupied it for a month, causing thousands of students to miss their tests.

The confrontations grew uglier. In March 2012, two niqab-wearing women forced their way into Kazdaghli’s office, knocked the files off his desk, and threatened to burn the place down. “I called the police and they said, ‘We can’t get involved. The prosecutor has to give the order,’” he told me. Kazdaghli eventually persuaded the women to leave his office, but when one tried to come back inside, the dean pushed her out and slammed the door behind her. On March 6, two hundred Salafists surrounded the university, demanding the dean’s expulsion. One climbed up the flagpole, tore down the Tunisian flag, and raised a jihadist banner in its place. Kazdaghli, whose specialty is …

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