Ez-Zitouna University

Helping to shape Tunisia's religious future

After decades of secular state leadership, many Tunisians would like Islam to play a greater role in the social and political life of their country. Some feel that Islamic scholars at Ez-Zitouna University could take on the role of mediator in this process. Reporting from Tunis, Carolyn Wißing has the details

The main promenade in Tunis, Bourguiba Street, runs right through the heart of the capital. Compared to 2011, things look very different now. Street traders and their illegal stalls have taken over the rubbish-strewn pavements.

These days, you will often see women in headscarves sitting at the tables outside trendy little cafés. Parts of the street are cordoned off, and police patrols keep a watchful eye on the area where the mass demonstrations took place during the revolution.

The bronze statue of the fourteenth-century historian Ibn Khaldun, probably the most famous graduate of Tunisia's venerable Ez-Zitouna University, gazes across at the French embassy; but the square where the statue stands is fenced off with barbed wire, almost as if it were intended to symbolise exclusion.

Ez-Zitouna University, reputed to be the oldest Islamic teaching institution, has been training theologians since the eighth century. However, in the late 1950s, the first president of the Republic, Habib Bourguiba, set Tunisia on a strictly secular path that was continued by his successor, Ben Ali. For the most part, Islam was excluded from public life and it was only under close observation by the state that Ez-Zitouna University was able to keep instructing its students in Islam.

Ez-Zitouna university in Tunisia (photo: Carolyn Wißing)
"The educational facility provided a space for people to express their religion": Ez-Zitouna University, which is considered the oldest institute of Islamic education, has been training theologians since the eighth century

Nevertheless, Ez-Zitouna continued to play a major role in religious life, explains Menno Preuschaft, a Tunisia expert and researcher at the University of Münster in Germany. "The educational facility provided a space for people to express their religion," he says.

Ennahda's missed opportunity

Since the revolution, Islam has once again become a visible part of public and political life in Tunisia. Headscarves, traditional robes and long beards are no longer an unusual sight. When the constitutional assembly was elected in October 2011, the Islamist parties, particularly Ennahda, emerged as the strongest force. However, many Tunisians no longer now believe that Ennahda is capable of setting a religious course with which the majority of Muslims in the country can identify.

"People are increasingly sceptical about Ennahda's Islamist project," says Preuschaft, who explains that it is important to distinguish between two groups within the Islamist party: a conservative wing and a liberal one that wants Tunisia to pursue a democratic path. "One central criticism in recent months has been that Ennahda is playing into the hands of Salafist groups, and that it aims in the long term to use democratic means to establish an Islamist, undemocratic government," he says.

So who should shape Tunisia's religious future? In Egypt, the scholars of Al-Azhar University have already been frequently and actively involved in the political restructuring currently going on in their country. But in Tunisia, the scholars of Ez-Zitouna have, until now, remained outside the transformation process, despite the fact that the educational facility boasts a long reformist tradition and promotes a relatively liberal interpretation of Islam. This is why Menno Preuschaft believes that integrating Ez-Zitouna would be a great opportunity. "Religious representatives who do not primarily see themselves as political agents could take on the role of mediating between the political camps," he says.

Radical tendencies at Ez-Zitouna

Hardy Ostry (photo: private)
Although Ez-Zitouna boasts a long reformist tradition and promotes a relatively liberal interpretation of Islam, Hardy Ostry, the head of the KAS office in Tunis, says that his foundation has "observed a distinct shift towards conservative Islam at Ez-Zitouna"

Imed Shili, a professor in Ez-Zitouna University's Theology faculty, shares this opinion. "We're very unhappy with the current situation," explains Shili. "Of course we would like to help to shape the future politics and constitution of our country. After all, we are part of this nation."

But recently Ez-Zitouna University itself has been struggling with increased politicisation and radicalising tendencies. Until a few years ago, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS) used to cooperate with the university and work with it on joint projects. However, it has since stopped the collaboration.

"We observed a distinct shift towards conservative Islam at Ez-Zitouna," explains Hardy Ostry, the head of the KAS office in Tunis. "The Ministry of Education decides who is appointed to the professorships; Ennahda has been exerting its influence there."

While insisting that the university is politically independent, Imed Shili is also watching current developments with concern. "A small number of professors and a larger group among the students support a conservative and radical interpretation of Islam," the Ez-Zitouna professor reports. "But," he adds, "the future does not belong to them."

A new government of technocrats

The way in which Tunisia shapes the future role of Islam in its society could become a model for other countries in the region. Of all the countries of the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the one for which people have the greatest hope. After the revolution, it introduced an ambitious reform process and quickly achieved initial successes. But then the political restructuring ground to a halt, and the assassination of two opposition politicians in February and July 2013 thrust Tunisia into a political crisis.

The Ennahda-led government resigned in late October. On 14 December, after more than two months of negotiations, Tunisia finally acquired a new interim prime minister. Mehdi Jomaa, an independent, has the task of breaking the country's political stalemate and, over the coming weeks, forming a cabinet of independent experts. This kind of government of technocrats might give the scholars of Ez-Zitouna a chance to help shape the future of Tunisia.

Carolyn Wißing

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Charlotte Collins

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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