Interview with Tunisian Secretary of State Saida Ounissi

Don′t marginalise your Muslims

In 2014, Saida Ounissi (29) was elected to the Tunisian Parliament as an MP for the Ennahda movement. She is currently Secretary of State to the Ministry of Vocational Training and Labour. In interview with Peter Schaefer, she describes growing up with Islamophobia and racism in France and suggests ways of preventing youth radicalisation

Your father lived in exile in France, which is where you spent your childhood. What made you return to Tunisia?

Saida Ounissi: I was 5 years old when we moved to France and I can say that I spent the most important part of my life there. I grew up in France and I share a huge part of the French culture. I had a thoroughly French education, attending a Catholic school and studying at a French university. I was active at a community level and wrote for Le Monde. I was considered a positive example of integration, but I was probably too religious for French standards – wearing a hijab was definitely not accepted in the academic and intellectual environment I was in. I would say that , on the one hand, I could not be more "French" and on the other, that there′s no place for me there in public life.

I felt the restrictions early on. I well remember my first public shaming when I was kicked off a university course. The professor told me that wearing a hijab was not compatible with university values. He blamed me for the killing of French in Algeria during the occupation and during the 1990s. I filed a complaint against him. Nothing came of it, but I hope that going on the record about it will help historians to better evaluate our time in 50 years from now. Generally, if you are from a Muslim background in France and you want to be politically active, you won′t get very far. Leadership positions for Muslims within the French system are still the exception, despite a quite qualified and proactive community. Owing to this lack of opportunities for Muslims in France, many diaspora Tunisians returned to Tunisia following 2011.

…and there is, of course, ample opportunity in Tunisia now, since the introduction of a democratic system post-2011.

Ounissi: Yes, but not only that. Many European societies are shifting to the right. We′re seeing the rise of political movements like the Front National in France and the Alternative for Germany. The political narrative of the US elections confirmed this tendency. In Tunisia, the opposite is happening, which is actually very exciting. Here, it is less and less common and accepted to denounce women′s rights or societal minorities. If such things occur, there is a backlash across the board – in parliament, within civil society, in the media. In Europe, things are going in the other direction. Examine the issue more closely and from the worrying rise in hate crimes and hate speech, you can see there has already been a major shift.

Right-wing populists demonstrate against the construction of a mosque in Cologne, Germany (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Berg
Right-wing populism and Islamophobia on the rise across Europe: ". The worrying rise of Islamophobia in Europe is quantitative fact and a sad reality. Another reason many Tunisians have returned to their home country since 2011 is that many European societies are shifting to the right," says Saida Ounissi

Why have things developed like this? The immigration of Muslims from different countries to Europe is not exactly a new phenomenon?

Ounissi: In France, assimilation was a very violent process in the 1960s and 70s. Parents from a migrant background didn′t tell their kids about their origins, because they desperately wanted them to become French, thereby avoiding the discrimination they had experienced themselves. But this doesn′t work if the society you live in singles you out, because your name is Muhammad or you "don′t look French". I was very involved both with my local mosque and the Muslim community organisation: there were children of parents of North-African or Sub-Saharan origin who told us about the identity issue provoked by the difficult balancing act of feeling French at home, but being perceived as non-French in public.

So, if historians will study our time in 50 years, as you mentioned before: are you assuming that the situation will have changed positively by then?

Ounissi: I don′t think it can get any worse than it is now. There is the stigmatisation of Muslims, the political and media attacks and the increase in individual acts of violence. It′s not only a perception, it′s fact reported by serious organisations like Human Rights Watch, CIMADE, or Amnesty International. The worrying rise of Islamophobia in Europe is quantitative fact and a sad reality.

Nonetheless, I think that the settlement of Muslim communities in Europe can′t be reversed. People are active in their societies, enjoy their education, master needed skills and are part of the economic and other spheres. You can′t expel all these people. And they are very politicised and do participate in political life. Especially at a local level.

Interesting for me is the evolution of discourse in mosques in France. Imams are advocating for voting in elections. They ask people not to react to xenophobic attacks. They have encouraged people to participate in national mourning after the extremists′ attacks in Paris or Nice. They make the Muslim community feel part of the national community. The mosques today are very active in contemporary political life.

This could also take a dangerous turn, as has happened in Tunisia, for example.

Racist slogans in front of the Great Mosque in Saint Etienne, near Lyon (photo: picture-alliance/abca)
France′s Muslims – excluded, written off and not consulted: "Muslim or not, we are all targets of terrorism. And if terrorism nourishes itself from the references coming supposedly from an Islamic ideology, wouldn′t it be more effective to involve the people who know the background of this ideology and to interpret and analyse certain statements and actions? The conflict is taken on a superficial level only, as Muslim versus non-Muslim," comments Saida Ounissi

Ounissi: This is true. To control this trend in Tunisia, we have included imams in our counter-terrorism strategy. There are now training programmes for imams regarding fighting extremism, public speaking and utilising social media. The reality is that non-political imams have less appeal. If young religious people do not find answers to their social, religious and political questions in their local mosques, when imams are preaching about subjects completely disconnected from people′s daily interests, they turn elsewhere – some to extremists. This is why the mosques have to be part of political life and have to be included in policy-making, because they are often the main social and public focus for Muslims in one city or village.

There are more than 12 million Muslims in France today. What role could they play in the development of the society?

Ounissi: The potential is huge, especially regarding global understanding or security. A French Muslim is capable of explaining the situation or events in a Muslim country much better to a French audience or French politics and society to Muslim audiences. We could be a cultural and political bridges between Europe and Muslim countries. Muslim or not, we are all targets of terrorism. And if terrorism nourishes itself from the references coming supposedly from an Islamic ideology, wouldn′t it be more effective to involve the people who know the background of this ideology and to interpret and analyse certain statements and actions? The conflict is taken on a superficial level only, as Muslim versus non-Muslim. In my view, the religious approach on anti-terrorism has been hijacked for political interests.

But we′re also witnessing the resurgence of a value debate that seems to be an obstacle for such an inclusion. Muslims′ values, or those that are stereotypically perceived as that, are seen as alien to European values. Assuming that such a set of unison values exists at all, what′s your take on this?

Muslims praying in a mosque in Lille (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Mortagne)
Plea for constructive dialogue: "Muslims in Europe are generally European-friendly and interested in a strong Europe that in itself is very diverse and a guarantor for openness and individual freedom. As Muslims, we have the rare opportunity to experience life in a diverse context and to learn how to accept each other, rather than excluding those that don′t share the same views," believes Saida Ounissi

Ounissi: If we take secularism as an example: I see this as a chance, rather than a threat. Muslims in Europe need secularism as a basis for being accepted. Otherwise we would all have to become Catholic, like before 1905 in France. If we take secularism as a framework enabling cultural and religious diversity, the diverse Muslim community in France has done a lot of work on that. There has been tremendous work on producing a "French Islam" approach that is compatible with French values. What you believe in or what you wear is your private affair. As for the Muslim community itself, we all believe in one God and that Muhammad is His Prophet. As far as anything else is concerned, we are open to discussion and dialogue to enrich our mutual perspectives.

Muslims in France do have one very positive role to play – in interreligious dialogue, mostly with Christian communities, something I personally have also been involved with. Participating priests have reported that their engagement in such activities havs helped revive their parishes. I feel that Europe is suffering from an identity crisis. People are confused and are looking for answers. I personally think that life without spirituality is empty and it seems that many in Europe feel the same way. As I said, religion is a very social affair and a pillar for every society. Muslims can contribute to reviving this dynamic. We are a very diverse community. Muslims in Europe are generally European-friendly and interested in a strong Europe that in itself is very diverse and a guarantor for openness and individual freedom. As Muslims, we have the rare opportunity to experience life in a diverse context and to learn how to accept each other, rather than excluding those that don′t share the same views.

Interview conducted by Peter Schaefer

© Qantara.de 2016

Peter Schaefer is Director for North Africa with the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation in Tunis

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