18 June 2013

Tunisia: Imams Reject Extremism

Tunis — More than 200 Tunisian imams launched a distress call to save mosques from the risk of religious extremism. They plan to hold a hunger strike during Ramadan.

On Monday (June 17th), imams from mosques in Tunis and Ben Arous staged a pre-strike sit-in outside the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

They met at the week-end to draw up their list of demands. The imams want the ministry to break the salafists' grip on mosques before the holy month begins.

The religious leaders will also be protesting "the deterioration of financial and moral conditions", Union of Imams head Fadhel Achour said on June 6th.

Dozens of mosques remain outside the ministry's control, "after being captured by salafist jihadists, who practice all kinds of violence", Achour said.

More than 1,000 imams have suffered acts of violence at the hands of salafists, yet the supervising ministry has neither investigated nor prosecuted any of these cases, Achour added.

"The complacency of the Ministry of Religious Affairs in addressing a number of issues will lead to negative results, especially since 178 mosques remain ... under the control of salafists," Bechir Arfaoui, the imam union official in Ben Arous, told Al Maghreb.

The salafists rule these Tunisian mosques by their own laws, imposing punishment as they see fit, he said.

"This is in addition to a policy of excommunication inflicted on those abstaining from performing prayers," Arfaoui said.

Citizens have also complained about the radical discourse within mosques that have thus far evaded the control of the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

In the Tunis suburb of Debousville, many worshippers fled a neighbourhood mosque because of its imam's anarchic fatwas.

"A group claiming to belong to the salafi movement is controlling the mosque. In fact, one of them is accused in the murder of a security agent and is still wanted by the police," Kamal al-Hidri, a local resident in his twenties, told Magharebia.

"I can no longer pray behind a man who understands nothing in religion except for having a long beard, and for that I moved to pray in another mosque, despite its distance from my home," Hajj Taher said.

Better oversight of mosques is not the only demand citizens are making of their government. Tunisian authorities must also look at schools, participants at a Nidaa Tounes forum on "religion and co-existence" said this month in Gammarth.

"A revolution in the methods of education" is imperative, forum attendee Saloua Ghrissa said, "to establish the concepts of tolerance, citizenship and democracy, especially among youth".

"Including religion in educational institutions is worrisome because it could result in the establishment of takfiri thought and closed readings of texts," the Zitouna University professor told Magharebia.

Nidaa Tounes head Beji Caid Essebsi opened the 2-day event on June 3rd by calling for a dialogue among religions.

"This is one of the best ways to establish solidarity and co-existence between peoples and cultures," the former prime minister said.

"We must believe in dignity, justice and tolerance as the supreme and common values," he added.

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