TUNIS–Tunisia has an international reputation for having made a successful if wobbly transition to democracy, but many of the country’s academics say they are still subject to daily threats.
Religious conservatives are fond of accusing prominent academics of atheism when the extremists don’t like what the scholars say. Such accusations, including the accusation that the academics are infidels, or non-believers, are often accompanied by lawsuits and fatwas, or religious edicts, to kill the researchers.
“My life is threatened as a result of a systemic campaign against me,” said Ahmed Mellouli, a philosophy professor.
Tunisian academics were certainly subject to threats before the revolution. But some believe that the situation is now worse.
“Today, the threat is greater,” said Salwa Sharafi, a professor at the Institute of Press and Information Sciences and one of the founders of the Free Thought Association, an independent association founded by a number of academics and intellectuals to defend freedoms in Tunisia, including academic freedom. “Its source is no longer from the authorities alone—extremist groups, various political parties, and some media are haunting us just like the Inquisition courts,” she added.
Late last year, Mellouli, the philosophy professor, took part in a regional forum held in Jordan about “curriculum reform to resist terrorism and intolerance.” He says his statements at the conference have been distorted. “In my speech, I stressed the need to improve Islamic education programs to protect the youth from extremism,” he said. “But a Tunisian participant twisted my words and accused me of atheism.”
Since his return to Tunisia, extremists have begun a campaign of excommunication against him. “I went to the court to punish anyone who accuses me of blasphemy, so as to protect my life,” Mellouli said.
Mellouli is just one of many Tunisian academics to be threatened on religious grounds. Olfa Youssef, a professor of Arabic linguistics at Manouba University, is currently under the security protection of the Ministry of the Interior, after threats to kill her, because some of her writings were seen by some as opposing Quranic text.
“Threats often come from people who did not read what I write,” said Youssef, in media statements.
Youssef’s writings are bold, and she addresses controversial topics such as homosexuality, polygamy and inheritance in Islam.
Threats are not confined to religious extremists. They sometimes come from state-related institutions. Youssef Seddik, an intellectual and philosopher, was accused of heresy and apostasy by the Supreme Islamic Council, which is under the supervision of the prime minister, because of a radio program Seddik participated in. But a vast solidarity campaign with the Tunisian scholar pushed Habib Essid, the current prime minister, to remove the head of the Supreme Islamic Council from his duties.
“Today, academic freedom in Tunisia is threatened because of a group claiming to be intellectuals who have studied in Saudi Arabia in recent decades,” said Amal Qarami, a professor of Arab-Islamic civilization and comparative religion at Manouba University. “This group is seeking to strangle the intellectual icons, especially when dealing with subjects that might reveal the existence of Islamic groups and the extent of their extremism.”
Qarami was one of the first academics to be targeted by extremist religious groups immediately after the revolution, in part because she strongly opposed allowing veiled female students on campus. Emotional campaigns on social media accused her of atheism. Earlier this year, Egyptian authorities prevented Qarami from entering the country and accused her of “threatening the national security.” Qarami was arrested immediately upon her arrival at Cairo International Airport and was interrogated for 16 hours before being deported to Tunisia, despite having been officially invited to participate in an international conference on countering extremism.
Intimidation and excommunication campaigns do not affect academics and scholars alone. Students, especially young researchers, are also being threatened.
“My students fear being exposed to danger as a result of their work under my supervision, as they are accused of working with the infidels,” Qarami said.
Qarami, who is now under the Ministry of the Interior’s private protection, understands her students’ fears, but she is also concerned about the development of Tunisian scientific research.
“The policy of intimidation is pushing the students away from the problematic research classified by extremists as taboo, not to be discussed. This is quite dangerous,” she said. Any kind of critical thinking related to religion, homosexuality, women’s dress or their rights seems to be off limits.
Despite the fact that the Tunisian constitution guarantees support for scientific research and academic freedom, Sharafi of the Free Thought Association thinks this is not enough. She believes that the government should pass strict laws criminalizing attempts at excommunication—accusations that others are infidels—and ensuring the rights of scholars and intellectuals to research and think freely.
Ahmed Mellouli agrees with Sharafi about the current importance of protecting education and scientific research.
“They [extremist groups] recognize the importance of education and research, thus they fight against us,” he said. “We must also recognize the importance of protecting the independence of our educational institutions and put an end to their threats. Our battle with them will be a long one, and we have to win.”
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