Tunisia: Searching for a Postrevolutionary Religious Equilibrium

In Tunisia, the political struggle to find a new equilibrium is critical because state policies of forcefully and thoroughly excluding religion from the public space have had far-reaching negative consequences for postrevolutionary Tunisia. First, it delegitimized state-affiliate preachers and scholars who are seen as tools of the state. Second, by weakening the religious establishment it created a vacuum that was filled, in part, by violent Salafi groups linked to al Qaeda and the late Islamic State group (ISG). Third, it exposed a deep national identity crisis over Islam that had been largely dormant but that rose to the surface as a divisive political issue.
Regulating religious space is important. Yet, Tunisia’s modern history shows that efforts to regulate religious affairs in the name of imposing a rigid sense of national identity has not only failed but has had serious repercussions. In the process, marginalizing Zaytouna—an institution that has represented a balance between Tunisia’s traditional and modern identities—has left post authoritarian Tunisia unprepared to address a range of social, political, and security challenges facing the country, including violent extremism. Without reaching a new balance on the role of religion in public affairs through dialogue, Islam will continue to be a source of conflict and be manipulated for political objectives. Finding this balance will require compromise on all sides and a partnership between the government, political parties, and civil society. The challenge for Tunisians is to reach this balance in a way that overcomes deep political polarization and respects Tunisia’s newly achieved freedom of expression.

This chapter is part of Faith in the Balance: Regulating Religious Affairs in Africa.