Losing ground to Islamists, Tunisia's liberal parties get in the charity game
Islamist parties have long provided social services and charity to gain public support. Now Tunisia's struggling liberal parties are taking a cue from them for political survival.
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For some locals in Boukrim, such activities smack of a certain decadence.Skip to next paragraph
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“Teaching kids to dance is not the priority when some homes here don’t even have running water,” says Chihab Belhaj, a window framer and member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “And naturally, Islam and liberalism contradict one another.”
Hizb-ut-Tahrir members help offer Quranic memorization classes each Friday in Boukrim’s mosque for around 120 local children, he says.
That sits well with the worldview of Abdullah Ben Younes, an affable wheat farmer and acquaintance of Mr. Belhaj. He reveres Islam and distrusts the motives of groups like Kolna Tounes.
“They talk about freedom of speech, for example,” he says. “But all they really want is the freedom to insult Islam.”
That notion is rejected by Jlidi, himself a Muslim. He says Kolna Tounes avoids debating religion and wants to help Tunisians regardless of their religious leanings.
Skandrani says her local critics “should come understand what these kids are dreaming of. I’m not talking to them about religion, either for it or against. I’m not trying to brainwash them. Rather, to open their minds.”
Raising the next generation of citizens
At the final workshop, Skandrani prepped the children for the evening recital. There would be dancing, preceded by a display of public speaking. Some children would describe a place or thing; others would recount imagined trips abroad.
“Who hasn’t told us something yet? Ah, Mohamed,” Skandrani said, and small boy in an orange T-shirt looked up. “Do you still want to tell us about Brazil?”
Mohamed was silent.
“Mohamed, imagine you have a plane ticket,” Skandrani said. “What’s your dream?”
In the end Mohamed elected to talk about Boukrim – the result, says Skandrani, of a deficit of information about the world beyond the village.
As dusk approached, the families arrived and were ushered into the barn. Oud music played from a stereo as the children, prostrate on the floor, rose one by one and spoke.
“I went to visit the Eskimos,” said a slender young girl named Nora Bensaoud. “To see how they break up the ice. At the hotel they put salt in my coffee because they said there was no sugar there.”
Nora’s father, a chicken seller named Choukri Bensaoud, beamed at her from the second row as he cradled her little brother Ghassan. Her other brother, Ghaith, was with her in the recital.
The show shifted into a dance routine, then ended with bows, applause, and the gift of a fully stocked school backpack for each child. Everyone filed into the garden, where Jlidi ended up debating locals.
One, a young Hizb-ut-Tahrir member named Mongi, warned against democracy and lax morals.
“Most people are focused on the here and now,” Mongi said afterward. “But if they knew where these kinds of activities will bring society, they would never come.”
Nearby, Mr. Bensaoud was assembling his family and preparing to go home. He was still beaming. Religious questions matter little, he says.
“Anyone who can take Nora and Ghaith, shape them, help them to be part of society, I’m for it.”
Making a Difference