Tunisian leader grapples with pro-Islamic trend
Tunis — Jebali Hamadi has gone underground. Tunisian security forces have been searching for him since they began a crackdown on Islamic fundamentalists more than four weeks ago. He is the political director and chief spokesman of the Islamic Tendency Movement, the main political organization of Tunisia's growing Islamic fundamentalist movement.
Like Mr. Hamadi, many leaders of the organization who have not been arrested are in hiding. He warns that their patience with the government is running thin.
``When I ask for a dialogue,'' the government doesn't accept and ``attacks [me],'' he said in an interview at a secret location in Tunis. ``Islam says we cannot accept this. If I'm attacked I'll defend myself.''
How to deal with the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI) has become one of the hottest debates in Tunisian political circles today. The government's dilemma reflects one facing Arab governments throughout the Middle East: What should they do about growing Islamic fundamentalist movements at home which they see as a threat to the authority and legitimacy of their regimes?
The MTI members want a government based on Islamic principles. They say President Habib Bourguiba's strong emphasis on westernization during his 30-year rule has created a moral crisis in Tunisian society. They also blame ``westernization'' for Tunisia's political and economic ills. Tunisia, like many other third-world nations, is heavily indebted to the West and has announced tough austerity measures.
Mr. Bourguiba's autocratic rule and a recent series of financial scandals have convinced many Tunisians that the regime is corrupt and inefficient. The MTI's programs for changing society remain vague, but it says an ``Islamic government'' can be established by educating the public about Islam and winning political power in free elections.
Unlike nearby Egypt, which has granted a limited voice to Islamic fundamentalists, Tunisia has opted for stronger measures, saying the MTI supports a violent overthrow of the regime. The government has accused MTI student supporters of ``terrorizing'' fellow students at universities. Two weeks ago, a government spokesman accused MTI leaders of promoting an Iranian-style armed struggle in Tunisia in order to create a ``theocratic state harking back to the Middle Ages.'' The government is striking strong blows at their political leadership and student organizations in the universities, and discouraging outward manifestations of Islam. Women civil servants are not allowed to wear Islamic dress to work. Army officers who pray too much are weeded out of the military. Taxi drivers who sport beards or listen to religious cassettes often find their licenses revoked.
Many in Tunisia worry, however, that these measures may prove to be counterproductive, pushing the MTI towards extremism and clandestine activity.
``Islamic fundamentalism represents a sensibility that exists in the country,'' says Dali Jazi, assistant secretary general of the Social Democratic Movement, an opposition political party. ``Like it or not we have to deal with them, to [have a] dialogue with them and encourage moderate elements. By political repression you're legitimizing their struggle.''
For pro-Western Bourguiba, the Islamic movement is a denial of the modern, secular society he has tried to create. More than any other Arab leader, Mr. Bourguiba has promoted Western values. One of the pioneering laws he introduced after Tunisian independence in 1956 was the Personal Status Code, which prohibited Tunisian men from taking more than one wife and gave women the right to demand a divorce. Under Islamic law, Muslims may take up to four wives.
Bourguiba next shocked the Muslim world by drinking a glass of orange juice before TV cameras during the holy month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast during daylight hours. He said that Ramadan lessened productivity and thus hurt Tunisia's economic development.
The MTI would like to abolish the Personal Status Code, and says Bourguiba's attitudes toward Ramadan and toward the right of Tunisian women to wear Islamic dress are ``provocative.'' They also criticize Tunisia's model family planning programs, saying a country's greatest wealth is its inhabitants.
Islamic fundamentalism began to appear in Tunisia in the early 1970s, after the government abandoned a decade of unsuccessful socialist economic experiments. Several of the founding members of the MTI studied in French universities and were influenced by the tumultuous 1968 student uprising. Mr. Hamadi, studying solar engineering in France at the time, was one of them.
``I saw that Western civilization has positive and negative sides,'' he says. ``I asked, is there a Muslim civilization?''
The MTI numbers continued to swell. Members penetrated the mosques, where they gave classes in religion, the trade unions, the high schools and universities. They joined the Tunisian League of Human Rights. They began their own social welfare programs, giving free medical care in poor neighborhoods,and free religious services for weddings, circumcisions, and funerals.
The party's activists operate in, and come mostly from lower middle-class and working-class families. A recent study of the MTI activists showed that 48 percent came from families where the parents were illiterate, and 46 percent had parents who were agricultural or industrial laborers. Western diplomats estimate that if they were allowed to participate in elections, the MTI would win no more than 20 percent of the vote.
``I had a project to let the fundamentalists form a legal party,'' says Driss Guiga, who was the country's minister of the interior until 1984. ``The moment you do that, they will divide among themselves and the flaws would appear.'' But President Bourguiba, he said, refused to consider the proposal. ``He still thinks repression is the only way. It's a serious mistake. It's too late.''
In 1981 the MTI asked to be recognized as a legal political party. The government responded by arresting 150 MTI members a month later. Many were given long prison sentences, and released in a 1984 amnesty.
Even before the current crackdown, members of the MTI complained they lost their jobs and were harassed by the police. Their newspaper has been banned since 1979. Police seize books and cassettes that promote the idea of an Islamic government.
In 1980, a small, more secretive and radical Islamic group called the Islamic Liberation Party appeared. Impatient with the legalist approach of the MTI in the face of government harassment, it concentrated on recruiting members of the elite, particularly in the army, civil service, teaching and professional fields. In 1983, 19 members of the group were judged by a military tribunal and given prison sentences.
The Tunisian government is worried most of all, though, by the appearance of the Islamic Jihad group, a secret extremist group that believes in overthrowing the regime by force. Last July two military officers claiming to belong to the group were executed for robbing banks and arsenals. Twenty-two others were given prison sentences. The Tunisian ambassador in Paris said a few weeks ago that six Tunisians arrested in France recently on terrorist charges belonged to the Islamic Jihad.
While Tunisia's fundamentalist movement is based on Sunni Islam, Iran's Shiite Islamic revolution an important symbol to it. ``The Islamic movement in Egypt, or Afghanistan, or Iran, those are places where they practice Islam,'' says a pro-fundamentalist engineering student. ``The base is the same as ours.''
Critics of the MTI believe that despite its moderate language, the MTI is basically antidemocratic and say the fundamentalists use violent tactics to impose their views in Tunisian universities.
``Fundamentalists took power in Iran, in Sudan under [former President Jaafar] Nimeiri, and we saw what they did when they are in power,'' says Muhammad Charfi, professor of law at the Univeristy of Tunis. Still, he says, the way to combat fundamentalism is through debate. ``When the Shah fell,'' he says, ``he had closed all the doors. The only door left open was to the mosque.''
Second in a series of four articles. The first appeared April 10.