Tunisian Universities are being threatened by Salafist activists. Since late November 2011, the Faculty of Letters, Arts, and Humanities at the University of Manouba, north of Tunis, has been attacked by a group of Salafist students, demanding the creation of a prayer room, and demanding that women wear the niqab (full-face veil), and attend only segregated classes, In early December, Salafists held hostage the department's dean, Habib Kazdaghli, but he courageously refused to fulfill to their demands. Liberal and secular professors and students staged peaceful sit-ins to protest against the Salafists and the Islamist-led government's "double standards" in refusing to do anything to stop the Salafists. As reported by Ahram Online, until now, the university has not received any support from government officials; the Salafists continue to have met with no negative consequences from their occupation of administrative offices.
The professors of the Manouba have now written a petition, in the hope that the international community will put pressure on the Tunisian government, which prefers to turn a blind eye and let the Islamist take over the educational institutions of the country. The following is the English translation of the circulating petition, sponsored by Dean Habib Kazdaghli.
Call for the setting up of a Committee for the defense of academic values, institutional autonomy and support to the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba (FLAHM)
Since the beginning of the academic year 2011-2012, "Salafist" students supported by activists and militants and encouraged by organized Islamist parties, have attacked several university institutions, either to impose the niqab (full-face Islamic veil) in classes and during exams, or to show their disapproval concerning the dress code (which is judged disrespectful) of a female teacher, or even to challenge the programs set up by departments and scientific boards. Incidents have taken place at the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences of the city of Sousse, the Higher School of Commerce of Manouba [in the capital Tunis], the Institute of Arts and Crafts of the city of Kairouan, the Higher Institute of Theology of Tunis, and the Higher Institute of Languages in Tunis, as well as in other academic institutions.
However, it is the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of Manouba which has become the main target of this [Salafist] small group. These [Salafist] activists have scorned existing internal regulations in force in all academic institutions which, essentially for pedagogic purposes, ban the wearing of the niqab within university premises, and particularly in classes, during exams and supervisions. They have tried to impose their law by force, terrorizing their fellow-students; sequestrating the Dean by preventing him from entering his office; using physical and verbal violence against teachers, administrative and working staff, and issuing death threats against the dean and the teachers. Similar acts, albeit less serious, and which did not benefit from the same media coverage, were recorded in other academic establishments, creating anxiety among teachers, students and their unions. Targeting FLAHM through a relentless and harassment unprecedented in the history of the Tunisian university, this group has managed to interrupt classes on several occasions, and at times even prevented students from taking mock exams. The dean's office has been ransacked and his physical integrity was threatened after a large chunk of concrete which could have struck him, was hurled into his office breaking a window pane. In spite of these continued harassments, FLAHM's teachers, scientific board, Dean, union, students and administration stoically resisted these aggressions in order to salvage the academic year.
The banning of students wearing the niqab in classes during exams is the result of the implementation of a tacit dress code in force in all schools and academic institutions. It was confirmed at the local scale by FLAHMS' scientific board; nationwide by all university presidents; by all academic institutions which have implemented the decisions of their scientific boards, and particularly by the deans of all faculties of letters and human sciences, and by the Deans of the four faculties of medicine, who distinguished themselves by addressing press communiqués about this. It was also endorsed by the Administrative Tribunal. However, the ministers of the interior and higher education [belonging to the ruling Islamist Ennahda party], instead of taking up the defense of the teachers and the dean and praising them for their determination to enforce the law, and instead of going along with the decision of the Administrative Tribunal which the minister of higher education himself consulted on the subject of the niqab, have preferred to blame the "FLAHM affair" on the Dean, handing him over to the vindictiveness of the Salafists.
The [Tunisian Islamist-led] government has also used the principle of the autonomy of universities and non-intervention on campuses as pretexts to eschew its duties as dictated by common sense, and enshrined in Tunisian law and UNESCO's recommendations: to ensure the security of students, teachers, and administrative and working personnel. Yet, neither at the Manouba University, nor elsewhere, was the government asked to repress peaceful demonstrations, but to dissuade intruders from disrupting academic activities and violating the law and particularly article 116 of the penal code by virtue of which "Whoever exercises or threatens to exercise violence on a public agent to force him/her to perform or not to perform an act pertaining to his duties," commits an offense which can be punished by up to three years' imprisonment. The conniving attitude of the authorities has increased Salafist violence, which reached its peak on March 7, during which we witnessed the profanation of the Tunisian flag and injuries brought to five students.
Encouraged by the laxness of the ministers of the interior and higher education and free to unleash all their violence, these Salafists can go even further; and it is not precluded that the Tunisian university witnesses other victims at FLAHM and elsewhere. The deans of the faculties of letters did mention in a communiqué released in early March that their institutions were threatened by a lost academic year.
The Dean of the FLAHM, whose institution was chosen by the Salafists to test the capacity for resistance of higher education institutions in the violation of their rights, has been seeing to it, along with the scientific board, the teachers, and the local union, that the university is preserved, along with knowledge, academic freedoms, the dignity of students and teachers, including their physical integrity. A partisan hierarchy is trying today to give the illusion that [the Dean] is isolated with a view to bring teachers and students into line.
- Aware that "the Salafists" are jeopardizing academic values, the principles of institutional autonomy, academic freedoms and that they aim at confiscating the scientific and pedagogical prerogatives of higher education institutions.
- Aware that the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities of la Manouba is targeted with regard to the pioneering role it has always played in safeguarding academic values, institutional autonomy and academic freedoms, as well as in fostering tolerance, critical thinking and the renewal of research.
- Aware that the struggle FLAHM is leading is also that of the whole university, and that of a whole society which has rid itself of a dictatorship and does not want it to return to it.
- Tunisian academics and researchers, intellectuals, artists, members of civil society and other signatories to this petition.
- Declare their readiness to take any legal action capable of ensuring the primacy of the rule of law in institutions of higher education, to defend all academic institutions against any attempt likely to jeopardize knowledge, academic values, the physical integrity of its leaders, its teaching staff, its students and all of its personnel, in tight collaboration with all components of civil society.
- Commit themselves in particular, to support FLAHM, its Dean, its personnel and its scientific and union bodies which are particularly targeted.
- Call for the setting up of a defense Committee for university values, institutional autonomy, academic freedoms and support for FLAHM.
- Request of all Tunisian academics, researchers, artists and members of civil society to answer this call by joining the Committee and by mobilizing themselves to help achieve the objectives of the Tunisian university to which their founding fathers and their peers have always adhere, and which it has always sought to pursue.