/ 13 June 2018

Tunisia’s ‘free thinkers’ take on Muslim majority in David and Goliath fight

The organisation’s push for a more progressive approach to what may be done during the month of Ramadan is
The organisation’s push for a more progressive approach to what may be done during the month of Ramadan is

To Sofiene Kosksi and a few fellow members of Tunisia’s Association of Free Thinkers the beers they had been given were “like we had hit gold”.

“I hid those beers in my bag because I was very scared to be caught with them. So we went to [our organisation’s] studio and drank them. It felt like we were kings of the world,” he laughs.

Their joy at having hit liquid gold was short-lived. A few days later, a member of the group was attacked by Islamic fundamentalists. After being slapped around, called an infidel and ordered “to repent” and to divulge details of others in the organisation, the 22-year-old was made to open the organisation’s offices. There, his attackers stole “some legal papers” as well as the passport of its president, Hatem Limam.

“They also took the remaining beers as evidence against us,” says Kosksi.

READ MORE: Freedom House: Tunisia’s democracy downgraded

More than just a clampdown on a few young men drinking beer during the holy month of Ramadan, the incident is the latest in a series of clampdowns on an organisation going head-to-head with not only the Tunisian government but, it would appear, also the view held by the majority of Tunisians.

The backlash has been severe: death threats, harassment and insults. In February this year, Limam was attacked with a knife and stabbed multiple times.

The organisation’s push for a more progressive approach to what may be done during the month of Ramadan is, according to Kosksi, “just a small fight in trying to reach our main goal: a secular state”.

“We really want government to no longer use religious scriptures to inform policies. Instead, it should create policies based on the human experience, from science and from experts,” he says.

Not a small ask, especially given that the organisation has only 400 members — although there is, according to Kosksi, increased interest from people wanting to join.

“But no matter what our numbers, or how little we have in power, we are more than willing to sacrifice our lives to see our region progress,” he adds.

Another group the country’s laws are not too respectful towards are queer people, whose rights the organisation also campaigns for. And, difficult as they found promoting queer rights in Tunisia, the fightback they are experiencing as a result of their latest drive is proving to be harsher.

“[With our call for a secular state] we are seen as totally anti-religion, when queer activists only argue sexuality and try to have themselves seen as part of the whole population. The argument being one of, ‘We’re not so different and only have sexuality that is different’. So it is not very fundamental. What we are doing now seems to be hitting a very sensitive nerve, which could be considered by many Tunisians as the essence of everything to them — their religion — the essence of all their values and the meaning of their existence.”

In a written question to the country’s minister of internal affairs, Lotfi Brahem, Tunisian MP Hajer Bechikh asked why the ministry did not abolish a 1981 circular that forbids the opening of restaurants and cafés during the holy month. The circular, Bechikh argued, ran contrary to the country’s 2014 Constitution.

The minister responded that opening cafés and restaurants during Ramadan would be a provocation to the feeling of the country’s majority Muslim population. This, he argued, “could generate violent reactions, which could affect the public order”.

The minister pointed out, however, that the ministry authorised the opening of the cafés that “took the necessary precautions to respect the feelings of Muslims”.

Mounir Baatour, president of queer rights organisation Shams Tunisia and an Association of Free Thinkers member, says the country’s Constitution is contradictory.

“For example, the state protects the exercise of religious rites and at the same time … protects the freedom of conscience. Those stipulations are contradictory and make the Constitution ineffective. There are an enormous number of laws that are in contradiction with the Constitution and individual liberties but they are still applied despite that the state [is] obliged by the Constitution to protect individual liberties. This is why we need to make the law suitable to the constitutional provisions.”

Aware of the David and Goliath nature of the fight he and the rest of the Association of Free Thinkers have taken on, Kosksi concedes: “Look, we know that this probably won’t happen in our generation. But in the meantime we really just want the majority of our country’s people, as well as the state, to respect its secular minorities. Because as long as we are here and feel like we belong in this country — but the laws do not respect us — we will keep doing this.”

Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the Mail & Guardian

The Other Foundation