Tunisia - A People Oppressed Solely for Their Faith
North Africa was another of the regions thrown into disorder in the post-Ottoman period. The Ottoman Empire had taken over control of much of North Africa in the sixteenth century and established a stable administration there. Colonialism destroyed peace and security there as well as Ottoman administration, however. The entry of the colonialists into Africa began with the Dutch in the seventeenth century. The Portuguese, British and French then established themselves in various regions of the continent. In order to take over the North African territories belonging to the Ottomans, however, they had to wait until the nineteenth century. Tunisia was one of the countries that went through this process.
Tunisia's encounter with Islam took place with the conquest of the Muslim armies under the command of Abdallah ibn-abi-Sarh in 648 A.D. Within a short time the country became an Islamic nation, and by the end of the seventh century the whole population was Muslim. It changed rulers many times after that, but real peace and security in Tunisia began in 1547 with Ottoman rule. Tunisia was a province of the Ottoman Empire and maintained that status until 1881. Contrary to the dictatorial mode of administration in Western civilizations, Ottoman rule was based on peace and compassion, both features of Islam. Alongside the Muslim Arabs who made up the majority of the population, various ethnic and religious groups such as Berbers and Jews lived together in peace and brotherhood during this tranquil time in Tunisia. This peaceful era continued until the French occupation of 1881.
The Bloody History of French Colonialism
France governed Tunisia by means of governors known as "senior commissars." Just like in Algeria, a policy of great cruelty thus began. All opposition movements and activities in support of independence were bloodily suppressed. Leaders of Islamic movements which favored independence, and those who supported them, came under violent pressure, and a great many of them were detained and subjected to torture.
France did not find it easy to halt the protests and put down the rebellions of the Tunisian people, with their powerful Islamic awareness. Just like all other colonialist countries, it therefore resorted to puppet governments. It brought over the Destour Party, originally set up to fight for independence, to its own side. It installed one of its most reliable men to head it: Habib Bourguiba.
At the beginning, Bourguiba, who had received a French education since his childhood, seemed to follow an Islamic line to attract popular support. During his youth he opposed the French colonialist administration and planned to gain popular support that way. He even went to prison a number of times, and tried to present the image of a popular hero by fleeing from Tunis to Cairo.
When he returned to Tunisia he encouraged the people to rebel without a cause, thus preparing the ground for a bloody French intervention. When the French occupation came to an end in 1956 he came to be France's representative in the country. When the colonialist French regime abandoned the country, it left behind it administrative teams exceedingly loyal to it. These teams were part of the Bourguiba administration, and they defended France's interests and were crueller to the native population than even the French themselves.
Bourgiba took sole and indefinite power in the country in 1959, and later declared himself "president for life." He ruled Tunisia single-handedly for the next 31 years, until on Nov. 7, 1987 he was removed from office by Prime Minister Zein al-Abidin on the grounds of mental instability. Throughout this period he made the country culturally, economically and politically dependent on France, and transferred Tunisia's wealth to that country.
One of the striking features of this anti-Islamic dictator was that like many similar figures, he was a senior freemason.36 For Bourguiba, freemasonry was more important than Islam or being Tunisian. He gave priority not to the Muslim people of Tunisia, but to the interests of the French Great Lodge. He demonstrated that by waging a great war against Islam in the country.
Bourguiba's first act was to set up a legal and education system similar to those in France. The main feature of that system was that it was shaped by hatred of Islam. He placed mosques under close watch and forbade the performance of prayers outside certain times. He had all Muslims who opposed the regime in favor of an Islamic society arrested and severely tortured. He had all Islamic education institutions closed down beginning with Zaytuna University, the symbol of Tunisia. Zaytuna was an important center, on a par with Al-Azhar University in Cairo, which kept Islamic life alive in North Africa and raised religious figures who enlightened the people. Bourguiba's pressure went so far that during the holy month of Ramadan he appeared on television with a drink in his hand and forbade people to fast, on the pretext that it "slowed down the country's development and pace of work." He said he wanted pilgrims to go to Kairwan, the holy city of the Maghrib, instead of Mecca, because going to the latter was very expensive.
The Tunisian administration at all times followed a policy in stark contrast and opposition to other Islamic countries. Tunisia suspended relations with Sudan, stood by the French government against Algeria, and forbade Tunisians to pray for martyred Palestinians or even discuss the Intifada.
As the years go by, the oppression has decreased slightly and a process of democratization has emerged. The experiences of Muslims in Tunisia and Algeria recall a cruel method employed by the deniers as revealed in the Qur'an. One of these is the destruction of holy sites to prevent people from living their religion. Allah declares the position of those who wish to prevent His name from being recalled, both in this world and in the hereafter:
Who could do greater wrong than someone who bars access to the mosques of Allah, preventing His name from being remembered in them, and goes about destroying them? Such people will never be able to enter them except in fear. They will have disgrace in the life of this world and in the hereafter they will have a terrible punishment. (Surat al-Baqara: 114)
The great torment promised in the verse is what awaits all those tyrants who attempt to destroy Islam in their own lands unless they repent and change their ways. Muslims must be aware of this, consider the condition of their oppressors in the hereafter in the face of the persecution they are subjected to, and know that they will be the eventual victors.
The Status After BourguibaAfter Bourguiba had lost credibility in Tunisia, France tried to increase its influence over the country by having Tunisian Ambassador to Paris Hadi Mebruk appointed foreign minister. At the same time, Prime Minister Zein al-Abidin Bin Ali granted a number of freedoms to Muslims, who had suffered years of political oppression under the Bourguiba regime, in order to attract their support. The Bin Ali regime, which had removed Bourguiba from power through a civilian coup, released a number of political detainees. Those in exile were allowed to return. Sadly however, the new regime, which Muslims had such high hopes for, proved to be not much different from the Bourguiba administration. Bin Ali began by promising that he would initiate a process of reform in the country, but after fully consolidating his rule he began implementing the same oppressive policies against the Muslim population as Bourgiba.
The only thing that changed in Tunisia after Bourguiba was the repressive policies' reappearance on the agenda which Muslims had suffered under for so long. Bin Ali was no better than his predecessor, and his latest actions have made even Bourguiba pale in comparison. Tunisia today still has an extremely anti-democratic structure in the whole region, as a result of Bin Ali’s oppressive ruling. 37 Muslims, who represent a wide spectrum of society, are waiting to take over the running of the country by democratic means, without harming other Islamic countries or their own people.