At the Manouba University in Tunis, soon after the fall of the Ben Ali regime in 2011, a small number of female students attempted to attend classes wearing the niqab, which, under Tunisian legislation and in accordance with the dress code universities had to enforce, was illegal. Under Ben Ali such symbols of what the regime termed ‘extremism’ were outlawed; and many Tunisians did not see anything wrong with that because they believed that they were a manifestation of a type of Islam that had no roots or tradition in Tunisia. The niqab women’s attempt to gain access to the campus sparked a huge public debate and led to a profound questioning of the meaning of a ‘finally free’ Tunisia, its values and identity. But it was more significant for another development: it showcased the arrival of Salafists on the public scene. In an attempt to capitalise on the women’s initiatives, a number of Salafists went to the campus to support and ‘protect’ them. This surprised, and also worried, many within Tunisian society. Salafists were not thought to have any presence at all in the country. The confrontation with the university administrators lasted for some time and turned violent on one occasion, but the more interesting part of the story has to do with the way in which this Salafist display of public activism was presented.
I spoke to the spokesperson of the Salafists occupying the campus. An articulate young man, he made a very cogent ‘liberal’ point. He argued that in a country that now enjoyed freedom, women had the right to wear what they wanted when going to class and that the anti-Islam and secular bias of the establishment had to cease. He argued very coherently that individuals had the right to choose how they wanted to behave as long as such behaviour did not impinge on the rights of others, and that prohibiting a specific type of dress was nothing but discrimination. It was clear that a degree of change and politicisation of Salafism in Tunisia had been taking place under the radar and was connected to the wider phenomenon of Salafism and how it was reacting to the Arab Spring.