Tunisia: By cancelling two agreements previously signed by the ministry of religious affairs with two Islamist entities, the new Tunisian government has signaled its intent to roll back Ennahda’s influence in the country, analysts said.
Religious Affairs Minister Ibrahim Chaïbi announced Thursday the cancellation of “cooperation agreements” with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), an Islamist think tank with offices in Tunis and Washington, and the Tunisian section of the Qatar-based International Union of Muslim Scholars.
The agreements used to provide for activities which included the training of religious preachers as well as the organization of religion-related joint events.
An official source at the ministry of religious affairs was quoted by state-owned Tunisian news agency TAP as saying, “the cancellation of the agreements was prompted by the non-conformity of the proposed programmes (of cooperation) with the needs of religious official bodies and the capacity of state institutions and other independent organizations to provide the required training.”
According to analysts, the cancellation indicates that Tunisia has embarked on the dismantling of the soft power arms of the Islamist Ennahda movement, which used to completely control the religious sector.
The agreements had been signed under Ennahda-led rule and were the subject of protests by the Free Destourian Party and other anti-Islamist organizations.
The two agreements allowed the Center for Islam and Democracy, which is headed by Ennahda movement figure, Radhouane Masmoudi, as well as the Union of Muslim Scholars, the international arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, to hold training courses for imams and organize various events, jointly with the ministry.
The officially-sanctioned programmes helped the two organizations to spread Muslim-Brotherhood inspired notions through the work of Imams and religious scholars who promoted rulings and fatwas that are at variance from the more moderate interpretations of the faith carried by Tunisia’s traditional Islam.
Analysts say Ennahda took advantage in previous years of its presence in government as well as its undue influence on the ministry of religious affairs and religious institutions. They note that the Doha-based Union of Muslim Scholars succeeded in imposing parallel education in the country.
The Free Destourian Party, headed by lawyer Abir Moussi, had submitted a complaint to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights against the role played in Tunisia by the International Union of Muslim Scholars and sought in vain to obtain a legal decision to close its Tunis branch.
The encroachment of Ennahda’s activities into the religious establishment was helped by a number of controversial hardline figures, including former minister of religious affairs, Noureddine Khadimi, whose policies opened the doors wide-open for a hard-line religious narrative legitimising jihad activities abroad, as in Syria and Iraq.
The party accused the Muslim-Brotherhood affiliated organization of “undermining the foundations of the Tunisian societal model, spreading obscurantism, helping with the infiltration of terrorism, and inciting Tunisian women against the provisions of the Personal Status Code,” which granted women equal rights n many areas.
Neji Jalloul, a former minister of education, described the Center for Islam and Democracy as “one of the arms of the Ennahda movement and political Islam” and welcomed the cancellations.
Commenting on the cancellation of the agreements, former leading figure of Ennahda Abdellatif Mekki citicised the decisions as a form of “score settling by law”.
Analysts expect the government to review appointments in the religious sector, exercise better control of religious content preached in mosques and exert oversight over the activities of charities that promote political and partisan agendas.
President Kais Saied, who has launched a wide anti-corruption campaign, is likely to seek serious probes into suspicious foreign financing of religion-related activities under the cover of NGOs and charities.
Political analyst Nabil Rabhi said that “the work of associations has turned into an electoral reservoir for the financing of parties and hubs of extremist thought, despite the presence of a civil society that opposes this activity and these associations.”
Rabhi called for a review of the law on parties, the law of associations and the electoral law, and the activities of associations so as to take legal action to sanction any violations. He stressed that ” signs today are clear and positive. Any association that does not abide by the law will be disbanded.”
The number of active associations in Tunisia is 23,676, according to official figures. More than 200 foreign associations are active in the country.