After several terrorist attacks in Tunisia, the government is closing down mosques and dismissing imams. Not just jihadi-Salafists, but also imams who give political sermons in the mosques. Imam Ridha Jaouadi is such an imam, respected and loved in his city of Sfax and famous throughout Tunisia. In his sermons in the great mosque of Sidi Lakhmi, he criticizes the government. He says the government is going too far and speaks bluntly of a “war against Islam”. Therefore, he himself is now threatened with dismissal.

‘The government does not want political imams giving seditious sermons’, said a pacifist Salafist by the mosque (photo). ‘If politicians are criticized from an Islamic point of view, then Islam can be attacked and that damages Muslims.’ An unveiled woman was more supportive of Jaouadi: ‘During his sermons he treated political events. He is a masterful orator and is not afraid of hard language. He has a lot of guts. If he’d preach here at the market, the mosque would be empty. People find it sad that he’s gone. But he began to accuse the ruling party Nida Tounes of ties with the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Perhaps it’s better that imams do not interfere in politics in this very sensitive period.’

Imam Jaouadi is not an antidemocratic Salafist, but a democratic Islamist. Nevertheless many in Tunisia want to ban political sermons in the mosques. According to the Constitution, the state must ensure that mosques do not become instruments of a particular political movement. However, imams must be able to preach about social justice issues. And there is a real danger that Tunisia could go back to the practice of the Ben Ali regime that controlled the content of sermons to ensure that no protest against the dictatorship would arise from the mosques.

After the murder of 15 soldiers on July 16, 2014, 20 mosques were closed for “preaching extremism” and 157 Islamic organizations were closed because of “links to terrorism”. At least 1,000 people were arrested and suspected of sympathies for jihadi-Salafists. Human Rights Watch called this policy illegal and disproportionate, because the ministry of Interior does not have arrest warrants issued by a judge. In Egypt, the return of dictatorship began with closing Islamist organizations. The Tunisian Islamists of Ennahdha are scared that the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could await them as well. So they remain silent. But Imam Ridha Jaouadi does not remain silent. According to him, the real target of the repression is not the jihadi-Salafists, but eventually all Islamists, also the democratic ones. He fears, referring to Egypt, that secular parties are cooperating in a hidden and creeping attack on Islamists.

(c) Baram Maaruf

Sidi Lakhmi mosque, Sfax, where imam Ridha Jaouadi preaches (c) Baram Maaruf

Problematic of course, is when imams incite worshippers to hatred and violence. Left-wing politicians Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid were excommunicated as “apostates” in sermons in mosques, after which they were assassinated. In his sermon on December 7, 2012, imam Jaouadi would have called for a struggle against the Union Générale de Travail Tunisien and former members of the RCD party of Ben Ali. In his sermon of August 2, 2013, he called to prosecute “counterrevolutionaries” and “communists”. 200 lawyers submitted a complaint against him for “incitement to murder”.

On April 21, 2015, the Minister for Religious Affairs said he asked Jaouadi not to call for hatred and violence against opponents. But can Jaouadi still talk about politics? After the attack in Sousse in June 2015 the government closed another 80 irregular mosques instead of regularizing them, and again Jaouadi criticised this policy. Therefore, 80 members of parliament belonging to different parties demanded his dismissal. Jaouadi reached an agreement with the Minister: the freedoms of mosques, regained since the fall of Ben Ali, can not be touched; instead of just dismissing extremist imams, imams must also be better trained so they can pass on a more nuanced knowledge to the worshippers; and dismissed imams should be reintegrated on the condition that they respect the law. This is wiser than closing mosques.

Jaouadi has a point. Tunisian imams are poorly trained and badly paid. Only 5% of the imams are graduates of the Islamic Zeitouna University. Another 45% have other university degrees, 28% have a bachelor’s degree. 13% have a high school diploma. There will be a new institute for imam training in Kairouan. But the budget of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is still only 40 million euros. By comparison, the budget of the Ministry of Internal Affairs is 984 million euros. And it was increased by a further 63 million euros since the terrorist attacks.

Read the other articles in our TUNISIA BLOG.