Tunisia Religion and Culture

Tunisia Religion

Official religions

Tunisia is largely Muslim. 98% of the population are Muslim – more or less practicing. Most of them are Sunnis and belong to the Maliki school of law; there are also a few Ibadis on Djerba. There are also some Sufi orders, but there is no reliable information about the number of followers. Islam is the official religion of Tunisia and the state president must be a Muslim according to the constitution. However, the free exercise of religion is guaranteed in the constitution and the various religious communities usually live together peacefully. In addition to Muslims, around 25,000 Christians (mostly Catholics) live in Tunisia, with the majority of the congregations being made up of foreign citizens. The number of Tunisian Jews, who made up around 7% of the population before 1948, declined steadily with the founding of the state of Israel and the Six Day War. Today around 1500 Jews still live in Tunisia, most of them in the greater Tunis area and on the island of Djerba, where the La Ghriba Synagogue is an important pilgrimage site for Jews from all over the world. It is considered to be the oldest surviving synagogue in North Africa. Most Jews largely stay out of public debate. With the exception of the former Minister of Tourism René Trabelsi (2018/19), there are no active Jewish politicians.

In addition to religious influences, popular beliefs also play a role in everyday life; certain traditions and rituals are spread across religious borders.

Political and social importance

The role of Islam has become more important again in Tunisia in recent years, which has to do with the sometimes paradoxical religious policy of the Ben Ali government. For example, while it was forbidden to wear a headscarf in public institutions and women with headscarves were still being taken into police custody in the early 2000’s, Ben Ali presented himself as a religious statesman. So he reintroduced the call to prayer on television and radio and issued a license to a Muslim radio station and an Islamic bank (both of which belonged to his family clan). At the same time, the sermons in the mosques had to be approved and every Friday prayer began with a greeting to the President.

While a state-regulated, moderate Islam was propagated by the government, it punished all who deviated from this direction with sometimes draconian penalties. A serious, critical discourse on Islam was largely suppressed by the Ben Ali government (apart from the publications of a few intellectuals such as Mohamed Talbi, Youssef Seddik and Yadh Ben Achour, which only reached a small, educated circle). Especially among younger Tunisians, this leads to a certain susceptibility to radical ideas and ready-made, clear answers to religious questions. The lack of religious education is also reported by Ennahdha politicians such as Abdelfattah Mourou, the current Vice-President of the Tunisian Parliament, has been repeatedly criticized.

With the increasing freedom through the revolution and a general return to religion in the entire Arab region, a resurgence of religiosity and a more open display of previously hidden religion can be observed in the recent past. Sometimes this also takes on violent features among the Salafists. The older generations deal with religion much more relaxed, it is seen more as part of a cultural identity that does not need to be discussed, as an object of political and social debate. According to militarynous, La Goulette , a suburb of Tunis at the port, was a collecting tank for Tunisian Jews, Muslims and Catholics of Italian origin and was a symbol for the often emphasized Tunisian tolerance. Some Jews and Catholics still live there today.

Tunisia Religion

Cultural identity

Tunisia can look back on a long history of which the population is very proud. The meeting of Phoenicians, Romans, Berbers, Arabs, Andalusians, Ottomans and Italians is often cited by Tunisians as a reason for their tolerance and openness and plays an important role in the self-image of the population. Each region has its dialect, traditional dishes and costumes. Many Tunisians can precisely trace their ancestry without using their origin as a means of differentiating themselves from other Tunisians. The relationship to black Tunisians is an exception. They probably immigrated from sub-Saharan Africa hundreds of years ago and now live all over Tunisia, but mainly in the south of the country where they make up an estimated 20% of the population. They are severely discriminated against by parts of the population. For example, marriages between black and white Tunisians are not welcomed, and many only work in certain professions, for example in gastronomy. Blacks in management positions are still the exception today, even if Kamel Degguiche became a black minister for the first time in the government of Hichem Mchichi in September 2020. People from sub-Saharan Africa also repeatedly report that they are faced with racism. Since the break 2011 in the public a first debate on the subject instead,various NGOs try to sensitize the population, for example with video clips. In 2018 a law was passed that makes racial discrimination a criminal offense.

In addition to the influences of the various civilizations that have grazed the country over the past millennia, the Tunisians primarily define themselves through language and religion. A majority of Tunisians are Muslims and define themselves as such – even if the degree of influence of religion varies greatly from the literal interpretation of religious texts to a purely cultural understanding. Tunisian Arabic differs relatively far from standard Arabic and the dialects spoken in Machreq. This sometimes leads to Tunisians being rejected by non-Maghrebian Arabs on the grounds that they are not “real” Arabs.

Many young and older Tunisians feel very close to Europe, especially France and Italy – they see far more similarities with the residents and the lifestyle of these countries than with the Arab Gulf states, for example. But they feel abandoned by Europe, partly because of rigid visa regulations and a lack of support during Ben Ali’s term in office. At the same time, many reject an African identity for Tunisia: For many Tunisians, Africa begins south of the Sahara. This double rejection by Europe on the one hand and many Arab states on the other, while at the same time negating a possible African identity, led to a kind of collective identity crisis, especially among young Tunisians in the past. At the same time, foreigners in Tunisia are not legally equated, as illustrated, for example, by a study by the NGO Adli.