On March 13, the Tunisian government announced emergency measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
It was this last decision that sparked controversy on social media and among religious scholars and reminded many Tunisians of something they have long suspected; a deep-seated Islamophobia that has framed internal Tunisian policies and politics since the country’s independence from French colonial rule in 1956.
While the importance of prevention measures and controlling the spread of the virus is not debatable, the choice to completely close down mosques while only partially closing cafes was met with dismay.
Hicham Grissa, president of Zitouna University in Montfleury, criticised the decision as being “unresponsive” to people’s need for religious and spiritual practices in these times.
Grissa said while the spread of the virus will determine future actions, right now “you should not be talking about prohibiting prayer in mosques, unless the same measures are being taken for cafes and clubs.”
One mosque-goer in Nabeul, where I am from, told me: “I went to pray at dawn and the mosque was closed.
“We are usually only a dozen people at the Fajr prayer in the neighbourhood mosque, and we’re only there for 10 or 15 minutes. I just don’t see how that poses a higher risk than cafes downtown that host hundreds of people throughout the day.”
As schools and universities were closed from March 12, Tunisian youth took to cafes, sitting in confined spaces, drinking coffee and playing card games.
The decision to suspend prayer in mosques was, therefore, perceived by many social media users as the continuation of a state tradition of what they see as internalised Islamophobia, and “problematising” Islam and Islamic practices as the first step in dealing with crises.
This is all reminiscent of another problematic decision illustrating the internalised Islamophobia of the Tunisian state – the niqab ban imposed in July 2019.
After a double suicide bombing in June, Tunisia’s prime minister, Youssef Chahed, issued an order banning the wearing of the Islamic face veil in all state buildings and institutions for “security reasons”. This, despite the fact that the Ministry of Interior denied that the culprit had been wearing a niqab to disguise himself.
Several civil society organisations and politicians considered this to be a repetition of the hijab ban which has been imposed several times in Tunisia’s modern history. Over time, such bans have taken their toll on women’s rights and on freedom of religion, with resulting arrests, imprisonment, suspension from work and even police violence.
In 2019, activists argued that, if security is a concern, the state can take several measures to ensure security without infringing on freedom of religion and banning clothing. For example, female police officers or employees could carry out identity checks or searches at the entrance to public buildings in case of security concerns.
However, consecutive Tunisian governments from 1956, while more lenient today than in the past, have continued to exhibit an internalised Islamophobia that has propagated throughout Tunisia.
In the 1960s, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first post-independence president, sought to weaken Islamic culture and establish a secular national identity. He closed the historical Islamic Zitouna University and discouraged fasting, personally appearing on TV drinking orange juice during Ramadan and advising Tunisians to do the same.
The Bourguiba administration abolished the system of religious endowments and religious courts, banned groups and political parties with an Islamic focus and officially banned the hijab in 1981, a policy that remained in place until the Tunisian revolution in 2011.
This state-sanctioned anti-hijab sentiment can be traced back to French colonial rule when women were encouraged to remove their veils as a statement of modernity and civilisation. This began in Algeria, but it was this Western notion of “modernity” that Bourguiba later sought to enforce in Tunisia.
This imposition of secular national identity resulted not only in the persecution of large groups of people but also in a growing societal mistrust of certain Islamic practices.
Restrictions on Islamic practices intensified during the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali administration from 1987 to 2011, when the state leveraged the fear of the threat of terrorism to crack down even more on religious freedoms and further entice fear of Islam among its population.
According to reports by organisations such as Amnesty International, between 2,000 and 3,000 people were prosecuted under this law. The law was vague and activities that were deemed to warrant police investigation included praying in mosques and owning Islamic items.
Just like the Bourguiba government before it, the Ben Ali administration established an increasingly authoritarian rule, under the cover of “modernity” and “fighting terrorism”, amid silence from Western allies such as the United States and France.
People who wore the hijab, who went to the mosque regularly or who engaged in Quran studies or recitation were perceived as “too religious”, and as a threat to Tunisian homogeneity and state security.
Documents found by protesters in police stations during the 2010 to 2011 protests showed how informants would keep logs of the numbers of people who went to a specific mosque, who was in the front row, how many women wore the headscarf and even how many women wore the headscarf but with more conservative, loose-fitting dresses.
A classified internal document from the Ministry of the Interior dated 2009, which started circulating on social media a few weeks ago, reads: “I am honoured to let you know that on 18/03/2009, a girl wearing a headscarf was detained [….] after investigation it became clear that she practises her religious duties regularly. She was warned about the necessity to remove the sectarian dress and she showed willingness to do so.” “Sectarian clothing” was the term used by the government to describe the headscarf at that time.
The government’s use of both police and neighbours/colleagues to watch out for each other’s “level of religiousness”, has resulted in these policies being adopted at a societal and individual level.
Despite the political changes brought by the revolution in 2011, these policies seeped into certain domains and became part of the culture.
After the striking incident of the suspension of a hijab-wearing flight attendant from Tunisair in 2015, the then-Minister of Transport declared that the hijab reduces hearing by 30 percent, putting the lives of passengers in danger.
While the justifications switch from safety, national security and hygiene to health concerns, the Tunisian state continues a decades-long tradition of internalised Islamophobia and remains quick to pursue policies that target Islamic practices first and foremost.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.