Living Together in Tunisia

By Khadija Arfaoui - 17 September 2017
Living Together in Tunisia

With a population of about 12 million, Tunisia is 99% Sunni Muslim. The remaining 1% is a mixture of Shi’a Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Baha’is. The historical background of Tunisia is very rich in diverse cultures, religions and races. It is this historic diversity that has made Tunisia one of the most open-minded countries in the region. Indeed, Tunisia has largely been able to manage this diversity amidst some disturbances. Yet, resistance to plurality remains, in particular among Islamist groups for whom religion comes first. This is a chapter of the forthcoming e-book 'The Future of the Middle East' co-produced by Global Policy and Arab Digest, and edited by Hugh Miles and Alastair Newton. Freely available chapters will be serialised here and collected into a final downloadable publication in the November.

Tunisia is “…a melting pot, one where diverse elements melt to give birth to an original alloy that looks like all of its components without identifying with only one of them. (Boulares:15)        


There are not many sources writing about the early people that lived in North Africa. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1405) is the most well-known medieval Muslim scholar who wrote in detail about the first populations that lived in the Maghreb, the Berbers who: “… belong to a powerful, formidable and numerous people; a true people like so many others the world has seen—like the Arabs, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans” (Calvert, 2015). Berbers are still part of the population today, together with other communities: Jews, Christians, blacks, Baha’is. Tunisia can boast of managing this diversity, avoiding the violence bestowed on religious minorities in the Middle-East such as Christians in Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere. Nonetheless, this diversity did come to the fore following the Arab Spring.

Who is Tunisian and who is not? The Islamists, with Ennahdha at their head, claimed Islam as the religion of the State.  However, this ignored a large part of the population that want a complete separation of religion and politics, and it overlooked minorities like the Amazighen who have demanded recognition of their culture and language.  Furthermore, it did not account for the Jews who have been in the country for over 3,000 years, before even the Arabs, the Christians and the blacks who had been brought to Tunisia as slaves. There are also Baha’is. How is Tunisia faring with these claims and how is it managing them? This is what I will deal with in this chapter.

The Amazighen

DNA analysis shows that the Tunisians are 88% North-Africans, 5% Western Europeans, only 4% Arabian and 2% Western and Central Africans. Yet, as Rahmani declares, history grants the Berbers a minor role in spite of the fact that they were in Tunisia long before Carthage. And yet, “Today, we generally ignore that Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia’s populations are Berbers, whom we audaciously call Arabs. As to the natives, they identify themselves as Amazighen… which meant free men, then nobles and was applied to several tribes before the Roman occupation” (Julien, Book I, p. 10).

Since 2011, information has been slowly spreading that Tunisia does have a Berber population, mostly established on the heights of the Southern region where they have been able to safeguard their language, their ancestral culture and their way of life.  Those of them that move about throughout the country mingle with the other populations and speak Arabic and/or French, while those that remain on their heights may speak only Amazigh or Tamazight. In any case, Berbers do not consider themselves Arabs. Indeed, if the existence of Berbers is established and recognized in Morocco where they represent between 40% to 50% of the population and in Algeria where they represent 25% to 30%, Tunisia holds “…only weak and minuscule tribes” (Charrad, 91), with less than 1% claiming a Berber identity. They are so few that many people are unaware of their existence. In Morocco and Algeria where many people speak Tamazight, they have their own TV and radio programs, but it is not so in Tunisia where their number has not stopped dwindling since the XIth and XIIth centuries as nomadic Arab tribes arrived (Pean, 1995).

This fact is not only due to the smaller size of the country compared to Morocco and Algeria, but to political reasons as well. Indeed, the father of Tunisia, the nation that emerged as a republic in 1956, saw divisions as a big threat to unity. He was able to manage diversity by imposing his benevolent dictatorship. Indeed, in the same way as he only allowed one political party, the Destour, and one official women’s organization, he dismantled all tribal structures in order to realize his ideal of a “homogeneous and united nation”. The structure of Amazigh society is tribal, the father being the head of the family while the mother plays an important role in the family, in agriculture and in handicrafts. Moreover, among the Amazigh even in the absence of an official contract an agreement “equals a moral and legal document" (Pean, 1995).

While Morocco, Libya, Algeria allowed this way of life to continue, Bourguiba put an end to it. Like Ibn Khaldoun, he believed that clan spirit represented a permanent threat to the state. The Numid demon, he argued, “drives to division, intestine struggles, infighting and rivalries”. These people, however, had opposed fierce resistance to the Arab conquest as exemplified by Koceila, a Christian rebel chief and El Kahena, a Jewish queen, who for 5 years bravely defeated Arab attacks. Nonetheless, the year 654 was to be her end with victory of the Arab conquest. However, before dying, she asked her sons and the rest of the Berber Jews she ruled to convert to Islam. It was in 700 that Berbers converted to Islam en-masse. Hence the fact that, apart from their Amazighness, the majority are now Muslims.

Pluralism was managed thus, but it was at the expense of their religion and culture. That was the beginning of the 8th century. Despite the conversion that had been imposed on them, the Berbers throughout the region remained true to their country which they fought for in the three Maghreb countries during WWII and for independence in the 1950s. Indeed, “without their participation to the emancipating struggle, the towns would not have been able to face France” (El Hamma, 24 November 1958).

The 2011 Revolution and the identity question

The unity achieved by Bourguiba was shattered in 2011 with the revolution and the Islamist revival that brought about the issue of identity.  This divided the bewildered nation into Muslims and apostates, as Salafists marked those that did not agree with the adoption of Shari’a. Unheard of violence was used against fellow-citizens because they did not share their radical views. Many Tunisians responded by putting forward their multi-culturalism, claiming the value they attributed to their diversity. Aren’t we a blend of Punic, Roman, Byzantine, Spanish, Ottoman, Maltese, Italian, French, and Corsicans, in a country that shelters Muslims, Jews, Christians and, more recently, Baha’is, who have lived in harmony for thousands of years respecting one another they argued? This powerful response of Tunisian civil society was one way of protecting pluralism and the right to difference. Indeed, it is to be noted that this has been the work of civil society. In contrast, that of the government has not been as clear.

Being so few, the Amazighen are bound to mix with the other populations and learn their languages. Semi-Berber-speaking populations are to be found in the famous island of Djerba, a mosaic of races, and in other Southern small towns such as El May, Sedghiane, Mahboubine, Sedouikech, Guellala, Ajim, Majoura, Sened, Sakket, Taoujout, Seraoua, Tamezret, Chenini, Douiret, Matmata, Thala and Makthar. Only in the 20th century did Berber populations in Sened and Majoura start speaking Arabic.

Tunisian Amazigh populations are much smaller than those in Algeria or Morocco.  It is difficult to make out their exact number because of their dispersion throughout the country but also because national statistics fail to report on that. They are mainly to be found on the heights in the southern region (Djerba, Matmata, Tataouine, Medenine, Kebili, Tozeur), but other groups, including between 100 to several thousand people are to be found on the Mediterranean coast and on the Western part of the country, along the Algerian frontier and in the region of Gafsa. Those of them who have migrated to the big cities and to Europe are often men who may go home once a year.  In 2002, in a movie, “The Season of Men” (Maussim al-rijal), Moufida Tlatli depicted the plight of women in Djerba living with their in-laws while their husbands were either in Europe or in one of the big cities, selling carpets and artifacts. They could see their husbands once a year.

Tunisia and international treaties

The wave of democray that followed the 2011 Revolution has led to a diverse political landscape, bringing hope to many. In particular, it has emboldened peaceful minority groups who have been discriminated against in spite of a good constitution and the international treaties ratified by Tunisia.

On 13 January 1967, Tunisia ratified the International Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Racial Discrimination adopted by the UN in Resolution 2106 of December 1965. However, the Tunisian government’s weakness in managing pluralism and diversity remained an obstacle. As a result, in 2003 the UN recommended that Tunisia develops its advocacy against racial discrimination and other minorities further. Indeed, the UN refused claims that there was no racial discrimination in Tunisia, instead giving clear recommendations for the management of this problem.

So far, none of the minority groups have used violence. However, more recently, they have started to claim consideration to their status. In 2003, Tamazgha, a Paris-based NGO, sent a report to the Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), at the UN to complain of the fact that Tunisia did not respect the Convention. Long ignored by both Bourguiba and Ben Ali, the air of liberty that swept over the country in 2011 gave them the courage to ask for recognition of an identity dear to them and which they are proud of. Their first NGO was the fruit of their endeavor: The Tunisian Association of the Amazigh Culture was founded in July 2011. In Chenini, a small village, the population does not exceed 200 Imazighen:

Imazighen are actually working on preserving the traditional aspects of their life. They speak Tamazight (their own language, with their own alphabet) and they pass to their children the same old houses they inherited from previous generations. Women are dressed in the traditional Taref (a colorful body wrap equipped with various metal jewelry). This village, Chenini, seems to have been kept away from civilization. (Ben Ghazi, 2011)

A TV presenter received death threats for presenting a programme on Amazigh claims to recognition (Ben Ghazi). At a TV debate, a young female Amazigh had a hard time explaining to an Islamist that learning Amazigh language was not “koufr” (blasphemy), that it was neither against Islam nor against Arabic as a national language. Her insistence on the fact that she was Muslim, that she read the Qur’an, and that learning and speaking Amazigh would harm neither Arabic nor Islam, was fruitless. And yet, Article 31 of the Tunisian 2014 Constitution states:

Freedom of opinion, thought, expression, information and publication shall be guaranteed. These freedoms shall not be subject to prior censorship.

Why are Amazigh children prevented from speaking Amazigh at school? Abdelhak Mahrouk, a young Tunisian musician, reports that when he went to school for the first time he had a hard time understanding his teacher as he did not speak Arabic: “I didn’t even understand her when she talked to me. She thought I was a bad student and that I wasn’t taking her seriously. So she hit me” (Ghribi, 2016).

I short, the wave of freedom that has swept over the country has opened the door and all sorts of grievances to be heard, protected by article 31. Yet, the process is slow and more is needed for this freedom to be effective.

Amazigh cnulture

The trend initiated under Habib Bourguiba has been to ignore the Amazigh identity. And yet, there is much that is appealing in Berber culture and philosophy. Nonetheless, it was arguably important for Bourguiba to do so in order to prevent the divisions prevailing in other neighboring countries. In fact, although the Amazighen had shown fierce resistance to Arab invasions, they gradually came to adopt the language of the region: Arabic. Yet, its uptake, remained weaker on the heights where several communities found refuge throughout the Maghreb and continued to speak Amazigh whilst maintaining their traditions. As a matter of fact, when asked about the language they use, they often say that they speak Arabic and/or French when they are in the villages or cities, but once at home, they speak Amazigh. They also demanded radio and TV programs in their language for their relatives who spoke neither Arabic nor French and who needed to be connected with the world. “In the past, we were stripped of our right to be who we are, to protect our identity, and to speak our language…They excluded us, marginalized us,” activist Houcine Belgith declared (Ghribi, 2016). To fight off this discrimination, Mahrouk and his brother formed a hip-hop band, rapping about Amazigh life and their problems, singing Amazigh pride. “We’re Amazighen and this is our country,” they sing. “This was my country before Jesus came down” (Ghribi).

If there were any divisions in Tunisia among them, they melted away with independence in 1956. Indeed, Bourguiba would not tolerate any separatist claims and he made it so that national unity would be consolidated by linking religion and Arabic. That was not going to be very difficult as Amazigh was not taught and not given a chance to spread. Thus, living together was a fact but at the expense of Amazigh identity. Indeed, Article 1 of the 1959 Constitution (maintained in the 2014 Constitution) put an end to all divisions:

Tunisia is a free, independent and sovereign State, its religion is Islam, its language Arabic, and its system is republican.

Blacks in Tunisia

Tunisia’s blacks represent around 15% of the population, but why is only one of their number in Parliament today? Furthermore, in some southern cities they live in segregated neighborhoods. In addition to the Tunisian blacks, there have been around 10,000 youth coming from 24 West and Central African countries as students or trainees in different cities.

With the advent of the Revolution of 1911, Tunisian blacks have been victims of racism and harassment, a practice rarely heard of before. One example of racism concerns the birth certificates of some upon which can read the word “chouchane” (is owned by), followed by the name Hamrouni, which means that the person is the “property of Hamrouni.” Furthermore, in some cities, some blacks have the names of their ancestors’ former masters. Some cities have segregated public school buses and Djerba still has a cemetery known as being one for slaves. This is something that many Tunisians themselves throughout the country are not even aware of. And that the current government considers to be a minor problem compared to the issues of corruption, unemployment and terrorism.

In addition, violence against Blacks has reached unprecedented heights. Thus, some black students have been stabbed and knifed, some seriously wounded. Their only crime is their color and their West African origin. NGOs for the defense of minorities for a better protection and representation of specific social groups were founded, like the Association of Defense of the Rights of Blacks that demands that the “Wassif” (used in Tunisia before the abolition of slavery in 1846) should not be used any more. The word is so commonly used that the Tunisians do not even know that its real meaning is not “black” but “slave.” This fact is a sign of ignorance and it is the role of education, the media and the government to enlighten people. March 21, International Day for the elimination of racial discrimination is an opportunity seized by NGOs to express their grievances. Just like sexism, racism reflects the superiority of one group over another, men over women, whites against blacks.

Christians in Tunisia

Christianity is the second population with Roman Catholics, Protestants, Russian Orthodox, French Reformists, Anglicans, Seventh-Day Adventists, Greek Orthodox and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Certainly, the number of Christians has dwindled in recent decades. Furthermore, their places of worship are being used for other purposes, like the Cathedral of Carthage chaired by Cardinal Lavigerie and built between 1884 and 1890. Today, it is used as an Acropolys where several musical performances are given and also as a museum housing important Roman ruins. Nonetheless, the big Cathedral in the heart of Tunis on Habib Bourguiba avenue and also the Archdiocese of Carthage have remained as Christian places of worship. Other smaller churches are also to be found elsewhere, with an Orthodox church on Mohamed V Avenue in Tunis.

Some churches and graveyards were attacked and defaced after 14 January 2011 but, according to church representatives, the police did not make a serious investigation about such acts and failed to arrest anyone. Furthermore, the IBLA (Institut des Belles Lettres Arabes) is an organization of research founded in 1926 by the White Fathers to promote Tunisian culture. The intercultural and interreligious dialogue it established continues today with several conferences held at the diocesan set in the heart of the medina of Tunis and attended by people of different creeds. In 2010, a criminal fire at the library of IBLA led to the death of Father Gian-Battista Maffi and 60% of the books were burned down. However, the research library that belongs to the White fathers remains open to researchers.

The Baha’is

As to the Baha’is, they remain an invisible minority. Why invisible? Because if they are free to practice their religion, they are not authorized to do it publicly. Although freedom of religion is clearly stated in Tunisian legislation, there are some restrictions that prevent it.

The Baha’is came to Tunisia between 1910 and 1920. In the 1980s, they were not allowed to organize religious meetings and the media reported on them when they did. They consider themselves as true Muslims because they believe in all the preceding religions but as Islam is declared to be the last religion, they are considered as heretics. In other parts of the Arab world they are only allowed to work in certain sectors. It is not so in Tunisia. But discrimination is clearly rife, limiting their freedom of worship. Nonetheless, several notable scholars have spoken out for their right to be who they are. Among them, Amal Grami and Iqbal Gharbi who asked: “Is it possible for us to abandon our current cultural heritage that is full of great illusions and of denigration of the other?”.


One should also add to these communities that of homosexuals who were surprisingly granted recognition after the revolution and are represented by “Shams.” Here again, Tunisia is the only Arab country to allow this activity. There are between 700 and 1,000 homosexuals in Tunisia. If they were granted recognition, they are still confronted by severe legislation. Indeed, article 230 of the Penal Code of 1913 condemns any homosexual activity and allows for the arrest of anyone suspected of being “different,” that is in this context, homosexual, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersexual (Dridi, 2017). However, it is in contradiction with article 24 of the Constitution which declares that the state protects the right to privacy and the inviolability of the home, and the confidentiality of correspondence, communications, and personal information. It is also in contradiction with article 12 of the UDHR and article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, both ratified by Tunisia.


The communities presented in this research are thus discriminated against for three different reasons: the Amazigh for demanding recognition of their culture, the Christians, Jews and Baha’is for not being Muslim, and the blacks for their color. What is needed is a big push as Bourguiba did in 1956: equality of rights to all Tunisian citizens, whatever their sex, creed or color.

This equality had been established already in 1856 with the Fundamental Pact—the first Constitution in the Arab world, followed by the 1861 Constitution that lasted until independence in 1956. In 1959 a second Constitution was drafted, which was amended in 1999 and 2002, that put an end to discrimination, establishing equality of all whatever their religion or color. Importantly, Jewish and Christian subjects no longer had to either convert to Islam or pay a tax, the jizya for the Jews, in order to be allowed to practice their religion. As for blacks, there had already been an anti-slavery trend earlier in time. Indeed, Tunisia was the first country in the Arab world to abolish slavery in 1846. Since then, blacks have been living as free people, as free Tunisian citizens, with new generations often unaware that their black fellow citizens history as slaves.

What is the situation today? The 2014 Constitution gives the same rights to all Tunisians. Yet, in reality, Jews are careful not to go out with a kippah over their head to avoid becoming targets of violent aggression from intolerant and often ignorant Islamists. Ignorant because they only know what they have been told or taught by hard conservative Islamists who misinterpret the Qur’an at the mosque or at the Kuteb, or on propaganda TV channels or on the Internet. And because they do not bother investigating, reading, finding out by themselves, often because they are so sure that they have the truth and that all the rest is kufur (blasphemy).  Indeed, the violence witnessed in Tunisia in the early days that followed 14 January 2011 has shown that what these Islamists really want is a sharia regime that would put an end to all the country’s freedoms and rights, amongst which is that to be different in any way. The Islamists who appeared at the forefront claimed a return to the Sharia, to polygamy, to the hijab and niqab, as well as to the separation of the sexes.

To conclude, if laws are necessary, they are also not enough. It is the mentality that has to change and now probably more than ever. However, the current government has not been doing enough to bring this change. Instead, largely considering discrimination a minor problem. It must now respect its obligations as a member of many international conventions and treaties, and to tackle the issues they seek to address.

So far, more or less violent forms of discrimination against minorities are perpetrated by individuals and not by the State. The government’s focus is on ensuring security and saving the economy which are presently in trouble. But it is not acceptable that they say discrimination is a minor problem. Two main things can be done that would not distract them from their main objectives:

Firstly, effort should be placed on harmonizing the penal code and the labor laws.  This is currently being done as shown by a new 2017 law which strengthens women’s protection against violence, in particular, putting an end to the clause that allowed rapists to evade prison if they marry victims.

Secondly, youth should be introduced to human rights from their first years at school where they should be taught about equal rights among people whatever their sex, creed, color, or difference. History school books should deal with diversity, as stated by Jacob Lellouche, president of the Association for the Protection and Enhancement of Jewish-Tunisian Heritage. Saadia Mosbah, a black Tunisian, president of Mnemti (My dream) makes the same claim because: “…minorities are the pillars of the national identity.”

Bourguiba used education to change the mentalities and he succeeded, in spite of some resistance that remained silent until 14 January 2011. Tunisia should resume this process as recommended by the late Mohamed Charfi in his attempt to restructure the educational system while he was Minister of Education (1989-1994). Responsible citizenship will allow a harmonious and healthy development that will make for tolerance and respect for human rights for all.

A general education must also be reinforced together with a knowledge of the universal culture. Youth should learn their own history while learning about important events throughout the world. Civic education will allow the youth, Mohamed Charfi declares, to absorb “…the fundamental principle of equality and non-discrimination between human beings…” (Charfi: 233-234). As part of this, “Dhimmi” laws that are still in our books of jurisprudence must be eradicated and Islamic history must be taught “objectively,” Iqbal Gharbi states, in reference to the sufferings of the Africans brought to Tunisia as slaves in the past.

To move toward a more pluralistic society and as Abdelfateh Mourou, Ennahda’s vice-President at the National Assembly of the People, said “… Tunisia belongs to them [secular people] too. If you are in power, you have to behave as a family man! (Mourou, 2013). This is to say that the Tunisian government should not manage its efforts to ensure equal treatment to all its citizens. It is good to allow civil society to work in that direction, but more needs to be done in legislation and in education by the media to create cohesion and understanding among the different communities.


Dr. Khedija Arfaoui is an independent researcher, feminist, and former English instructor at the Higher Institute of Languages in Tunis. A long time actor and leader in Tunisian civil society, she has lectured and written widely on human rights and women’s issues, and has been a frequent workshop leader at home and abroad.

Photo Credit: Mashhour Halawani Via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)



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