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Founder of Tunisian ‘religious police’ eschews

By on March 6, 2012

The head of a group that has government permission to seek to promote religious teachings in Tunisia says he will use persuasion and protest but not violence to encourage Islamic behaviour in one of the Arab world’s most secular countries.

Adel al-Ilmi, a date merchant by trade, said he changed the name of his organisation from the Group for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, as it conjured up images of Saudi Arabia’s religious police, which beats women who are not properly veiled or men caught outside the mosque at prayer time.

Renamed the Group for Moderation and Reform, Ilmi said its members would not wield sticks but might approach an amorous couple or a scantily-clad woman in the street and try to persuade them that their behaviour was un-Islamic.

“We reject any spectacle that offends Islam and Muslims, any spectacle that opposes the morals of Muslims, especially if it is in the street or in a public place,” he told Reuters.

“As a group we would not use force … even in extreme cases. We are civil. There are situations where we would pressure the government and public institutions to apply the law and if there is no law we will call for a law.”

At the foreront of the Arab Spring after an uprising deposed secular President Zine al-Abdine Ben Ali, Tunisia is now ruled by a coalition that is led by a moderate Islamist party but includes partners who want to keep religion out of politics.

While most Tunisians are Muslims, Tunisia is considered one of the most laid-back countries in the Arab world. Alcohol is served in restaurants and sold in supermarkets, many Tunisian women shun the veil and jealously guard legal rights in marriage and divorce that are among the most progressive in the region.

The government’s decision to grant a license to Ilmi’s group last month caused an outcry among secular Tunisians who fear it will seek to curb freedom of expression and raise social pressure on them to adhere to a more religious lifestyle.

They accuse the government, led by the moderate Islamist group Ennahda, of turning a blind eye to conservative Salafi Islamists who have attacked or threatened television stations and cinemas for showing films they deem to be un-Islamic.


Ennahda has promised not to impose the veil or to ban alcohol, but secular critics say it is instead allowing the rise of religious non-governmental organisations that will raise social pressure on Tunisians to conform to religious mores.

Ilmi, whose organisation so far counts a modest 14 members, has already drawn attention to his campaign by forcing out a newly-appointed head of state-owned Zaitouna radio station.

Iqbal Gharbi, an unveiled expert in religious affairs, was named by the government last year to head the station, which mostly airs Koranic recitals and focuses on Islamic issues.

Ilmi, 42, who admits to not having read Gharbi’s writings, objected to her liberal interpretation of Islam that argues against the veil and for the right of women to become imams.

“Her appointment in itself was a provocation… They want to take us back to the days of Habib Bourguiba,” he said, referring to Tunisia’s first president, a staunch secularist who famously called the hijab, or Islamic headcovering, an “odious rag”.

Ilmi went to Gharbi’s office and pressured her to leave. He then set about turning some 25 of the staff at the station against her and at one point set up a mobile stage outside the building at which a host of speakers demanded her ouster.

“I said to her that you are a foreign entity and you are not wanted and your presence is a provocation that will cause tensions,” he said.


Flush from his success, Ilmi said his group would push “strongly” to ensure that sharia, or Islamic law, was named as a principle source of legislation in Tunisia’s new constitution.

Tunisia’s constituent assembly, elected in October in the country’s first polls since the ouster of Ben Ali, has a year to draft a new constitution and divisions are already emerging over the role of religion in government.

“We, as the people, would like to be ruled by Islam… We are against anyone who says they are against sharia… The least we will accept in the constitution is that sharia is a principle source of legislation,” he said.

Asked what he would do if the democratically-elected assembly agreed to weaker wording, Ilmi said: “Principally, marches. You will see 30,000 or 40,000 on the street.”

Religious groups were banned under Ben Ali, who cracked down on all opponents but reserved his severest punishments for Islamists, who could face suspicion for growing their beards or attending dawn prayers, seen as markers of excessive piety.

But religious groups have come to fore since the revolt that sparked the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 forced Ben Ali out.

Ilmi said he would pressure the government to introduce laws banning blasphemy and sacrilege — laws that would see anyone who criticised the Prophet Mohammed or his companions jailed. His group would also raise pressure on Tunisia’s media and advertisers not to publish pictures of women in skimpy clothing.

“The law is paralysed and incapable of dealing with these issues. So if you insult the president you find yourself in the utmost difficulties but if you insult the prophet of Islam it is no problem because there is no law to criminalise it,” Ilmi said. “So we must write a deterrent law,” he said.


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