Center for Strategic Communication

by Jeffry R. Halverson

I recently traveled to Tunisia where I visited the ancient holy city of Kairouan. Elections for the constituent assembly to produce a new Tunisian constitution are less than two weeks away and there is a lot of discussion taking place about the nature of Tunisian identity and the role of Islam in Tunisian society. Islamists, both mainstream and radical, obviously envision a prominent role for Islam. However, my experiences in Kairouan, as well as other cities in Tunisia, gave me a tangible sense of the complexities involved and left me with the impression that Islamists, particularly the hardliners, face an uphill battle. Our colleague Mark R. Woodward has previously noted contested approaches to Islam in public life in Indonesia, albeit in very different cultural and historical circumstances.

Regionally, Kairouan is regarded as the fourth holiest city in Islam and the “spiritual capital” of the Maghreb (although folks in Fez, Morocco, may disagree). At the center of the city is the Grand Mosque of Uqba. It was originally constructed by the Umayyad Arab general Uqba ibn Nafi al-Fihri in 670 CE, but the present structure dates from the 9th century when it was remodeled by the Aghlabid dynasty. It is considered an architectural masterpiece and highly influential on Islamic art throughout the region. What is most interesting though is how the mosque reflects or symbolizes in so many ways the multi-layered complexities of contemporary Tunisian identity.

Interior of the Grand Mosque

As was common at the time, empires often used precious building materials from previous structures and ruins to construct their own monuments and facilities. The construction of the Grand Mosque of Uqba in Kairouan was no different. Before the Arab conquest, Tunisia was the imperial domain of the Byzantines, the Romans, the Phoenicians (remember mighty Hannibal of Carthage?), and, of course, the native Berber tribes. When the Grand Mosque was constructed, it utilized building materials from prior Byzantine, Roman, and Phoenician structures. Those elements are still very much visible today and add to the unique architectural charm of the mosque.

Legend says that there are 600 pillars in the mosque and every single one is unique. I’ve read that the actual number is closer to 414 pillars, but the claim about every pillar being unique appears true. There are pillars from each of the different periods of Tunisia’s long history. In one corner of the mosque, I observed two pillars beside each other that one would never find in the holy cities of Saudi Arabia. On one pillar, perhaps from an earlier mosque or the pre-Aghlabid structure of the Grand Mosque, there are Qur’anic inscriptions carved into the stone. Just a step away there is another pillar, perhaps from an earlier Byzantine structure, featuring a large cross. It may surprise some to see such a clear and unhidden symbol of Christianity on the actual pillars of the holiest mosque in the country, but this is Tunisia.

Elsewhere, at the base of the enormous square minaret that overlooks the marble courtyard of the mosque, there are bricks featuring Latin inscriptions. I was quite interested to see that the stones had not been stashed in a dark corner, or chiseled away over the centuries. Here is a photograph I took of the bricks below:

Latin inscriptions

It is worth noting too, that as I toured the courtyard of the holy mosque, prayers were underway in the enclosed masalah, and my female colleague was not required to cover her hair. Later on, when we visited the el-Ghriba synagogue in the Jewish quarter of Djerba, she was required to wear a head scarf and I was asked to don a yarmulke. Such is Tunisia. I myself visited dozens of mosques in Egypt, including al-Azhar and Sayyidna Husayn, and I found Tunisian sensibilities around holy places far more relaxed and tolerant of others.

Like the Grand Mosque of Uqba, contemporary Tunisian identity is multi-layered and rich in history and lineage. Tunisians simply cannot be characterized in simple terms or labels, such as “Arab” and “Muslim.” The Tunisian identity (if I may speak of “the” identity) is a rich amalgamation of Mediterranean, Arab-Berber, African, Muslim-Christian-Jewish, Maghrebi, and Francophone cultural trends. One should not over-emphasize any sense of mutual kinship with “fellow Arab” or “fellow Muslim” states. Indeed, even the founder of the Islamist party Ennahda, Rached Ghannouchi, has written often of the uniqueness of Tunisia’s cultural heritage by utilizing the concept of al-khususiyah at-tunisiyah (“Tunisian specificity”). The Grand Mosque, down to its bricks and mortar, is a wonderful and telling symbol of this complexity. At the same time, as with Tunisian identity itself in the wake of the January 14th revolution, the mosque has become a contested symbol.

Among the resurgent religious parties in post-revolution Tunisia, the Islamist-Salafist group Ansar al-Shariah is among the most hard-line and vocal. The group recently established a media wing called al-Qayrawan Media Foundation (QMF). As you may have guessed, the word “Qayrawan” is a variant transliteration of Kairouan. For Ansar al-Shariah, the Grand Mosque of Uqba is a symbol of a strictly Arab-Muslim identity and its aspirations for a Tunisian government that will impose their vision of “shariah” on society. The image at top left is a poster from the QMF promoting a lecture by an extremist shaykh, Abu al-Mundhir al-Shaqiti. Note the Grand Mosque. Below it, an image of myself at the Grand Mosque in September.

The fact that the hardline Islamists have laid claim to the Grand Mosque of Uqba in Kairouan is obviously not surprising. As already noted, it is among the most venerable Muslim cities in the region, if not the world. However, if the hardline Islamists seek to impose a narrow understanding of Tunisian identity, they will have to overlook the very foundations of the Grand Mosque itself.  The unique history and culture of Tunisia seems to me fertile territory for a vibrant pluralistic society, one in which the Islamists have their due place at the table, but fail to dictate a vision of the future to the exclusion of others. While conditions remain bleak and troubling in Egypt, as recent violence involving the Coptic minority has shown, Tunisia seems set on a different course and there is optimism for the future.

* Jeffry R. Halverson is an Islamic studies scholar and an Assistant Research Professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication at Arizona State University. He is the author of Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam (Palgrave Macmillan 2010), Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam (Potomac 2012), and co-author of Master Narratives of Islamist Extremism (Palgrave Macmillan 2011).