Monday, March 12, 2012

Growing Pains

This past Thursday was not just another day of teaching for me. In fact, I did no teaching that day even though my class in Financing International Trade is a fixture on my Thursday schedule. I went to work fully expecting to have class. But I arrived to discover that the student union had decided to call a strike, effectively canceling all classes for the entire day.

The Headline of a Tunisian Daily
Captures the Sense of National Outrage
Two of my students broke the news to me. They explained that there was a violent altercation the day before at the Manouba Faculty of Arts, Letters and Humanities. It's a campus of about 8,000 students located on the outskirts of Tunis. Someone removed the national flag from a university building and replaced it with the black flag representing the Salafi, a conservative branch of Islam. Students throughout the country went on strike Thursday so that they could protest the desecration of the flag and demand that the government punish the person who committed the offense.

Tension has been high at the Manouba campus for months ever since the the university rejected a request by certain students to permit women to sit for exams while wearing a full face veil called a niqab. However, on this occasion, things got out of hand. In fact one of my students came to school on Thursday describing how she had been attacked. She works as a journalist and was on the Manouba campus to cover the story. However, her press credentials did not insulate her from being victimized.

The campus where I teach has had its share of tension, but it is nothing compared to what took place at the Manouba campus. I have only witnessed students making passionate speeches in the courtyard on isolated occasions. The relative civility may be partly due to the fact that there are very few Salafis who are enrolled at my campus. Manouba attracts a much larger number because the faculty offers courses in sharia law and related subjects.

In many ways, the tension between the Salafis and the larger university community at the Manouba campus exemplifies some of the philosophical debates that Tunisians have been having about the role that Islamic principles should play in shaping the country's political institutions going forward. However, until last Wednesday, those debates seemed to occur in a way that largely reflects the country's peaceful traditions. I hope the incident at Manouba remains an isolated one and not part of a trend.