Pr. Khalifa CHATER


It is the end of the World. The era of decline… all those in charge of Moslem affaires must be on alert, all too ready to repulse the assaults of the Christian”; that was an extract from a letter of the Dey of Algiers, Hussein to the Bey of Tunis,Algiers 28 July 1824.

Despite conflicting relations between the Regency of Algiers and the Regency of Tunis, the Algerian Dey evoked the necessary solidarity between Moslem countries against the attacks of the European powers. The occupation of Algiers in 1830 was perceived according this prevailing line of thought. “the catastrophe of Algiers, said the historian of the XIXth century, Mohamed Ben Slama, breached the fortress of Islam”. On another hand, Islam played mobilising role and contributed to insure the commitment of the militant. The slogan and the order word of the resistance were “ the defence of the occupied motherland, the land of Islam. By reason of the homogeneity of Tunisia, a country of Moslem majority; with exception of a Jewish minority which the national movement had managed,, there was, as in the countries of the Middle East, no conflict between being an adept of Islam and a patriot. Updating the term of watan (motherland), the nationalists willingly cite the Prophet Mohamed Hadith: “ love of the motherland derives from faith”.

  Islam constituted thus the determining factor of the identity in Tunisia as in the whole Arab Moslem space, during the pre-colonial era. The national movement ascribed in this episteme. Its leaders, whether scholars or laic – the secularization being out of order in Tunisia – emphasized on the religious dimension Sine qua non, of the Destour then the Neo Destour. The leader Habib Bourguiba, who became notorious when he headed the first government after independence, through his courageous reforms, as compared with the prevailing opinions, had ascribed to this referential, which is object of a consensus. His cautious stand in favour of a rereading of the classical or traditional vision was not on the agenda. There was firstly a need to re-establish and safeguard the Tunisian identity such as perceived by the community. The national front adopted a common and solidarity vision, avoiding all risks of disunion. That is why Habib Bourguiba participated and took the leadership of the movement against naturalization, considered under this conjuncture as declared apostates.

In their speeches, the Tunisian nationalists (Young Tunisians, Destour and Neo Destour) turn against the colonizer and his values (liberty, equality, popular sovereignty).

    “ the victory for the colonized people has one essential theme: the spirit of time”.

  It could not be a matter, in colonized Tunisia, of a national conscience, preaching a secular faith, rejecting the Moslem religion in the private sphere. The dissociation of politics from religion was not on the agenda. In the North African Congress (Paris - October 1908), Béchir Sfar said in his report of the awqaf: Is “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood” too much to ask Republican France? This slogan defined the Young Tunisian movement.

We will come back to what we may call an Islamic ideology if not its instrumentation in the national struggle.

I - The State, the pre-colonial society and the reference frame: Prior to evoking the ups and downs of the national movement and trying to examine its religious dimensions, we must examine the situation of the country at the pre-colonial era, identify its political referential, its values and the gradual emergence of the national conscience.

  1. the Dynasty-State : the unionist and pre-national vision or Tunisianreformers in the XIX century were not shared by the multitude; the study of the Tunisian society reveals the existence of particularized collective sentiments. Some researchers used the approach of segmentation issued from the theory of Stateless Society in Africa. We have preferred in our previous studies, using the concept of assabiya by Ibn Khaldoun that is more suitable to signify the complexity of the situation and its mechanisms of evolution. Ibn Khaldoun perceives essentially three types of assabyia :
  • the assabyia of fusion (iltiham) : solidarity of cohesion which ties the

members of a tribe or an agglomeration.

  • The assabyia of alliance (hilf) : solidarity between clans.
  • The assabyia of allegiance (wala) ; relation of political obedience, subjection which describes the relation with the government.

In Tunisia of XIXth century, the solidarity ethnic entities still persists, the assabyia of alliance ( the husseinite and the pachist entities) remains in effect, but we notice a development of the allegiance assabyia which certifies a development of the power of the bey. This process of integration, within a centralized political establishment is evident in the XIXth century. The experience of French occupation, the development of the resistance movement and colonial alienation would permit the development of that unionist sentiment.

We shall see the gradual emergence of the national sentiment, bringing up the Tunisian homeland. The expression watan that was used in the XIXth century was referring to the homeland and to the administrative division: the era of caïd, the farmer-governor. It will be used by some reformers with the European significance. We will see that the movement shall precise this term, thus defining the Tunisian nationalism with relation to the solidarity of the inhabitants of the Arab Moslem space, then of the whole colonies. This evolution of a dynasty State into a national conscience shall mark that evolution during the colonial era. The development of national conscience and the bond it establishes does not overshadow the other bonds (ethnic, regional or others); but it grants them a subordinate and all the more secondary character. A homogenous unit, the State –nation to be reinstated or restored must be welded by an identifier base constituted with common components (religion, language, customs) comforted by the promotion of common history.

  1. The structure of religious sponsoring: in that pre-colonial State, the Tunisian society is sponsored by religious or assimilated structures: I am speaking of the ulemas (scholars) and the religious brotherhoods chiefs.

The situation of the ulemas has little changed from the standpoint of their status , their role and their method. They constitute elements of sponsoring the population. They bring out their backward looking vision on the path of a minority of reformers. They consider themselves as representative of the community conscience? But they avoided any confrontation with the colonial authorities who treat them tactfully. Yet, their hostility to the colonial power was restricted to be part of no speech, nothing expressly advocated, no claims. They were just eager to safeguard theirs privileges.

Founded in 1875 by the reformer Prime minister Kheireddine, the College Sadiki was opened up on the world to enrich education of the Moslem culture of Arab literature by courses given about history, geography, mathematics and foreign languages, the teaching of which we added Translation to allow its graduates to speak the occupant ’s language. The national movement drew among its elite, a great number of its leaders, who engaged the contestation of colonization by references of the Luminaries of Europe, while bringing out the Arab-Moslem identifying base. Then, with such important a mark, we are witnessing, during the colonial era, the passage of the elites from the Ulemas to the intellectuals of Sadiki.

Young Tunisian leaders rather had a modern profile, excepted the Zeintounian Thaalbi. The leaders of the Destour, are formed with a certain number of ulémas. They have integrated, afterwards, the former students of Sadiki and of France, during the battle of naturalization. The Neo Destour leaders (scission of 1934), on the most, enjoy a bilingual education (Sadiki and studying in Europe). All these movements have brought up Islam, as a reference and an argument of persuasion by the militants. We will return on this point. Other forces of sponsoring, the zouiya of marabouts. Their religious reference is prevailing but some of them have been more or less used as instruments by the colonial establishment which was asking them to remain on the margin of the political arena.

  1. The nostalgic perception of the Ottoman Caliph : This political reality of the XIXth, as described by Carl Brown, feeds a nostalgic perception in Tunisia.( Oumma and territories of Caliph Ottoman etc.). the Tunisians were considered as an integral part of this ottoman order, of the Caliphate, which the sultan incarnated as of the end the XVIIIth During the experience of colonization, the ottoman empire was considered by the very first generations, as the reference and the recourse. The idea spread out then was that reinforcement troops were arriving to support the resistance in 1881. During the occupation, some Tunisian intellectuals took refuge in Turkey . I will cite Cheikh Ismaïl Chaïhi, a scholar teaching in the Grand Mosque Ezzeitouna and the cheikh Salah Cherif. During the repression, following the boycotting of the tramways (1912), Ali Bach Hamba and his brother Mohamed have followed suite. Upon the abolition of the caliphate (1925), the Tunisians took positions against or for the caliphate. That nostalgic attachment to the sultanate-caliphate brings out the prevailing feeling of appurtenance and the important Moslem dimension that it meant. Significant mutations shall take place, causing a repositioning towards Paris , political opportunity or conjuncture wise without religious significance.

II - The religious underground of a secular movement, the Tunisian Youth movement: the Tunisian claims were, before the World War One, represented by the intellectuals, trained by the French school and aware of the colonial alienation of their people. That new elite who shared this approach of Tunisian reformers and of ideal type of luminaries, which it defended, were demanding an improvement of conditions of their citizenry., the establishment of a regime of equality and claimed on overture of schooling to all.

  1. the premises of Tunisian Youth movement: the two institutions which were created by the educated youth, the Khaldounyia (1896) and the Association of former Sadiki pupils (1905) testified their demarcation from the traditional religious Establishment. La Khaldounyia, a popular free university organized public courses in Law, Economics, Geography and dispensed a complementary training to pupils of the Great Mosque of Ezzitouna. That explains the opposition of the traditional zeitouni Establishment to this institution which opted for teaching modern sciences. The Association of former Sadiki pupils organized series of conferences to assure “ the moral and intellectual upgrading” of the Tunisians (report of Ali Bach Hamba. These two “cultural circles” were transformed into “political circles” since they exalted the past rise of Islam and worked for the regeneration of the motherland, while the religious or political topics were theoretically excluded. But these cultured approaches transgressed the taboos. The speech of Tahar Sfar, during the inauguration of a home for the indigents, la Tekiya (24 march 1906) and the interventions of his colleagues in the Tunisian Youth Movement at the colonial congress of Marseille (5-9 September 2009) evoked the Tunisian claims in terms of education and promotion of Tunisians, within the framework of “bringing the two races together”. This bringing together, asserted Mohamed Lasram, should be achieved by “association and not assimilation”, that means to take into account specificities of the Tunisian identity, erected in absolute values.
  2. b) The Tunisian, organ of Tunisian Youth Movement: about ten Tunisian youths founded on 7 November 1907 the paper ‘the Tunisian’ headed by Ali Bach Hamba. The weekly was appearing in French, each Thursday. Its program, signed by its Director, presented the claims of the young elite, the priority demand of the development of education, the protection of the Tunisian farmers and artisans, the representation of the local population, the equality before taxation. The’ Tunisian’ was supposed to be the spokesman of Tunisian Youth Movement, an informal grouping that will be hazardous to call a Party. The meetings were held in the Moorish coffee shops, in the summer residences of its members and within the Tunisian Circle, founded in 1908, which sheltered the Tunisian Youth until 1910. Most of the members of the Tunisian Youth Movement were in favour of a modern evolution confirmed by their cursus:

“Indeed, they all come from that youth which has received a French education at the Lycée Carnot, at the College Alaoui et the Collège Sadiki. They are today civil servants, Caïds, Khalifas (high officials in the provinces), interpreters – or even lawyers, merchants, farmers “ (the Tunisian, 28 March 1907).

The Tunisian Youth are known for their modern education. However, they were attached to the Moslem civilization and their Arabic Moslem identity. Bechir Sfar seems to introduce this vision of a consensus, reflecting the unspoken in the official discourse:

“ we belong to a race, a religion and a civilization which, in terms of historical glory and power of assimilation, are equal to any race, any religion and any civilization of ancient and modern peoples”

I may cite the judicious definition of the Tunisian Youth Movement by my colleague Taoufik Ayadi:

         “Behind the timorous method and the moderate claims, wasn’t there a worry to treat tactfully with the occupying power for the sake of their protection? A question worth asking? In any case, the study of Tunisian Youth Movement reveals that, if its members have not declared war to the Protectorate, we note, nevertheless, from their action as in from their thinking, a desire to contain the colonial implantation even stopping it. In this attempt to resist to the colonial invader, the Tunisian Youth turned to Constantinople, the seat of the Caliphate”.

Of secular appearance, the Tunisian Youth Movement brings out de facto the Moslem identity. The tests of the Jellaz event and the boycotting of the tramways, which marked a rise in the dangers, should constitute an eloquent revelation of nationalist feelings, that were, in times past, expressed with prudence if not overshadowed.

  1. b) The radicalization of the Tunisian Youth Movement and its new The invasion of Tripoli by Italy under the pretext of ottoman reinforcements dispatched over there and the declaration of war (1911) aroused a movement of solidarity in Tunisia. It revealed the Moslem identity commitment of the Tunisian Youth movement. Ali Bach Hamba published a new journal that he named Al Ittihad Al Islami ( the Islamic Union): Ali Bach Hamba wrote in his first editorial:

“the Europeans must not be surprised to see the hearts of the Moslems beat of emotions because of the blow thrown on Turkey by the criminal and unforgivable aggression of Italy on Tripoli. Wasn’t-it crystal clear, in fact, that by attacking their Caliph, the guardian and defender of the holy sites, they are attacking Islam and the Moslem world altogether….

The Jellaz uprising (7 - 8 November 1911): the decision of the registration of the cemetery of Tunis, an act void of any explanation, aroused the holding of the shield under this conjuncture of tensions. Confrontation between the public forces (police and military) and the civilians. The movement reached the neighbourhoods of the Medina. Given the wrath aroused by Italian invasion of Tripoli, the rioters had fist fights with the Italian residents and that same day and the day after. The brute repression that ensued (827 arrests, 7 death sentences, 34 sentences of hard labour or prison). The Jellaz uprising marks a start of bringing together the Tunisian Youth Movement and the population within the framework of the Moslem identity against the occupant.

III – the Destour Party (1919-1934) : for the Tunisian intelligentsia, the aftermath of the war was marked by President Woodrow Wilson speech that brought out the principle of granting the right of self determination to all peoples of the world in his peace plan (message to the American Congress, 8 January 1918). Underlining the new paradigm stated by the American President, highlighted by the victory, the enlightened elite was mobilized to form the Destour under the leadership of Abdelaziz Thaalbi (1919).

  1. Putting forward liberal aspirations: published in 1920, the ‘Tunisie Martyre’ evokes the main Tunisian claims. Moreover, delegations of the Neo Destour (June 1920 and December 1920-January 1921) were instructed to defend the national cause. The claims concerned no more than the improvement of the overall conditions of the Tunisians, their access to public service and their representation within a national assembly. And so, the delegates were asking nothing less than the implementation of liberal principles which the colonizers claim as theirs. Does that mean that these aspirations were tied to a secular ( which does not mean anti religious).? We would rather think that the religious argument was part of the unspoken and there was no need to be mentioned in a speech to the attention of the French establishment. However, the members of the Destour took an oath of allegiance on the Koran according the formula defined by the party: “ I swear by God Almighty to be guided by the principles of the Constitutional Liberal Party (Destour), to serve it faithfully all my life and never to betray it. God be my witness. He is my surety and my guarantor.” The procedure of the commitment and initiation and the sponsoring of the candidate by two party members, revealed the care for total discretion, to keep an internal discourse for its members and a public speech for the European partner. May be an exaggerated opinion but somewhat well founded/ the report of the Joint Chief of Staff of the Protectorate affirmed in 1922 that “the Tunisian people does not make a difference between the expressions Destour and holy war”. Diplomatic prudence was not on the agenda during riotings. In 1924, the leader Salah Ferhat declared at the party’s meeting: you must adhere to the party to get free from the yoke of the Tyrans”. At the celebration of the Prophet’s anniversary, in October 1924, Abderrahman Yalaoui declared while raising the Tunisian flag in front of one of the Destour’s cells and addressed the crowd saying: this flag which has bee several times dishonoured, reminds us today the name of the Prophet Mohamed whose birth impose the duty of its defence. You must sacrifice all that is dear to you, that is your blood which is the colour of this flag. Let us shout together: Independence or Death”. On that same day, Ahmed Taoufik El Madani led a demonstration raising the slogans: we are not satisfied with the Bey and with the French Government. Long live Tunisia, down with the Roumis . long live Mustapha Kamel and Turkey” . The policy of intimidation practiced by the authorities of the Protectorate, the ensuing exile to the Orient of the leader Abdelaziz Thaalbi (26 July 1923), on the order by the Protectorate and the adoption of the law on naturalization (20 December 1923) will allow to transgress this policy of diplomatic prudence and to radicalize the movement, by bringing out the argument of Islam, that is threatened by the naturalizations.
  2. b) the question of naturalization brings out the religious argumentation: the adoption of a law on naturalization (20 December 1923) gave an opportunity for mobilizing the Tunisian population against the colonial power and was to insure the revival of the Destour. The law, which was especially intended to the Europeans installed in Tunisia opened also the way to the Tunisians. But the Tunisian nationalists undertook a campaign against that law by bringing out the religious argument: Ahmed Safi, in his quality as the leader of the Destour thus explained the Tunisian position:

“the nationality of the Moslem is confounded to his religion as regards his personal status; to changing nationality is equivalent to changing one’s religion”.

The position of the Destour was defended by five great Tunisian papers. Putting the naturalized away from the Moslem community constituted hence the postulate of the national action, its referential and its slogan. Several fetwas (juridical-religious edicts) have legitimized the politicians’ claim: let us cite the fetwa of Cheikh al Islam Ahmed Belkhodja and of the muftis Hassan Abbas, Mohamed Beyram, Chadly Ben Cadhi and Mustapha Radouane. Outstanding journalists have drafted the fetwas to compensate the defection of the establishment from the haraa. The question spread out world wide and provoked numerous fetwas by molem scholars. For exemple, the fetwa by Alim Tajeddine Ben Abdelaziz from Haydarabad and that by cheikh Zankalaoui from El Azhar, Cairo. Moreover, several papers in the Moslem world have supported the Tunisian position on this matter. Let us cite, among other, the Indian paper El Khilafa al Koubra from Bombay. The question of naturalization put forward the religious argument during the national struggle. The holding of the Eucharistic Congress of the protectorate (1930) and the commemoration of the half a century of Protectorate regime will bring out the religious case that these events raise. Tunisians have felt being defied by the will to actualize anew the “ rise of the Church of Carthage”. The Destour writes to the Bey and to several Tunisian personalities, denouncing the operation that threatened Islam in Tunisia. Petitions were signed by the Tunisian intelligentsia. Strikes and riots were organized to protest against this provocation. A significant event, though, anonymous posters were placed at different quarters of the city denouncing the half century rule celebration and asked the Tunisians to shake their torpor in order to shake the foreign domination reminding them that the prophet recommends to the Moslems to sacrifice themselves, if need be, for one’s soul, family and homeland.

  The inhumation of the naturalized in the Moslem cemetery will bring about the opposition of Moslem populations under the leadership of the Destour. To this effect, confrontation took place between the populations and the army at the occasion of inhumation of each naturalized in Tunis (14-15 April , 1st May 1933) in Tozeur 13 April), in Gafsa (14 April), at Ferryville (22 April 1933). Several demonstrations also took place in different cities and towns to denounce the policy of naturalization:

  These campaigns reinvigorated the Party, engaged a process of radicalizing its action that is comforted by the support of the French educated new elite, which has used the newly founded paper l’Action as an action framework. The Tunisian Action group got mobilized during the demonstrations against the inhumation of the naturalized, thus sharing the postulate of the apostate of the naturalized:

“let it be known, said Tahar Sfar, one of their members, during the celebration of the Mouled on 26 July 1931, that religion and patriotism are one and single thing. We must not and can never be a patriot without being religious. If you are religious, the patriotic duty is a duty that is recommended by religion”.

  Great actors on the political scene, the group Mahmoud Materi, Habib Bourguiba, Bahri Guiga, Tahar Sfar was integrated within the administrative committee, highest authority of the Destour, at the Nahj el Jebel congress (12-13 May 1933). But the difference in cursus, in the visions and idealtypus will reveal the contradiction of this union to provoke scission in 1934.


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The discord between the Executive Committee and the team of the Tunisian Action which it sponsored, will put forward their difference of visions and will bring to mind their difference of consensus. The litigation between the two groups did not concern the religious question within the context of the struggle, for a common cause and a common approach vision, of the question of the naturalized. Yet, the Executive Committee accused the members of the Tunisian Action of being ‘’infidels, laic who want to separate religion from politics’’. Worse yet, they would “ be partisans of Tahar Haddad ”, the zeitounian intellectual who has published in 1930 the manifest in favour of women emancipation. At the meetings of denunciation of the dissidents, Mohieddine Klibi said that they “were imbued with occidental ideas which almost all of them had acquired during their studies in France (and) that they would like to separate the temporal notion from the spiritual Moslem notion, while in Islam, the two are confounded in must always remain intimately tied”. On the other hand, Mohieddine Klibi accused Bourguiba and his compagnons of being apostates for having created a division within the community. Its circular condemned the dissidence in religious terms et ended by this citation from the Quran, palced out of context :

“o ye who believe! If a wicked person comes to you with any news, ascertain the truth, lest ye harm people unwittingly, and afterwards become full of repentance for what ye have done” (Surat 49 – the Cahmbers, Vs.6)

The dissidents rejected these accusations by underlining their commitment to struggle against the campaign of naturalization: “our respect for religion is real and not artificial as in the protestation telegrams which are void ( here they are). Islam is the foundation of the struggle for liberation for Moslems. It constitutes the bond that ties us all with our Moslem brothers (across the world) and we know better than you that it concerns our life, our glory and the glory of our Grandfathers.

IV - The Neo Destour and Islam : The religious reference being the consensus factor, it was not, for the Neo Destourians, a question to overshadow it. Habib Bourguiba, indeed, who appeared when he assumed power in 1956 as the defender of the woman cause, had turned about face on the question of the veil raised on 28 january 1929 when Mrs. Menchari, dramatizing the issue had uncovered her face during a cultural meeting. Bourguiba brought out the obligation to respect the Tunisian identity under threat of disappearance and affirmed, by rejecting the criticism of Islam, that we should not confound Islam and clericalism, secularization and progress”.

  1. a) Specificities of the Neo Destour: Following the repression of the uprising in Monastir against the inumation of a naturalized on August 8, 1933, Habib Bourguiba was invited to lead a delegation of seventy members from Monastir which should protest to the Bey. Soon thereafter, he was blamed by the Executive Committee of the Destour to have committed the party without prior consultation. The resignation of Habib Bourguiba from the Destour (March 7, 1933) and the frictions which entailed provoked the scission of the five founding members of the paper “l’Action” and the holding of Ksar Helal congress (March 2nd, 1934).

The popular mobilization, a distinctive feature of the elitist Destour and the difference in the training of the leadership (predominance of the zeitouna educated members of the Destour and the Sadiki educated of the Neo Destour establishment) distinguish the strategy and the methods of action of the two groups. The religious dimension should be further taken into consideration by the Destour, given the importance of the oulemas (scholars) who composed its administrative organs. Nothing of the sort. Had they been more secular, the leaders of the Political Bureau would have to emphasize the religious factor in order to refute the occidental and secular accusation against them and so, to express their rooted attachment with the masses they have projected to enlist.

They obviously adopted the Koranic oath of allegiance to the party. On the other hand, they inscribed the following Koranic verse on the subscription cards:

“and say: Work (righteousness): Soon will Allah observe your work, and His Messenger and the Believers: Soon will ye be brought back to the Knower of what is hidden and what is open: then will He show you the truth of all that ye did” (surat 9 – Repentance,verse 105).

On the other hand, the Political Bureau leaders, were justifying their position by making reference to Koranic citations. We should note, however, that the cited verses made more and more reference to action (e.g. the verse reproduced on the subscription card) and to the dynamics of the will of salutary mutation:

Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves”. (surat 13, The Thunder, verse 11).

Nevertheless, the Neo Destour makes its presence felt in the mosques and tends to place the marabouts, object of suspicion, under his control. The Old Destour, is indeed, from the training of its elites dominated by the Zeitounians, more inclined to stress on the religious argument. The French intelligence officer, Roger Casemajor, has defined it in 1948 as “ a religious, conservative and xenophobe party”. He estimated that its founder, Cheikh Thaalbi “ remained by his sentiments, his doctrine and the oriental influence on him, a traditional panislamist”. Cheikh Thaalbi has indeed sketched out closing the ranks with the Moslem and Arab circles during his forced exile in the Orient. But it was rather in quest for solidarity than winning over an Islamic or panarab doctrine. Within this context, Abdelaziz Thaalbi was designated as the delegate of North Africa in the Permanent Committee of the Islamic Congress of Jerusalem (december 1931), when he recommended “ the struggle to the end against naturalization of Moslems, in the Islamic countries that are administered by France”, which pleased the Tunisian nationalists. On the other hand, Abdelaziz Thaalbi was in contact with the Syrian Palestinian committee of Chekib Arselan who supported the Tunisian cause. But it was a matter, for the founder of the Neo Destour, to preach for “ resurging mystic fury and fanaticism”, an accusation formulated by the Protectorate. Although he was of zeitounian education, Cheikh Thaalbi has never been inclined to bring out an option of religious radicalism. Let us not forget, nevertheless, that the Cheikh has been sentenced, in July 1904, to two months of prison for having profaned religion. It was reproached to him, in deed, his reformist positions as well as his campaign against the preachers. Ever since, he has over shadowed his positions of youth and searched integration within the scope of his political commitment.

Looking to indict the militants, the colonial authorities often resort to this kind of accusation to invoke the Moslem peril. Already, in 1910, Ali Bach Hamba had to dissipate the misunderstanding by explaining the significance of Moslem solidarity as follows:

It is always purported to annoy us by advocating panislamism and ottomanism as if we had never denied their existence…but panislamism and ottomanism, purely moral ties, are far from serving a kind of unification of the races or nationalities which claim to draw their inspiration from the Koran…”

Stemming from the movement of the struggle against naturalizations, the Neo Destour normally subscribed in this episteme of solidarity, cultured the nationalist religious factor and brought out, during the religious holidays, its nationalist claims, by using quite often, the mosques as points of rallying and defending the common cause. Let us cite two significant instances:

- Upon the revival of the nationalist movement, in the aftermath

of WWII, the Destour and the Neo-Destour decided to hold a congress of Unity which should condemn the Protectorate rule (23 august 1946). The choice of the night of 27 Ramadan, a sacred date, to hold this meeting is quite significant.

- Upon the ceremony of the Khatm i.e. closing of the Koran reading during the month of Ramadan (24 July 1948) at the Sahib et Tabaa mosque in Tunis, in the presence of the Bey, one nationalist threw his shoes on the unpopular Prime Minister Mustapha Kaak. A spontaneous act or well thought decision. This shoe’s throw, a first in geopolitics. more serious yet that it occurred in a place of worship, made public the opposition of the Neo Destour to this minister whose policy was disappointing by not responding to the nation expectations. An important fact, this throw expressed the condemnation of the Kaak government, provoking a series of events that benefited the national movement (such as the appointment of the government of negotiation headed by Mohamed Chenik, following the return of Habib Bourguiba from exile in Egypt).

During the times of great tensions and confrontations with the colonial authorities, the religious factor became determinant in legitimizing the struggle and bringing out the resistance to the headlines.

  1. a) The resistance, a kind of jihad? Chaabane Bhouri, a casualty of the confrontation, during the struggle against the inhumation of a naturalized citizen on 8 august 1933 was called “Chahid”, a martyr of Jihad by the Destour. The epitaph inscribed on his grave so reads:

“Hereunder lies the selfless Moslem who, in the service of his God, was not fearful.

He met death on this great day, while defending his faith with the ardour of a pious…

O grave, your host on this day is none other than all Greatness, since you shelter this sublime child.

His loss plunges into consternation all the undecided (fearful persons) as he was flown to Paradise where he remains in all serenity”.

Ever since, the members of resistance falling during the struggle are considered as martyrs. During their inhumation, the following Koranic verse is cited, in support of that argument        

“Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord” ( Surat 3, the Family of Imran, verse 169).

  The perception of the attachment to the homeland is inscribed in a global episteme where Islam constitutes the principal tenet, a factor of legitimizing mobilization. On the other hand, the evocation of its glorious past allows them to nourish their hopes. Let us note however that in the praxis, religion and politics have not been apprehended as an historic union without division nor confusion. Despite the determining role that the Destour has conferred to Islam, as an essential definition of identity, its struggle has evidently taken a secular dimension, assuming the visions of popular sovereignty taking into account the emergence of Arab nationalism, transgressing the exclusive appurtenance to Islam. But that concerns further the leading elite which refuses to dissociate itself from the masses taking into considerations the risk of provoking the phenomena of rejection.


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Conclusion: let us try to evaluate the role of the religious factor in the building of national conscience from this study of the evolution the movement of Tunisia liberation from the yoke of colonialism. Our colleague Ali Mahjoubi estimates, in his study on the origins of the Tunisian national movement (1904-1934) that it is not a question of a “determining factor”, but of an “ updating factor” that should not be “exaggerated”. It would get integrated into the national conscience, “ as a cultural heritage and especially as a constituent element of the Tunisian personality”. He admits, however, that in that explosive situation of 1911, it plays “the role of detonator”. Without underestimating the roles of socio-economic factors, we estimate, as far as we are concerned, that the religious factor has played a prime role in the perception, if not the definition, of the colonial power and in the popular mobilization which ensued. Has it only been manipulated by the leadership? We don’t think so. The secular speeches of the leaders and the motions adopted by the successive congresses of the Destour and the Neo Destour must not induce us into error. They present legitimate claims and outline the stakes, according to the appropriate political referential, the argument of the rights of peoples, the speech of the luminaries. It would, moreover, be hazardous and wrong to assert that the leading elite of the national movement, even though educated in the French school! Would be “laic”, even if it does not make quite clear its religious convictions, that are comforted by the colonial order.

  The urban uprising of 1911 was a reaction to an impulsive colonial interference in the venerated cemetery of Djellaz, within the context of the Italian libyan war. The boycott of the tramways (1912), is taken along this same context of anger against the Italians who are perceived as conjunctural representatives of colonial aggressions with the contextual reduced visions of the citizens to the religious convictions (Moslems and infidel roumis). Despite the secular character of the Destour’s claims, its action under the leadership of the zeitounian Cheikh Abdelaziz Thaalbi is inscribed within a confrontation with the colonial system, where the religious factor plays a determining role. Could we take the risk of saying that “ the vision of one Thaalbi, reduces the shock of colonization to a quasi metaphysic duel between the Orient and the Occident”. (opinion of Daniel Rivet )?. This vision is exaggerated. The image would refer to its reducing perception of one’s enemies from the occidental school, if not to his presentation as a symbol during his long exile. But the campaign against naturalization, engaged since …. brings out that the appurtenance of the Tunisian nation which is founded on the religious identity.

According to the destourian speech, to accede to the French nationality meant, therefore, to abandon their Moslem quality. Against the colonial ideology, the resistance, by this equation established as a postulate of equivalence between nationality and religion, was bringing out that Islam is a determining factor in the definition of the national identity, which legitimized the struggle.

The Neo Destour was engaged on the same path. Keeping distant from the Old Destour, in political practice, on the identification of its strategy, its tactics, and its target population, does not concern the religious referential of the struggle. However, its integration of the popular strata, from which it keeps distant, implies taking into greater consideration Islam, a factor of unity and consensus. The neo-destourian leaders should imperatively integrate the terms of references of the national consensus, which by the way, serves their strategy otherwise, they will be perceived as uprooted, as marginal.

During the tribal insurrections, the urban uprisings and the taking to the maquis at the decisive struggle, the Jihad was on the agenda. It was a holy war where those who perish are considered martyrs, according to the Coran verse:

“ Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live,…”

  Another important consideration that may induce a secular appreciation of the national conscience, occulting or sizing up the religious dimension of the identity: the mutation of the Tunisian society during the colonial era has devalued the traditional vectors of the propagation of Islam. During the pre-colonial era, the populations were sponsored by doctors in Law (Oulemas – scholars) and by the brotherhood officers, who have, since, ceased to play any central role on the Tunisian scene. The oulemas cast has received the blows of devaluation of the classical knowledge, dispensed by Ezzeitouna. Moreover, the maraboutic movement, considered as an ally, if not an agent of the Protectorate has been discredited by the national movement which wanted to erect itself a an essential sponsoring structure, if not the exclusive one. The leaders of the Neo Destour make part of the new elites, of a modernist cursus. Evolution of situations and visions, they transgress the traditional relays of Islam. But they bring out Islam as a determining factor of identity. As a structure of global sponsoring, they insure the control of the political scene and cross, in their vision, the political, economical and social dilemmas in the day to day struggle, where religion constitutes a rallying factor for each and all.

Pr. Khalifa Chater

(Workshop “nationalisme and Islam, a comparative standpoint.

Tokyo, March 13. Project Of Islamic Area studies,

Sophia university, Institute of Asian Cultures , Tokyo ).