Another piece of a fiercely, ferociously, professedly secular Tunisia is soon to disappear: teaching will be resumed in the mosque of Zitouna, the largest in Tunis and the most important mosque in the country. The decision is included in a document signed by Tunisia's Minister of Religious Affairs, Noureddine Khademi, Minister of Education, Abdellatif Abid, and Minister of Secondary level Teaching, Moncef Ben Salem (on behalf of the Tunisian government) and by Sheik Houcine Labidi (on behalf of the mosque).
This agreement might prove to be a milestone in the history of Tunisia's Islam, because it provides for a role in teaching for Zitouna after the mosque had been deprived of it fifty years ago, under Bourghiba's presidency, in order to reduce the excessive power of the clergy and to weaken a significant point of reference for the Islamic world, not only for Tunisia, but for the entire Maghreb. A danger for the "lay revolution" which had gained the country's independence; Bourghiba had no intention to run such risk. In order to fully understand this assumption, it is necessary to consider that Zitouna contended with El Azhar for the role of spiritual driving force of Sunni Islam in Africa and beyond Africa's borders, until the Bourghiba's lay revolution affected the mosque, banning it from being also a school. Indeed, the secularization process fostered by Habib Bourghiba, left Zitouna with a marginal role, making the mosque a place exclusively for worship, not for teaching. Today, Zitouna gained back its role as a school; however, such role seems to be actually or potentially affected by the atmosphere currently setting in the country. Such atmosphere could be experienced even inside the mosque, while the agreement was being signed: outside, tens of Salafis were celebrating, as if it were their own victory. The Salafis were waiving their flags at the sound of youyous (the traditional Arab women's chanting) chanted by their own worship sisters. Maybe this does not mean anything, but, while the Salafis were loudly expressing their joy, Muslim worshippers who do not agree with the Salafos' strict fundamentalism and journalists were denied access to the mosque. Even if the three ministers having signed the agreement, each within his competences, reiterated that Zitouna will only act in the religious and teaching field, it is now necessary to understand how this provision will be complied with inside the mosque's closed halls. The building covers an area totalling 5,000 sq.mt. and was built between 692 and 734 (exact dates are unclear) over the remnants of a former Christian church which had previously been an olive-tree field (Zitouna means "olive" in Arabic). During a recent demonstration organised by Salafis in support of the sharia, some imams from Zitouna were demonstrating in the square too; their presence had been presented as an implicit sign of support for the movement.