This feature is the third article in “Tunisia’s Spiritual Pluralism,” a recurring series Tunisia Live is running about religious diversity in Tunisia. See the installment on Baha’i here and our article on Sufism here.
The waiter, who had a remarkable number of piercings, put drops of flower water in our coffee before sprinkling some of the ambrosial-scented liquid on our hands as well.
“My grandma used to do this for good luck and for its refreshing scent,’’ the waiter explained before he left. I was sitting in one of downtown Tunis’ many cafes with Y.S., a 25 year-old Tunisian woman who is currently pursuing her studies in the U.K.
She is also an atheist.
“Piercings and grandmothers’ traditions! You can only find this combination in Tunisia, perhaps like our atheism. It is somehow rooted in our identity,” she said.
In Tunisia, atheism remains a taboo subject, often unspoken of or regarded as something harmful to Tunisian society and culture. Since the 2011 Tunisian revolution, a rising wave of nonbelief has sparked controversy. Anti-atheist Facebook pages have thrived, calling on Tunisians to sense the “looming danger” of this growing trend. Most Tunisian nonbelievers keep a low profile and follow a seemingly conformist lifestyle.
“It is not that I am a proud atheist. I tried so hard to be a Muslim. I tried to be a selective Muslim and thought to myself that I could be a modern Muslim. I think that you reach this point when you are not convinced,” Y.S. explained.
“I even tried to read Sufi literature, and to learn more about Lella Manoubia,” she said, referring to an influential figure in the history of Tunisian Sufism. “I felt that even within religion, we are looking at the outward aspect of religions and not really what is inside. I found depth in Sufism – depth that was missing in mainstream Islam. If these readings did not convince me, I could not be a believer. I have always thought that religion has a meaning, but at the same time, you feel you are simply convincing yourself.”
“But atheism is not about restrictions,” she elaborated. “It is not that I am allowed to drink, to have sex. That is not the case. It isn’t a search for distractions.”
She accepts public displays of religion.
“I came in a car where the taxi driver was playing the Quran. It doesn’t bother me. If he wants to listen to the Quran, it is fine by me,” she said.
Amine, another Tunisian nonbeliever, specified that there are different kinds of atheism in Tunisia.
“There are those for whom atheism is a result of traumas or social cases. There is also the kind of atheism that is a kind of counter-reaction to Islamist movements. And there is the intellectual atheism which is a question of conviction,’’ he stated.
In Tunisia, religion not only plays a role in developing the people’s individual identities, but also provides a setting in which families instill particular traditions and values.
Religion is present in almost every aspect of Tunisian culture. For atheists in a Muslim country, religious occasions, which are a significant component of Tunisian culture, posit a dilemma. Many Tunisian atheists explain that their responses to Tunisian religious celebrations often fluctuate between careful disregard and considerate acceptance.
“I deal with religious ceremonies more as communal rituals,” said M.M., a teacher who is a nonbeliever. “Again, I avoid provocation, keep to myself, and even indulge in the occasions that are more like cultural rights and customs that have shaped this country than actual religious observances.”
“When Ramadan comes, I wouldn’t call it fasting, but I don’t eat out of respect for my parents. I just tell them that I am hungry, like the rest of them, but it is not fasting,” Y.S. explained.
Many Tunisian atheists admit that they cannot be open about their beliefs.
“I talked to my parents about it and my father was very understanding, but my mom thought that this was just a phase,” said Y.S. “I debated the subject with my father, but I cannot tell my grandma, who is so religious and spiritual, that there is no afterlife, no heaven or hell. I don’t want to hurt her.”
“It is not that I am afraid,” she continued. “I mean I wouldn’t get stoned, but I worry about my parents. If other people hear that I am atheist and a girl who is studying abroad, they would attack my parents and hurt them emotionally by saying that they didn’t raise me well.”
Following the 2011 revolution, atheism became a salient topic in arguments between political parties in Tunisia. Those affiliated with the communist party are often labeled as atheists by their ideological opponents, Islamists. While the conflict has primarily remained one of words, the case of Ghazi Jebri and Jabeur Mejri sparked a controversy when they were convicted of blasphemy.
”I noticed the growing wave of atheism, and I think that part of it is a counter-reaction to having an Islamist government,” claimed Y.S. “Iran is witnessing something similar, as Iranians are trying to revive their Persian identity because they felt that they were imposed a certain culture. In the case of Iran, Islamization made atheists.”
Y.S. doubts about the accuracy of data concerning religious identity in Tunisia.
“When you read statistics about Tunisia, 99.99% are Muslims. How is that possible? There are many closeted atheists,” she asserted.
Although Y.S does not think that being an atheist is an issue that concerns others, or that she needs to be open about her spirituality, she admitted that she worries about the implications of her choice on issues that are regulated by Islam, such as marriage and inheritance.
“They can always claim you are a kafira [a nonbeliever], and deny you the right to inheritance,” she said. “If you marry foreigner, there is always the question of whether he is a Muslim or not, and you need to prove that he is.”
Other Tunisian atheists recounted everyday experiences exhibiting the prevalence of stereotypes attributed to nonbelievers in Tunisia.
“I left a comment once on an article. A journalist contacted me asking if I was an atheist and if he could talk to me about the article. I was cooperative and met the guy in person, only to find out that he wrote an article saying that we atheists worship stones and the sun, and that we drink urine and blood,” commented O.M, a male student.
He is dissatisfied with the draft constitution’s disregard for atheists.
“We could have had the chance to be represented and acknowledged in the constitution if it only contained a clause about freedom of belief. Yet, they added that the religion of the state is Islam, which will not help our case,” O.M. said.
The community of atheists in Tunisia, while not particularly visible on the surface of society, has a robust electronic presence, communicating through Facebook pages and discussion forums.
”We often debate issues related to atheism on these groups and pages, and it serves as a space to meet people who share your views, ”said O.M.
Amine expressed his hope that the situation for Tunisian nonbelievers will improve.
“There are some associations that are defending the rights of atheists as part of the minorities that are being segregated against,” he explained.
“I am hopeful that we will reach a stage when atheism is tolerated. We will reach that point eventually. It is only a matter of time.”