El Mechtel Hotel, Tunis
The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) organized a seminar entitled “The Role of Imams and Mosques in Preventing Extremism,” attended by a number of experts in religious affairs to look for the best solution to prevent this phenomenon. This seminar was held on November 23rd, 2016, at El Mechtel Hotel, Tunis.
Mr. Meher Zoghlemi, a researcher in religious social science, moderated the seminar. He opened the meeting by stressing the need to work on rehabilitating imams, neutralizing mosques and desisting from the structural speeches in order to counter this dangerous phenomenon.
Dr. Hmida Ennaifer, President of the Tunisian League for Culture and Pluralism, was the first to intervene. He stressed the need to rebuild the religious speech so that it becomes an alternative to counter extremism which is considered as a complex phenomenon in which different cultural, ideological, social and cognitive elements overlap. Dr. Ennaifer considered that addressing the first speech of religious education which the mosque’s speech is based upon in Islam is very important to understand the centrality of the mosque in the Islamic Civilization. Indeed, during the old Quraichi institution and before building the mosque, the tribal institution reached a degree of paralysis, division and loss of effectiveness. However, during the Prophet’s era, the mosque had an excellent and special status for group worship and speech, and that indicates the emergence of the unifying spirit for the Muslim Community. Dr. Ennaifer insisted on the necessity to grasp the specificity of the period in which the religious speech was founded (the Prophet’s era) and the type of moderate discourse prevailing then. In this context, Dr. Ennaifer pointed to the basic elements that require attention to prevent extremism, while, warning that the crisis of the religious discourse is witnessing is caused by international and local factors; First, rebuilding the religious knowledge and renewed awareness of the imam so that he becomes conscious of what is occurring in the society and in the world and able to produce effective and developed working tools in three different supportive and necessary fields to religious science: Knowledge of history so that the speech of the imam is not far from reality, Knowledge of social science and lastly knowledge of the Arabic language. Statistics have shown the fact that some categories’ joining of bloody groups is not the result of the influence of the mosque but the result of other speeches considering the differences in the interpretation of verses, Hadiths as well as interaction with the reality.
Second, the imam needs to know the real challenge that he is facing which is represented in the youth category and the way to interact with their specific world (language, thinking, mood, and the nature of his understanding). Additionally, he stressed the need to focus on an effective mosque’s discourse that attracts youths and solves their problems. Third, there is a need to mastering the social tools of communication and its requirements, which differs from coercive communication and building a new discourse given the number of attendees and the need for a varied discourse. This should be coupled with the need to improve the qualification of imams by enriching them digitally through the new means of communication. Fourth, renewing the group identity of all members of society in order to build a different reality, which is more sophisticated, and highlighting the dynamic in its social and religious dimensions for imams and mosques. Fifth, there is a need for those who are involved in religious affairs to form a unified vision and religious reference and acquire a unified guide to be reviewed from time to time because the religious question in Tunis is fragmented since decades. Dr. Ennaifer concluded his intervention by assuming that there is a national duty for the imam and the mosque; this is why there is a need to prepare a working plan to build a strategic vision that prevents extremism, which is considered as a barbaric practice based on a unified idea. He further enhanced the duty of the state to enforce the law regarding the religious question, pointing that the imam should come under the flag of the society whatever are the ideologies.
Dr. Mounir Rouiss, director of the Higher Institute for Religious Studies in the University of Zeitouna presented the second intervention where he tackled the historic role for the ‘Zeitounis’ in countering extremism by addressing the problems of the pervious eras, the divisive questions and the ways to overcome them. They have as well removed all obstacles that led to nationalist and sectarian strife and divisions such as power and authority by referring to many valuable works that contributed to this field. Mr Mounir Rouiss addressed the accusations targeting the Zeitouna University by stressing the fact that there is no relation between graduates of this university and terrorist acts. Indeed, he indicated that there is a small number of imams graduated from this university. Mr. Mounir Rouiss pointed out the role of of Zeitouna University as a symbol of moderation and tolerance. This is clear on the level of educational programs and the development of university through the addition of complementary courses as languages, history and universal humanitarian law.
Equally, the student is trained in intellectual and cultural activities so that his spare time is covered and the risks of resorting to extremism are minimized. He further mentioned that all national parties are responsible for countering this phenomenon and that the University of Zeitouna is incapable to counter it alone. Mr Rouiss ended his speech by admitting that the University of Zeitouna played an important role in training imams by establishing “the Higher Institute for Speech and Orientation” in 2012 in cooperation with the Ministry of Higher Education. Yet, unfortunately, the project was interrupted and did not resume its work.
Mr. Ridha Jawedi, the Secretary General Assistant at the National Council for Imams and Mosques’ Officials was the third to intervene. He considers that the question is much more related to prevention rather than treating or stopping the spread of the phenomenon. In a sense, he considers that extremism is getting away from moderation in any practices by pointing that the Tunisian reality saddles imams with more than they can support. The speech that does not exceed 30 minutes cannot be influential to the extent of being an extremist. Mr. Ridha pointed that targeting the Quran and the Sunna is one kind of extremism that provokes the Muslims’ feelings and infringes the Constitution. He affirmed that the imam himself is a victim of extremism and is a targeted pivot by the Tunisians intellectual elite. In his opinion, sectarian or political extremism and trying to hijack the religious institution, all together, impact negatively the role of imams. Equally, imams are the victims of legislative laws that need to be reviewed as the Law of 1988 that is meant to drying up the sources of Islamic religion and which highlights an intentional willingness to marginalize imams.
The fourth intervention was delivered by Mr. Abd Salem Atwi, Secretary-General of the Syndicate for Religious Affairs. He called for reviewing the religious, cultural and moral requirements of the preacher’s role and the necessity to effectively train Imams in this respect. He pointed, in this context, to the difficult social situation of Imams and the lack of legal frameworks which prevents Imams from drawing a line between their duties and rights, the need to remove the obstacles facing imams, in addition to not relying on modern educational methods. Mr. Abd Salem ended his intervention by indicating the inability of the state to train Imams by stressing that statistics proved that Tunisians are much more influenced by politicians rather than Imams.
The last intervention was to Mr. Ramdan Chermiti, Director at the General Inspectorate of the Ministry of Religious Affairs where he reiterated that tackling extremism must be comprehensive and not limited to the religious side considering that the role of the mosque and Imams is very important in countering extremism. The Mosque is where social balance should be achieved and is one of the holy places that should not be infringed. He mentioned the need to train Imams comprehensively while leaving a space of freedom for the Imam to choose the topics to be dealt with according to Quranic verses and Sunna.
During the discussion session, many participants stressed the role of the state in marginalizing the religious side. Indeed, the Islamic education subject on the level of primary and secondary education should be given more importance. Some indicated that one of the tasks of the Ministry of Religious Affairs is specifying real mechanisms that frame imams’ mission and specifying the official side that evaluates their performance. Others considered that the religious discourse is far from youths by stressing that it is not only Secularism that is not taking care of religious knowledge, the other side, nonetheless, did not reach the religious maturity.
Mr. Mourad Rouissi emphasized the need to speed up specifying the concepts of Imams and extremism so that there is consensus around them. He considered the necessity of organizing a neutral institution that is meant to revive the cultural and moderate heritage without coming across partisan pressures. In the framework of interaction with the participants, Dr. Hmida Ennaifer defined extremism as removing any percentage from the truth in others. He affirmed that there are many different types of extremism such as the radical left that we cannot win over unless Islamists come up with a religious and humanitarian discourse and not a complex one. Equally, he stressed the need to form the mindset of listening and respecting others. Mr. Abd Salem Atwi called for a national dialogue between different national parties to reduce the gap in conceptual, religious, ideological considerations between Tunisians.