Baha’is of Tunisia in open confrontation with authorities to extract official recognition

The Baha’i Assembly is suing the Prime Minister and the Grand Mufti of The Republic of Tunisia for atonement allegations.

Freedoms are at stake

The Baha’is of Tunisia faced a bitter reality in the aftermath of the January 14, 2011 revolution. They were counting on gaining freedom to appear publicly in their society. The Baha’i Association, to conduct its activities needed to get a permit.

Tunisia — in a press conference on Tuesday, The Tunisian Baha’i Association condemned the “blasphemy” charges that Tunisians Baha’is are subjected to by their government. In the latest escalation, the authorities refused to grant them a permit for their Association to start its activities.

The representatives of the Baha’i Association alleged the Tunisian Grand Mufti, Osman Batikh, through official documents, of their atonement because of the repercussions this entails on the Baha’i Faith’s followers in the country. Official figures do not reveal the number of them.

The revolution that toppled in 2011 the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali gave them hope that they would come out into the open without any restrictions. However, the Baha’is in Tunisia suffer from increasing marginalization by the authorities on delaying their Association a permit.

They stress that they are working under the respect of the country’s Constitution ratified since 2014, and they have already contributed to its drafting. Still, the authorities refuse to grant them their constitutional right.

A state that atones its citizens

Hadi Yahmad

Since the 2014 constitution was approved, the Baha’is of Tunisia have declared their battles with the authorities. While this Constitution guarantees freedom of conscience and belief, and an atmosphere of optimism has spread among religious and sexual minorities alike, the authorities have insisted on not granting Baha’is a permit to organize within a legal association’s framework.

Mohammad bin Musa

During a press conference on Tuesday, representatives of the Baha’i Community’s Defense Team held the Tunisian Grand Mufti responsible, confirming that they would pursue him, Prime Minister Hisham El Machichi and former Elias Fakhfakh, to court for a terrorist crime, as they put it.

“The authorities asked us to remove the word Baha’i, and we decided to resort to the Administrative Court, as it is the decisive element in such disputes. So, the court did justice to us, and this is wonderful, but in the process of appeal, things happened that we did not expect,” Mohammad bin Musa confirms in his talk with Al-Arab.

He explains, “At that stage, we discovered documents that prove that the Grand Mufti of Tunisia, the Minister of Religious Affairs, and the Head of Government have declared atonement for us, describing us as infidels and apostates. Here is the tragedy, this is considered terrorism because through this atonement they endanger our lives, and based on this information, we filed a complaint against them based on the anti-terrorism law”.
Mohammad bin Musa stresses that their issue is one of citizenship that concerns every Tunisian, not just Baha’is, for the state, according to our spokesman, has to protect all citizens by establishing true equality between them whether in rights or obligations.

According to the Baha’is’ official website, “The Baha’is in Tunisia, “ the history of the emergence of the Baha’is in Tunisia goes back to 1921, with the arrival of Muhyiddin al-Kurdi, an Egyptian Baha’i among the sheiks of Al-Azhar, who came to spread the message of Baha’u’llah, founder of the Baha’i Faith.

Representatives of the Tunisian Baha’i Association alleged the Grand Mufti, Osman Batikh, of atonement, through official documents, with its implications for the Baha’i Faith’s followers.

Since then, many Tunisians have decided to convert to the Baha’i Faith by spreading their messages to friends, co-workers, and others, but the authorities refrain from granting them a permit to practice their public activities even after Tunisia gained its independence in 1956.

In return for not recognizing the Baha’is, the authorities did not confront them using harassment or other such practices until the passage of a law on “public meetings, processions, parades, demonstrations and gathering” in 1969. This led to disbanding of the North African Regional Spiritual Assembly, based in Tunis.

The Baha’i congregants did not succumb to this step, as they reopened the Assembly during the 1972 elections before the public Bahá’í Center was closed in 1984. Still, the Central Spiritual Assembly continued to operate despite a legal license until these lines were written.

Legal recognition and a cemetery

In the words of the Baha’is in Tunisia, which is still looking for official recognition from the authorities, the Baha’i Community summarizes their demands into official recognition and a private cemetery as well, considering that they have their rituals of burying their dead. expiated

“We don’t want anything; we want to establish a state of law, so what right are citizens atonement by the authorities and with official documents? “In Tunisia today, they are at a crossroads where society needs to activate the principle of diversity by recognizing minorities, and we are equal citizens with Tunisians, and the principles of our religion are loyalty to the state, so we want official recognition of us,” he said. Mohammed bin Musa: Tunisia is at a crossroads, and society needs to diversify through the recognition of minorities

Sanaa Latif, a member of the Media Office of the Baha’i Association, said the country is not making any progress now, saying that “on the contrary, under the state’s atonement for its citizens, it is delayed.”

Latif asserts in a statement to “the Arabs” that their demands include a cemetery of their own. The burial ceremonies for the Baha’i Faith’s followers are not like the funeral ceremonies for Christians, Muslims, or others.

Although they have appeared more publicly since the revolution by organizing press conferences and other activities, not much is known about the Baha’is in Tunisia, but this does not prevent them from introducing themselves.

Sanaa Latif says that “One of the characteristics of the Baha’is is that they do not hide their identities, we do not hide our religion, when we are asked, for example, why do you fast in March, we respond by saying we are Baha’is when the question is why you do not fast in Ramadan, we also reveal that we are Baha’is.

“Therefore, we do not have a problem with revealing our identity, and we pledge allegiance to the state. But generally, Tunisian, when you tell one that you are Baha’i turns a blind eye to us, and sometimes he gets upset because some consider that in our country 99.99% are Muslims,” she said.

Observers and experts believe that the Tunisian authorities’ decision not to grant Baha’is a permit to organize an association establishes exclusion with the country’s pluralism risks after the January 14, 2011 revolution.

Torpedoing plurality

The authorities’ refusal to grant these people a license for their Association only increased their insistence on realizing their rights in various ways that could be followed. In the beginning, the Baha’is chose to send a letter in 2017 to the late President Baji Qaid Essebsi to appeal to him against discrimination based on religion.

There is no room for compromising freedoms in Tunisia

Today, however, these people chose to escalate the case by prosecuting the Tunisian state and its representatives, who disclosed in official documents “infidelity” of the Baha’is, which, according to them, violates the Constitution.

Hadi Yahmad, a Tunisian writer and researcher, specializing in Islamic movements, said the issue of not granting a license to the Baha’i Assembly reveals the traps set in the Tunisian Constitution and contradicts its provisions, saying, “While article 6 of this Constitution grants the right to freedom of conscience by which it means to convert to a religion or to renounce any religion, the presidency is based in the person of the General Secretary on the first clause of the Constitution, which says that the Islam is the religion of the state.”

There is no room for compromising freedoms in Tunisia

And Yahmad continues in a statement to “Al-Arab” that “the state’s writing resorted to the Fatwa Department to support its opinion and rule that this Association departed from the country’s Constitution in its first article. The ban on licensing is based on a specific interpretation of the constitutional texts, which is directed towards unilateralism and rejecting sectarian and religious pluralism, which is reading the conservative forces holding power today continue to adopt the same reactionary interpretations of the First Article of the Constitution.

Despite national and international praise for Tunisia’s post-revolution decade of dedication to public freedoms, the restrictions on sexual and religious minorities portend the failure of the democratic experiment, whose success is to be fully respected, whether public or individual.

The late President Baji Qaid Essebsi tried to modernize the system of individual freedoms and rights in Tunisia by sending a special committee in 2017. However, the outputs of that report are still locked up in parliament. It is not expected to discuss and ratify conservatives’ domination in the already divided parliament.

“The repercussions of not granting this Association a license are aimed at perpetuating monotheism and belief and suppressing any pluralism in Tunisian society, thereby upsetting any democratization within society so that democracy remains a formality at the political level between parties,” said Hadi Yahmad. “Even on this side of politics, article 74 of the Constitution requires that the president of the republic to be a Muslim, as I have said, is monolithic and religious and undermines any pluralism in the state and society,” he said.

“I believe that the success of any democratic experiment in Tunisia depends on the imposition of freedoms, the modification of repressive legislation, and the concentration of a secular civil state in Tunisia that represents citizenship as the only measure of recognition and equality among Tunisians,” he concludes.

Article in Arabic by Saqir Al-Haydari

Translated and edited in English by Foaad Haghighi



A Baha’i husband & father, Tech-savvy new media marketing strategist, Biz consultant, print-web-social designer, photographer, calligrapher, and chef.

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Foaad Haghighi

A Baha’i husband & father, Tech-savvy new media marketing strategist, Biz consultant, print-web-social designer, photographer, calligrapher, and chef.