For 23 years, Tunisians prayed in fear. They limited their visits to the mosque. They talked to no one. Women could not wear the veil on the street and men could not wear long beards for fear of arrest. On Friday, for the first time since the overthrow of secular ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisians attended their weekly sermon without fear that this public expression of piety would cost them their jobs or their freedom.
“We couldn’t pray freely before,” Abdel Kouki, 57, said outside the Quds mosque in the Tunisian capital as hundreds of men, most in suits or jeans, streamed into the small mosque. (Photo: Kasbah Mosque in Tunis, 28 July 2009/Rais67)
Some spilled out onto its courtyard, where they knelt on straw mats. Women, their heads covered, crept in through a side entrance to their gallery to pray.
Like many Arab leaders, Ben Ali styled himself as a bulwark against the spread of Islamic extremism and al Qaeda and enjoyed good ties with the West until the last days of the Tunisian uprising that unseated him this month. Many said that under Ben Ali, plain clothes police infiltrated the mosques and filed reports on those who seemed to be praying too often or too ardently.
“In Tunisia, if you want to get a permanent job, you have to go through a security check on your political views, whether you are leftist, Islamist, nationalist,” Rida Harrathi, a self-proclaimed Islamist, told Reuters as he entered the mosque. “I was expelled from work and when I asked why they said your problem is with the interior ministry… If you are honest about yourself, and especially if you are an Islamist, you will lose your job or you will not be confirmed in it.”