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Ramadan Crackdown: Islam Weighs On Post-Revolution Tunisia

The pro-democracy Jasmine Revolution of 2011 has been followed by more, not less, religious policing in the North African country once known as a bastion of secularism.

Zarkoun Street in Tunis
Zarkoun Street in Tunis
Julie Boulet

Since the start of Ramadan, at least five people have been sentenced to prison terms in Tunisia for eating or smoking in public. Meanwhile, owners of cafes that chose to discreetly stay open during the fasting period are being publicly shamed by religious preachers. Once a beacon of religious tolerance in the region, the North African country's crackdown during this year's holy month is just the latest sign of a growing Islamic conservatism since the momentous days of the Arab Spring.

Of course, the most dramatic sign of Islamic fundamentalism's spread were the two major terrorist attacks in 2015, which left a total of 59 people dead in prime Tunisian tourist locations. The country has also sent more jihadists than any other country in the region to fight alongside the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. According to UN estimates, more than 5,500 Tunisians have gone abroad and are seeking targets at home and in Europe after being trained by ISIS.

But as Le Monde reports, religious intolerance has also expanded in less violent ways, including both public and private policing of Ramadan, which is a shift from more than a half-century of relative religious freedom following Tunisia's independence from France in 1956. Though the 1959 Constitution states that "Islam is the religion of Tunisia," other faiths could be practiced freely and Tunisian women had more rights than their counterparts in most Muslim countries

But the mix of new freedoms and political instability in the aftermath of the 2011 Jasmine Revolution has created space for religious movements to flourish. Ennahdha, Tunisia"s moderate Islamic party, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, was a key power-broker in the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, winning the largest share of votes — but vowing to respect the Personal Status Code, which guarantees the principle of equality between men and women.

But despite the promises made by religious parties, the country is becoming more and more pious. Through much of the 20th century, a person wearing a hijab in public was likely to draw stares on the streets of Tunis. Since the revolution, however, female university professors and students have been complaining of assault and intimidation by Islamists for not wearing hijabs, according to Egyptian-born Mona Eltahawy, author of the book Headscarves and Hymens.

Where should the line be drawn?

And now, the recent prison sentences for "indecent behavior" and "harm to good morals' for not fasting in public have relaunched a debate that surfaces every year in the country. Where, people want to know, should the line be drawn between individual freedoms and respect for religious traditions?

Tunisian law does not prohibit drinking, eating or smoking in public during Ramadan. But it seems like in Bizerte, a medium-sized city in the far north of the country, religious morals are above the law of the land, as citizens are sent to jail for not fasting during Ramadan.

In Tunis, meanwhile, people took to the streets this past weekend to demand that their individual freedoms and freedom of religion be respected, according to Tunis-based website Kapitalis.

"The government should arrest terrorists and stop bothering those who choose not to fast," one demonstrator exclaimed.

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Smaller Allies Matter: Afghanistan Offers Hard Lessons For Ukraine's Future

Despite controversies at home, Nordic countries were heavily involved in the NATO-led war in Afghanistan. As the Ukraine war grinds on, lessons from that conflict are more relevant than ever.

Photo of Finnish Defence Forces in Afghanistan

Finnish Defence Forces in Afghanistan

Johannes Jauhiainen


HELSINKI — In May 2021, the Taliban took back power in Afghanistan after 20 years of international presence, astronomical sums of development aid and casualties on all warring sides.

As Kabul fell, a chaotic evacuation prompted comparisons to the fall of Saigon — and most of the attention was on the U.S., which had led the original war to unseat the Taliban after 9/11 and remained by far the largest foreign force on the ground. Yet, the fall of Kabul was also a tumultuous and troubling experience for a number of other smaller foreign countries who had been presented for years in Afghanistan.

In an interview at the time, Antti Kaikkonen, the Finnish Minister of Defense, tried to explain what went wrong during the evacuation.

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“Originally we anticipated that the smaller countries would withdraw before the Americans. Then it became clear that getting people to the airport had become more difficult," Kaikkonen said. "So we decided last night to bring home our last soldiers who were helping with the evacuation.”

During the 20-year-long Afghan war, the foreign troop presence included many countries:Finland committed around 2,500 soldiers,Sweden 8,000,Denmark 12,000 and Norway 9,000. And in the nearly two years since the end of the war, Finland,Belgium and theNetherlands have commissioned investigations into their engagements in Afghanistan.

As the number of fragile or failed states around the world increases, it’s important to understand how to best organize international development aid and the security of such countries. Twenty years of international engagement in Afghanistan offers valuable lessons.

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