Salafists In Tunisia Target Sufi, The Mystics Of Islam

In the capital of Tunis, Hedia is the caretaker of a sanctuary dedicated to Sufism, a mystical form of Islam that worships saints. Radical Muslims slit the throat of a colleague.

Tunis' Saida Manoubia mausoleum
Tunis' Saida Manoubia mausoleum
Céline Lussato

TUNIS — Finding the Saida Manoubia mausoleum is quite the challenge. The Sufi saint is hidden somewhere in the heights of Tunis, which prove impossible to navigate without the sound advice of residents in the working-class Manouba neighborhood. Someone points out a back alley with sidewalks eaten away by time. The alley gives way to stairs that climb to the sanctuary, where a set of steps are partially hidden behind a double wooden door that seems to lead to a simple house.

“It’s here indeed!" says Hedia, the caretaker of the zawiya, the religious building. "You found it!” The young woman has a timid smile, large, dark eyes, and a soft and serene voice. She explains that Saida Aisha Manoubia lived in this house “from the age of 14 until her death at 76" — in 1257. “But she’s still here with us,” Hedia insists.

Manoubia was said to have read the Koran 1,520 times. This is her burial site, although no sign nearby says so. And for good reason! Since the January 2011 revolution and the amnesty that allowed numerous Salafists to be released from prison, more than 40 Sufi mausoleums have been attacked in Tunisia. Most of them caught fire after Molotov cocktails were thrown at them.

The Wahhabi ideology, which these radical Islamists claim to follow, is opposed to the cult of saints and, more generally, to Sufism, that mystical Islam that has been rooted in the country for centuries and that advocates the abnegation of the being in favor of God. Salafists have little interest in the pious lessons of Saida Aisha Manoubia and other erudites of centuries past. And they associate any surviving traces of those figures with idolatry. As such, the Salafists see it as their sacred duty to oppose and even destroy these sites.

Humble surroundings

“Saint” Manoubia, who was the disciple of Abul Hasan ash-Shadhili, the founder of the Shadhili Sufi order, is one of the most respected figures of this ancient Muslim tradition. She reached the rank of “Saida,” unusual but not unheard of for a woman. Her master, furthermore, gave her the status of “pole” of the brotherhood, the highest distinction in the hierarchy.

“During the 13th century, she supervised imams and prayed with men at the Al-Zaytuna Mosque in Tunis,” Hedia says enthusiastically.

The young woman welcomes visitors with a steady smile. Like her mother before her, she looks after this place of worship in the tradition of hospitality and charity of Saida Manoubia, who, until her death, welcomed people in need here.

Visitors must walk into the modest courtyard with its crackled concrete floor to finally see the zawiya, a modest, white construction topped with a dome. Is it the paint peeling off or are the electric cables visible? The place breathes humility. Inside, apart from the carpets, the walls are covered with colored earthenware. The chandeliers have blown glass globes. There’s nothing luxurious or flashy here.

“We don’t have a lot of resources," says Hedia. "We prefer giving to the most destitute. That’s part of how we see the world. It’s important to us.”

Every Monday Hedia and the women of the neighborhood who have a bit of time on their hands get together to prepare couscous. Each one brings a few ingredients and they feed area residents who might otherwise go to bed hungry.

Intercessions with God

Hedia herself lives solely off the donations made to the zawiya. Talking about money seems to make her uncomfortable. So does talking about herself. Hedia doesn't like people taking her picture either. “Why do you want to talk about me? I’m just an intermediary,” she says. But Hedia is happy to talk about her patron saint.

This isn't a tourist spot. Foreigners rarely show up — just women looking for a moment of peace to reflect, read the Quran or pray. “There are lots of blessings here thanks to Lalla Manoubia,” Hedia says.

Other followers come from further away to see the erudite in search of an intercession with God. Some pray to birth a child, others for an ill relative, or for their child to find his soul mate. Once a week people participate in a mystical ceremony, the hadra, in which Hedia plays a key role.

While a small group plays percussions and sings, Hedia walks around Saida Manouia’s tomb, swinging a censer that gives off white smoke. The haunting rhythm of the instruments goes along with the small meditating assembly, but also aims to make the caretaker — the link between these enthusiastically praying women and the Sufi saint— go into a state of trance.

This is precisely what followers of Wahhabi Islam abhor. “Their obsession is that some Muslims love something other than God. But when my mother visits the city’s patron saint, it’s only for her son to get better or pass his exam," says Youssef Seddik, an aged, wise-looking anthropologist who translated the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser into Arabic. "It would never occur to her, even if she’s completely ignorant, to venerate this saint or love her like God."

Razing history

Wahhabi followers don't, apparently, want to leave anything up to interpretation. "In their vision of the world there should be no material remains of the past. They prefer making a clean break with the past," Seddik explains. "Wahhabism erases your memory. That’s what they want to impose on us.”

At the Saida Manoubia zawiya, Hedia doesn’t try to hide her fear. She barricaded the window closest to the tomb — one that looks out onto the street — with a small wooden plank. “The inhabitants in the neighborhood protect us,” she says. But it's not clear she's entirely convinced. “Have you heard what happened in January to the man in charge of Sidi Abdelkader, in Manzel Bouzelfa?” she adds. Hadia draws a finger across her throat.

The murderers, who confessed to their crime, belonged to a Salafist movement, according to the press. One night, when they came to set fire to the Sidi Abdelkader zawiya, they ran into the site's hadidh (the caretaker), a man named, Houcine Lakti, and stabbed him.

The day after the Bardo museum attack, which occurred March 18 and took the lives of 22 people, Tunisian leader Beji Caid Essebsi announced new security measures to dismantle the jihadist networks. Hedia lives in a building adjoining the mausoleum. She knows that the she too could find herself one day in the path of the barbarians.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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