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‘The University Space Must Be Safe’

MANOUBA, TUNISIA–Academics from around the region rallied around the University of Manouba, which has been the subject of some Salafist attacks, at a conference late last month.

Those who attended the conference, officially titled, “The University and the Nation: Safeguarding Higher Education in Tunisa and Beyond,” discussed the relationship between Arab universities and their governments in post-revolution Arab countries.

Many present voiced the opinion that despite the fall of many Arab dictators, Arab universities have difficult times ahead as they still have to deal with lingering corruption and the emergence of hard-line Islamist ideologies. Universities are key in protecting countries from fanatical ideas and supporting freedom of expression, speakers said, and thus are critical institutions to protect.

At the University of Manouba, Islamists have surrounded a dean and jostled him aggressively. He was charged with assaulting a veiled female student, who he says was ransacking his office. That case is still pending. Last spring, Islamists stormed an art gallery in Tunis and burned a painting. Those who helped organize the Manouba conference said that they wanted those in power in Tunisia to understand that suppression of academic freedom will not go unnoticed.

“People will know we are watching the case and watching the campus,” said Robert Quinn, executive director of the Scholars at Risk Network, in New York, which works to protect academics who are under attack because of their ideas. “The space of the university must be safe. There is no room for intimidation or force.”

When the Arab revolutions broke out, many academics thought that their struggle with despotism had ended. Since the Tunisian revolution, some Tunisian universities have moved toward autonomy from the government. Deans and university presidents at some universities are now appointed by elections, considered by some at universities as a move towards democracy. But hard-line ideologies also began to emerge.

Habib Mellakh, the secretary general of the Tunisian Association for the Defence of University Values, said “Tunisian universities are witnessing today during their turn towards democracy a conflict between two approaches: The first seeks more freedom, democracy and respect for the university values.”

“The second,” he said, “works on the blocking the first under the name of an identity that is fixed or sectarian.”

The University of Manouba has been the target of Salafist-organized campaigns calling for mandatory veil-wearing by female students and for preventing the mixing of young men and women.

Mellakh said that with the emergence of the phenomenon of hardcore Salafists, professors have started avoiding many topics “simply because the students do not accept criticism. Religion for them is sacred and cannot be undermined.” He said that students have tried to stop professors from talking about topics, such as bank interest or fine arts, that the students felt were not in line with Islamic law.

The government response to attacks on the University of Manouba has been mixed. A court supported the university with a decision that said female students should not wear veils in the classroom. But the Tunisian minister of higher education has called veil wearers “victims.” Many professors believe that the government should stay out of university’s business.

“Unfortunately, the official authorities have underestimated what was happening in Manouba University in terms of attacks and violations of the institution sanctity,” said Habib Kazdaghli, dean of letters, arts, and humanities at the university, who has been accused, falsely many say, of assaulting a veiled female student. “They did not take the necessary measures to defend the university and its values.”

The draft of the new Tunisian constitution, although it appears to protect academic freedom, has raised concerns among some Tunisian academics. It stipulates that “academic freedom and the scientific research freedom are guaranteed by the State to provide possibilities for the development of academic work and research.” Tunisian academics warn of the many legal loopholes in the new constitution that could be interpreted in a wrong way and prevent universities of having an opportunity to achieve the desired academic autonomy.

“Academic freedom, neutrality and the ability to self-manage away from the control of authority are essential demands which cannot be compromised,” said Dorra Ghorbal, secretary-general of the Tunisian University Forum.

In Libya, universities are still subjected to government control even after the revolution. “Deans and university presidents are still selected not according to an objective criteria,” said Sediq Musrati, assistant professor at the University of Tripoli. As in Tunisia, he said that radical Islam was having a negative effect on university development.

The participants at the University of Manouba conference agreed on the need of developing legal requirements that protect educational institutions. “The university space is not hostile to the space of political or religious,” said Kazdaghli, the dean. “The university mechanisms should be clear and neutral without detracting from the social space.”

“The university examines and analyzes social phenomena,” he added, “But it must be far from political and religious pressures.” Even the security guards, he said, should be only under the control of university presidents

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