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.