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For centuries, the population density of the area that is now Tunisia was very low, but in the second half of the 20th century the population increased dramatically. In fact, the Tunisian population more than doubled between 1960 and 2012, from less than 5 million to almost 11 million. In 2012, Tunisia’s population growth rate was estimated at 0.96 percent, for a global ranking of 120 out of 230.
Tunisia’s largest city is the capital, Tunis, with approximately 984,000 inhabitants. The capital’s metropolitan area encompasses a population of more than 2 million. Other main cities in Tunisia include Sfax (about 265,000 inhabitants), Sousse (about 173,000) and Kairouan (about 117,900). In 2010, Tunisia’s urban population amounted to approximately 7 million, or 67 percent of the total population.
Tunisia has a very young population, with a mean age of 30.5 years. In 2011, about 23.2 percent of Tunisians were fourteen years old or younger. 69.3 percent were between fifteen and 64, and only 7.5 percent were 65 years or older. Tunisia’s increasingly young population reflects a trend common in many countries in the Middle East and North Africa.
Ethnic and Religious Groups
Most of Tunisia’s population are Sunni Muslims belonging to the Maliki school of Islam, founded by Malik ibn Anas in the 8th century, but Tunisia’s Sunnis are far from a homogeneous community. The majority adhere to a moderate interpretation of Islam, which stems from the country’s own Islamic tradition. Early modern thinkers launched important reforms in education, such as Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (also known as Hayreddin Pasha), who in 1875 founded the prestigious Sadiki College where traditional Islamic subjects were combined with the study of the modern sciences.
Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party states that it wants to continue in the tradition of the country’s Islamic legacy. Ennahda’s ideological roots lie in the 1960s Islamic movement called al-Jamaa al-Islamiyya. Having been banned under the regimes of Bourguiba and Ben Ali, Ennahda emerged as the most important player in Tunisian politics after the Tunisian revolution, receiving the bulk of the votes in the October 2011 elections for the Constituent Assembly. The persecution and harassment that Ennahda members endured under the earlier regimes, as well as the Islamists’ uncompromising attitude towards those regimes, contributed to its perceived legitimacy after the revolution. Whilst rejecting the Western notion of complete gender equality in every field, Ennahda advocates the integration of women into social and political life, in contrast to more religiously conservative voices. Conversely, Tunisia’s leftists comprise Muslims – especially numerous amongst the country’s elite – who are Westernized and liberal, having been influenced by the French legacy and the modernization policies of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes. The left advocates, amongst other policies, complete gender equality and the secularization of the state, although it rejects, for example, rights for homosexuals, as advocated by many Western leftists.
On the other end of the spectrum are Muslims affiliated with the Salafist movement, Islamic militants whose advocacy of a return to the practice of the salaf (the ‘ancestors’ or companions of the Prophet) commits them to a literal interpretation of the Koran and the implementation of the Sharia (Islamic law). Their number is estimated at about 10,000. The Salafist movement can be classified into two divergent streams: the Salafist jihadists and the ‘scientific’ Salafists (the latter focus on Islamic scholarship and preaching and reject the use of violence). Even though most of the ‘scientific’ Salafists are apolitical, some have recently joined the political game by founding the Reform Front Party (Jabhat al-Islah).
A minority within a minority movement, Tunisia’s Salafist jihadists have increased in number since the Tunisian revolution, which has provided the movement, fiercely suppressed under the former regimes, with unprecedented freedoms. In contrast to the ‘scientific’ Salafists, the jihadists consider violence sometimes necessary to achieve their goals. In Tunisia, they are organized primarily through Ansar al-Sharia, a loose jihadist platform with a wide network throughout the region. Although few, Salafist jihadists have shaken Tunisia’s volatile democracy by their uncompromising and sometimes violent actions: they have stormed an arts exhibition in La Marsa that they considered blasphemous; they have set alight the offices of Tunisia’s most important trade union, the Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT); and they have ransacked hotels and bars selling alcohol. In protest of a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad, jihadists have also stormed the US Embassy in Tunis and looted an American school. Most recently, regular criminals have joined the activities of the Salafist jihadists, creating a dangerous mixture threatening the stability of the country.
Little is known of Tunisia’s Shiites, and there is no official data on them. Their number is estimated at a dozen to several thousand. The Shiites’ secrecy – most keep their religious affiliation hidden, and some even pray together with Sunni Muslims – make it difficult to obtain reliable information about their numbers. While there are no public places of veneration or Shiite mosques in Tunisia, the city of Gabes is generally considered the Shiite centre of the country. In recent months, some Shiite cultural events have taken place in the city, although the turnout was poor. Mubarak Baadache is the informal leader of the Shiite community in Gabes.
Despite being few and having little public visibility, the Shiites have increasingly come under assault in post-revolutionary Tunisia, with public threats and discrimination occurring daily. In August 2012, for example, Lotfi Bouchnak, a Tunisian singer and public figure, was unable to give a concert in Kairouan as ultraconservative Muslims demonstrated against his companions, a group of Iranian Shiites. Such anti-Shiite incidents are fomented by the hostile rhetoric against this Islamic group, including from some senior ultraconservative religious figures. Abou Ayadh, for example, the leader of the Ansar al-Sharia branch in Tunisia, openly rejects Shiites as non-Muslims and kuffar (heretics, Sl. kafir) who have no place in Tunisian society.
Tunisia is home to a small Sufi community, whose exact numbers are unknown. Sufism is a mystical stream of Islam whose adherents worship in the way they believe was revealed by Gabriel to Muhammad, with the aim of coming closer to God, thereby purifying themselves. In contrast to orthodox Islam, Sufism in Tunisia has been influenced by the religious practices of Berbers, including their belief in spirits, amulets, and fortune-telling. Holy men (marabouts) propagated the religion, and their tombs are still today visited by pilgrims.
Many Sufis left Tunisia after independence in 1956, because their land and religious establishments reverted to the government at that time. Yet, Sufism has long influenced Tunisian culture deeply, and its presence is still felt today. For example, during Ramadan, Sufi Muslims stage annual festive activities such as dances and music.
Most Sufis consider the city of Nefta, close to the Algerian border, in the region of Bayadha, as their spiritual centre in Tunisia. Throughout the year, pilgrims – attracted by the 100 shrines of marabouts and the more than 24 mosques – visit the city to worship. Since the Tunisian revolution, Sufism has come increasingly under threat, and Salafists have attacked Sufi shrines.
Though a quiet and reticent minority, Berbers have come increasingly into the spotlight in recent months, in particular due to the Salafists’ hostile attitude towards them. For example, a conference of a Tunisian Berber association, planned for the summer of 2012 in the Matmata region, was cancelled in response to threats from ultra-religious Muslims.
Augustine of Hippo, an important Christian theologian, lived and studied in Tunis-Carthage in the 4th century. He marked the Christian community in Tunisia and abroad indelibly with his philosophical approach towards religion. His ideas have influenced theologians and philosophers down to the present.
Even though the Byzantine Empire was defeated by the Arabs in 647, Christians remained numerous for centuries to come. Only in the 13th century did the Christian community shrink drastically, in what many historians believe were internal disagreements and conflict, resulting in the eventual disappearance of Christianity from Tunisia. Thus, the Christians living in present-day Tunisia stem not from indigenous communities but largely from more recent European arrivals, especially during the French protectorate between 1881 and 1956.
According to the 2007 US State Department International Religious Freedom Report, approximately 25,000 Christians reside in Tunisia, including 20,000 Catholics, of whom around 500 practice their belief regularly. The Catholic Church runs twelve churches, as well as libraries, two clinics, and nine schools in the country. It also organizes cultural events and charitable activities. The second largest Christian community are the Protestants, who number about 2,000. Other Christian communities in Tunisia include the Anglican Church, with a few hundred members, the Reformed Church of France, which operates one church and has approximately 140 members, the 100-member Russian Orthodox Church, with two churches, and the Greek Orthodox Church, which has 30 members and runs three churches, in Djerba, Sousse, and Tunis.
While the currently ruling Islamist Ennahda party has ensured the Christian community their full support and recognition, threats and anti-Christian rhetoric voiced by Muslim extremists are on the rise in post-revolutionary Tunisia, resulting in fear and insecurity on the part of Tunisia’s Christians.
During the 7th and 8th centuries, the Jewish population of Tunisia increased, due first to the arrival of Spanish immigrants fleeing persecution by the Visigoth king, Sisebut (d. 620 or 621). Later on, when the Arabs arrived in Tunisia and dominated the region, a wave of Arab Jews from the Levant settled in the Maghreb. Under the imam Idris I, who in 788 proclaimed Mauritania’s independence from Baghdad’s caliphate, some Tunisian Jews initially fought in his army, but this alliance was short-lived, as many Tunisian Jews refused to attack those Jews in Mauritania who still supported the Baghdad caliphate. In addition, they condemned as humiliating Idris’ treatment of Jewish women.
Repression became even more severe in the two subsequent centuries, as illustrated by the complex tax scheme imposed upon the Jewish community: in addition to a general tax that Tunisian Muslims also had to pay, Jews were subject to a capitation tax and a communal tax. Moreover, there was a special annual tax on Jews working in industry or trade.
A group of Italian Jews came to Tunisia at the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th, resulting in two Jewish communities: the immigrants (Grana), and the indigenous Jews (Touansa). As the Granas remained Italian citizens, they held a high legal status and lived in the European quarters. They were therefore not subjected to the humiliations and security threats endured by the Touansas. With the Ottoman conquest of Tunisia, the security situation of the Touansa community improved. Jews were relatively independent during this time and were able to profess their religion freely, but they nevertheless had to endure all sorts of indignities. For example, they had to wear special clothes that marked them as Jews, and they were not permitted to ride horses or, when they did ride (on mules, for example), to use a saddle.
With the increasing influence of Europeans in Tunisia beginning in the 18th century, Jews came to enjoy more rights. This improvement can be explained by the European powers’ amelioration of the status of Christians, who were governed by the same laws as Jews at that time. Under Mohammed Bey (ruled 1855–1859), restrictions which had earlier been imposed on Jews, were abolished. Muhammad IIalso promulgated a Pacte Fondamental, a constitution, which lasted until 1864, stipulating for the first time equal rights of all Tunisians, irrespective of creed. According to paragraph four of the constitution, ‘No manner of duress will be imposed upon our Jewish subjects, forcing them to change their faith, and they will not be hindered in the free observance of their religious rites. Their synagogues will be respected and protected from insult’; paragraph six added, ‘When a criminal court is to pronounce the penalty imposed on a Jew, Jewish assessors shall be attached to the said court.’
Yet, the Pacte Fondamental required Tunisians to pay more taxes and was therefore opposed by most citizens, who lived under harsh economic conditions. The economic instability at that time eventually resulted in a rebellion against the rulers and the abolition of the constitution in 1864, and the status of the Jews declined once again. The late 19th-century invasion by the French, who established a protectorate over the country in 1881, strongly influenced the development of the Jewish community up to the present. Encouraged by the promise of ‘Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood’, many Jews hoped for better living conditions under the French protectorate. They were quick to adopt the French way of life, and many even adopted French citizenship, thereby distancing themselves even further from the Tunisian Muslim majority. In addition, French became the mother tongue of many Tunisian Jews who previously spoke Judeo-Arabic. Thus, between 1878 and 1963, 78 of the Jewish newspapers were published in Judeo-Arabic, 65 in, French, and only 16 in Hebrew.
With the start of World War II, the French protectorate over Tunisia became enmeshed in what was happening in Europe, including the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and the first law against Jews came to Tunisia in 1940. The laws classified Jews according to their race and set quotas for them in specific professions, such as medicine and the law. In 1940, Tunisia became part of the Vichy regime, with a resultant drastic increase in anti-Semitic laws, and in 1942, shortly after the Allied powers arrived in Algeria and Morocco, Tunisia was occupied by the Germans. Several senior figures in the Jewish community, including its leader, Moises Burgel, were arrested. Under the Nazi occupation, Jews were forced to wear a badge with the Star of David and were subject to fines and property confiscation. They were harassed and persecuted, and more than 5,000 Jews were sent to labour camps, where at least 46 died. In addition, 160 Jews were sent from Tunisia to concentration camps in Europe. Before World War II, approximately 100,000 Jews lived in Tunisia, but there are now only about 1,000 left, many having emigrated to Israel over the past decades. The remaining Jews live primarily in Tunis and Djerba. Both cities have Jewish schools and synagogues. The most important synagogue, al-Ghriba, is in Djerba and has, for many centuries, been the destination of an annual pilgrimage. In 2002, the synagogue was the target of an armed attack claimed by al-Qaeda, which caused the deaths of 21 people, mostly tourists.
Tunisia’s Jews enjoyed the support and protection of former Tunisian presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, and the leaders of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which gained power after the Tunisian Revolution, have reiterated their protection of the remaining Jewish community in the country. Yet the newly acquired freedoms in Tunisia’s fledgling democracy have resulted in a resurgence of the Salafist movement, including Salafist jihadists, who strongly oppose the Jewish community. In addition, the emergence of anti-Israel rhetoric, used by all political parties, has incited anti-Semitic sentiments amongst the population, further jeopardizing the security of the few remaining Jews in Tunisia.
Regional economic divides and social inequality – key grievances leading to the 2010-2011 Tunisian revolution – remain major challenges. Tunisia’s coastal regions are home to most of the country’s economic activities. Those areas benefit most from public services and receive 65 percent of public investment. In contrast, Tunisia’s hinterlands suffer from economic underdevelopment, poverty, and unemployment, which hits the country’s most vulnerable groups, such as women and the youth, the hardest. For example, in 2007, unemployment reached 24.1 percent in Jendouba, 25.1 percent in Tozeur, and 30 percent in Gafsa (youth unemployment was 40 percent in Gafsa), and the governorate of Jendouba, one of the most volatile regions, has only 1.4 general health practitioners per 10,000 people.