Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Arabic, French, Shilha (a Tamazight dialect)
Main religion: Sunni Islam
Tunisia is not usually considered as a country with a significant minority population, reflected in the relative lack of attention given to this country’s minorities compared to other countries in the region. While it is true that, compared to other countries in the region, Tunisia’s demographic appears less diverse, this does not justify the general lack of information on these groups. Indeed, this discourse runs the risk of erasing the existence of communities which have inhabited the region for millennia, so reinforcing their secondary status.
In terms of religion, while many sources cite figures suggesting that between 98 and 99 per cent of Tunisians are Sunni Muslim, the absence of disaggregated data and the lack of recognition for religions other than Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism means this is difficult to confirm. In addition to Christians and Jews, however, there are also small communities of Bahá’í, non-Sunni Muslims such as Ibādīs, Shi’a and Sufis, as well as an unknown number of atheists. While strictly speaking, legal texts simply refer to ‘Islam’ without specifying which school (for example, Article 1 of the Constitution), this refers implicitly and specifically to Sunni Islam, and in particular to the Mālikī school. Shi’a Islam remains largely ostracized and for this reason little information on the community, including population estimates, is available.
There are thought to be only about 1,500 to 2,000 Jews remaining in Tunisia. Around 500 of these live in the capital and are predominantly descended from Spanish and Italian immigrants, while the remainder of the population is concentrated on the island of Djerba – a community that can trace its roots back for 2,500 years.
As in many other Islamic countries, the government regards Tunisia’s tiny Baha’i community as heretical, and forbids their worshipping in public, although it does tolerate private gatherings.
Amazigh are indigenous to North Africa. They are also known as Berbers, though this term is largely rejected by Amazigh themselves due to its negative connotations. In Tamazight, the language spoken by Amazigh, Imazighen is the plural form, meaning ‘free people’.
No official figures exist on the number of black Tunisians in the country. However, activists claim the extent of the population is considerably larger than is officially acknowledged. According to the organization Mnemty, the community represents between 10 and 15 per cent of the total population, with most residing in the south of the country.
Updated October 2020
While Tunisia is regarded as relatively homogenous compared to other countries in the region, with a population overwhelmingly Arab in its ethnicity and Sunni Muslim in its religion, this image – continuously promoted by the Tunisian government since independence – obscures the country’s significant and longstanding diversity. Indeed, the now dwindling Jewish community is one of the oldest in the world, while Amazigh have been indigenous in the region for millennia, long before the Muslim conquest of North Africa in the seventh century: a significant share of the Tunisian population has Amazigh ancestry.
However, centuries of assimilatory Arabization policies, the limited availability of concrete data on Tunisia’s minority and indigenous populations and the barriers communities may themselves experience in terms of identification and self-expression have contributed to their invisibility. The general context of economic crisis and unemployment, while affecting the entire population, has also had particular implications for those residing in the country’s peripheries as they have been forced to migrate to larger towns and cities to find employment, a process that can lead to the attrition of their traditions and beliefs. As many members of ethnic minority and indigenous communities, such as Amazigh and black Tunisians, reside in the impoverished south of the country, these geographic inequalities reinforce their marginalization.
Tunisia’s achievements since the 2011 revolution have been driven by a growing recognition of minorities, women and other groups, as well as a willingness to provide a space for these marginalized voices to express their demands freely. However, much remains to be done to realize full equality for all and complete the country’s remarkable transition to a vibrant, inclusive democracy. This includes not only the repeal of pre-2011 discriminatory legislation and the implementation of its commitments in international law, but also engagement and education at all levels of Tunisian society, including police, judiciary, religious leaders and the general public. While the country has suffered a number of high-profile violent attacks targeting tourist sites in particular, including mass shootings at Bardo National Museum in Tunis in March 2015 and at a tourist resort near Sousse in June 2015, Tunisia has managed to avoid the development of wider civil conflict.
Despite progress, many religious communities continue to contend with the legacy of years of discrimination. While the right to freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Constitution, in practice the only minorities currently recognized are the Christian and Jewish communities. Other groups that are not recognized, such as Bahá’í, face significant restrictions on their ability to worship freely. Pre-revolutionary legislation on apostasy is also still used to penalize Tunisians who have chosen to convert to Christianity or identify as atheist.
The situation today in Tunisia is particularly precarious for the latter, who are usually identified as being culturally Muslim and for which no data is available. In fact, some prefer to stay silent out of fear of prosecution and stigmatization. Others may not consider themselves atheist but simply decide not to follow the common interpretation of Islam, so attracting persecution. A recent example of this was the conviction of non-fasters (fattaras) during the month of Ramadan. Cases have been reported of youth being brought to the police stations because they were drinking, eating or smoking during the day in the municipalities of Ariana, Bizerte, Sfax and Beja.
For decades, successive Tunisian governments have defined its national identity as Arab and Muslim. This has not only marginalized religious minorities but also sidelined the country’s indigenous Amazigh population through a long process of assimilation. In particular, Decree Law no. 59-53 of 1959, prohibited the use of ‘names that do not have an Arabic root, unless they have a long-established usage in the Arab Maghreb’. This clearly discriminated against all non-Arab groups and particularly the Amazigh community, who were obliged to register using Arab names. There were several cases in recent years of people who wished to register their children with Amazigh names and were prevented from doing so because of this old decree. This has recently been changed by the Ministry of Local Affairs to allow Amazigh to use their own names. The preamble of the 2014 Constitution also emphasizes the country’s ‘Islamic-Arab identity’ but makes no mention of the Amazigh community who, besides being ethnically distinct from the Arab majority, have also been indigenous to the country for thousands of years. Yet neither the Constitution, nor other important legislation such as the Penal Code, provide concrete guarantees of indigenous rights in general or Amazigh rights specifically. The 2014 Constitution, while progressive in many areas, has been criticized for overlooking the existence of the Amazigh community in its text.
The Tamazight language is also under threat, with UNESCO classifying it as severely endangered, with only approximately 10,000 speakers left. There are currently six varieties of the language spoken in six areas of southern Tunisia: Sened (disappeared), Tamazretm Taoujout, Djerba, Zraoua, Douiret and Chenini/Tataouine. Many children in these regions have only ever spoken Tamazight at home. This means that when they are of age to go to school, where Arabic is the main language of education, many are confronted with a language that they do not even understand. In many cases, teachers do not speak Tamazight themselves as they are often sent from other regions to teach.
Despite representing 10 – 15 per cent of the national population, according to community estimates, Tunisia’s black population has until recently been largely invisible in the country’s public life, though long subjected to racial discrimination. For this group, the problem has been not only the presence of discriminatory legislation but also the absence of measures to prevent and prosecute racial discrimination when it occurs. Indeed, until very recently there was no legal acknowledgement of racial hate crime or hate speech in Tunisia, reflecting a broader reluctance within Tunisian society against racism. Despite the 2014 Constitution’s affirmation of the equality of all citizens and their rights to live without discrimination, until October 2018 there was no specific legislation criminalizing racial discrimination and so no formal judicial avenue for victims of racism to pursue. There has been significant progress made in this area, however, with a draft law against racial discrimination approved by the ministerial council in January 2018 and approved in October 2018 as Law no. 50 by the Parliament. The law envisages up to three years of prison and fines for acts of racial discrimination (depending on the gravity of the act). Importantly, it includes protection of migrants from such acts. This law was strengthened further in July 2020 when the Council of Ministers approved a decree for the creation of the National Commission for the Fight against Racial Discrimination, who will be in charge of implementing the 2018 law.
Black Tunisians not only suffer from widespread poverty and exclusion in the job market, but are also largely absent from politics, media and other areas of public life. Discrimination also extends to schooling and impacts on the ability of young black Tunisians to access education. Research by the organization Mnemty has found that regions with high concentrations of black students, particularly in the south, tend to be under-resourced in terms of social and health facilities, with higher incidence of non-attendance among black students due to child labour during school hours. This situation is ultimately reflected in disproportionate dropout rates in the community that in turn shape their future prospects in employment and public life.
Another issue many black Tunisians face currently is their conflation with sub-Saharan African migrants, who form a distinct group. Like black Tunisians, sub-Saharan migrants face racial discrimination, but their situation is compounded by language barriers, documentation issues and their limited access to education and health care. They are frequently abused, exploited and even subjected to targeted attacks. A number of incidents have highlighted the threat that sub-Saharan Africans face, including the stabbing of three Congolese students in 2016 and an assault in August 2018 on a number of Ivorians, including a pregnant woman. In December 2018, a prominent anti-racism campaigner, Falikou Coulibaly ,was stabbed to death in Tunis: he had been the President of the Association of Ivorians in Tunisia (AIT).
The Republic of Tunisia borders Algeria and Libya, and has a 1,300 kilometre Mediterranean coastline.
While the bulk of its investment and infrastructure have been concentrated in the country’s capital and coastal regions, other areas – in particular, the south and west of Tunisia – have seen little development and experience some of the highest poverty rates. 70 per cent of those living in extreme poverty live in the North West, Central West and South West regions, despite constituting only 30 per cent of the overall population.
Amazigh are indigenous to the area of today’s Tunisia. Phoenicians settled on the Mediterranean coast in the 10th century BCE, later founding the city and empire of Carthage before the area fell to Roman rule. Arabs conquered the region in the seventh century, introducing Islam. Arab rule sparked Amazigh rebellions and periods of Amazigh rule. The fifteenth century saw significant migration of Jews to Tunisia. The Tunisian Jewish community was one of the oldest and most important in North Africa. In Muslim countries around the tenth century, they were regarded as ‘People of the Book’ and thus deserving protection. In general, Jews were not forced to convert, although they suffered a host of restrictions. How seriously these rules were applied depended on local conditions.
Confronted by such adversity, Jewish communities were held together by the solidarity of the local group which revolved around a synagogue and by treatment received from the higher authorities. Jews continued to be present in the cities as merchants and artisans.
Tunisia became part of the Ottoman Empire in the late sixteenth century, and in 1881, France surmounted Italian interest and established a protectorate. As in other French colonies, Jews fared well, but during the brief German occupation of Tunisia in World War II, many were imprisoned in forced labour camps.
Tunisia gained independence in 1956, two years after violent anti-French uprisings, and the monarchy was abolished the following year. Tunisia’s Jewish population dwindled steadily from over 1000,000 in 1948 to 20,000 after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, eventually falling to just 1,500 to 2,000 today. Tunisia’s post-colonial politics, beginning with President Habib Bourguiba’s authoritarian rule from independence (1956) until 1987, largely marginalized the role of those groups who fall outside the narrowly defined Arab and Sunni Muslim identity promoted by the state.
This policy was largely continued from 1987 until 2011, when Tunisia was ruled by an authoritarian President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who came to power in a bloodless coup after having Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president, declared mentally unfit to hold office. Ben Ali followed his predecessor’s focus on economic modernization without regard to political plurality or human rights, with the exception of advances in women’s rights.
The Ben Ali regime took a tough line from 1994 against Hizb Ennahda, the country’s main Islamist movement, which was driven underground. President Ben Ali used the Islamist threat to stifle other opposition. With a weak and divided legal opposition, and the gap between rich and poor smaller than in any other Arab African country, Tunisia long remained largely depoliticized. The broadly secularist, pro-Western, yet authoritarian government considered the pursuit of economic growth paramount, and it feared that tourism and its strategy of investment-led growth could collapse if the country’s Islamic opposition were allowed to become militant. Critics said the security clampdown, including widespread detentions, went well beyond what was needed to counter the Islamist threat.
In January 2011, after 23 years under Ben Ali’s authoritarian rule, the Tunisian people joined together in an uprising that ultimately brought his regime to an end. The so-called Jasmine Revolution – also known as the ‘Dignity Revolution’ or the ‘social media revolution’ – is widely recognized as the first chapter of the Arab Spring, inspiring a wave of uprisings in its wake across the Middle East and North Africa.
The demonstrations in Tunisia began with the desperate and symbolic gesture of street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who, on 17 December 2010, set himself on fire in front of the provincial governor’s headquarters in Sidi Bouzid, one of Tunisia’s most economically depressed regions, in protest against police harassment. On the same day, angry citizens had filled the streets in Sidi Bouzid and soon protests spread to other cities until they reached the capital, Tunis, forcing Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia on 14 January 2011.
Since the overthrow in January 2011 of Ben Ali, Tunisia has successfully established a functioning democracy and taken a number of positive steps to promote human rights in the country, including the drafting of the progressive 2014 Constitution. This has been followed by a number of other legislative changes that have benefitted its minorities, including the passage in October 2018 of a law criminalizing racial discrimination.
Since the outbreak of the 2010/11 Jasmine Revolution and the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and his authoritarian regime after more than two decades of political repression, Tunisia has made remarkable progress in its transition to a functioning democracy. By 2015, only four years after the uprising, Tunisia had already passed a new Constitution and held fair parliamentary elections. A coalition government was formed the same year as a result of the negotiations between the secularist Nidaa Tounes party and the Islamist Ennahda: the latter subsequently dropped its Islamist label in May 2016 to redefine itself as a party of Muslim democrats.
Many reasons have been put forward to explain why Tunisia was the most – if not the only – successful Arab Spring country. For some, this was due to the exceptionality Tunisia already enjoyed in terms of women’s rights, modern education and religious moderation, as well as its relatively homogenous population and the non-existence of sectarian tensions. Other factors include the important role of spontaneous youth movements and social media. The Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT) is also credited with playing a major role in the country’s politics, first in guiding the country’s independence movement and subsequently supporting civil society during the revolution and its aftermath. The contribution of other significant players at key moments, such as the legal profession and the army, has also been acknowledged.
Nevertheless, under Ben Ali Tunisia also suffered many of the same issues – the repression of civil and political freedoms, regular human rights violations, arbitrary detention, imprisonment without trial, torture, harassment of political opponents and state corruption – that plagued other countries in the region on the eve of the Arab Spring. Some of these issues have since been positively addressed. For example, freedom of expression and assembly is now almost absolute: this is reflected in the proliferation of civil society organizations (CSOs), as well as the new 2014 Constitution which is grounded in civil law and guarantees the basic rights of all citizens.
However, though Tunisia is indeed recognized as a secular state, shari’a law still influences certain laws and practices. Furthermore, despite a series of reforms to strengthen individual rights – for example, an amendment of the code of criminal procedures was introduced in 2016 giving detainees the right to a lawyer in pre-charge detention, so reducing the threat of torture and forced confessions – authorities can still engage in arbitrary and discriminatory practices. This is evident in the severe human rights abuses that LGBTQI+ groups still experience including forced anal examinations, despite the guarantees of individual freedom and integrity in Articles 23 and 24 of the new Constitution. This is in part the result of the continued existence of Article 230 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes homosexuality with a jail sentence of up to three years; as in other areas, recent legislative advances are at times contradicted by older legislation that has yet to be amended.
In a number of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, conversion from Islam to another religion is regarded as apostasy and can carry heavy penalties, including death, for those who choose to practice another faith. In Tunisia, the 2014 Constitution does not include any prohibitions on conversion and even goes so far, in Article 6, to actively prohibit attacks on converts. Nevertheless, it remains the case that those who choose to renounce Islam, whether to convert to another faith or out of atheist conviction, can face significant social pressure. This is especially the case if they publicize their beliefs to others.
Minority based and advocacy organisations
- Association pour la promotion du droit à la différence – Website
- Damj – Facebook page
- By Lhwem – Facebook page
- Danseurs Citoyens Sud – Facebook page
- Terre d’Asile Tunisie – Facebook page
- Association Tunisienne de Prévention Positive – Facebook page
- Mnemty – Facebook page
Sources and further reading
Human Rights Watch, Crushing the Person, Crushing a Movement: The Solitary Confinement of Political Prisoners, April 2005.
King, S., Liberalization Against Democracy: The Local Politics of Economic Reform in Tunisia, Indiana University Press, 2003.
Parfitt, T., The Jews of Africa and Asia, London, MRG report, 1987.