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On the recent “reopening” of Zaytouna University

A recent ceremony triggered a lot of talk: it was the ceremony that marked the “reopening” of the University of Zaytouna, on May 12, 2012. Between the praise and congratulations for the “rehabilitation” of a type of teaching considered a victim of Bourguiba’s 1958 education reform, and the worries triggered by this parade – made official by the presence of three ministers, including those of basic and higher education– let’s try to seize the significance of a protocol with no originality, and the meaning of the media signals channeled through this event.

Can we speak of a “reopening,” when the Zaytouna University has existed for several years? Zine El Abidine Ben Ali commanded similar ceremony, with the same prestigious décor to revive this university along with a number of gesticulations on Islam. Before he laid the first stone of the El Abidine Mosque in Carthage in 2000, which was inaugurated later in 2003, Ben Ali had installed the new courses in this “resuscitated” university in the Montfleury district, and then in the current buildings, located in front of the l’Université de Tunis and the Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines de Tunis. He too had attacked the widespread idea of a Bourguiba who was against Islam, and orchestrated grandiloquent and costly gestures that were meant to mark the return to a defense of, and the illustration of, the “Muslim identity” of Tunisia. Kairouan, capital of Islamic culture (March 2009) was one of the last ostentatious demonstrations of the Ben Ali regime, intended to pompously reaffirm this ideological discourse that was but a façade.

There is nothing new then in this ostentatious promotion of a decorative Islam, and the diffusion of a folkloric image to Tunisians and the rest of the world. Indeed, in this ceremony, where it was accepted that Zaytouna would be a place of pluri-disciplinary learning – with subjects as varied as medicine and human sciences – where were the scientists, the pedagogues, the professors and the researchers? We saw political figures, civil servants, and followers of the faith (some of which complained loudly in the vicinity), and what were most likely donors – but no representatives of the academic world. In the Ben Ali ceremony, protocol had been better observed: an inaugural lesson was pronounced by the mufti of the Republic, Mokhtar Sellami, whose scientific reputation was recognized by his peers. The then counselors had attentively conceived a ceremony that fit university norms and that respected pedagogical rituals. Who are the current counselors? What were they thinking of when they organized this bad remake, closer to the sacrament of a private company’s administrative council than to the inauguration of a place of learning, teaching and research?

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