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.

“Re-opening ” ?

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?


Ever since after the war, the space of the mosque had become narrow, constrained and maladjusted in the eyes of Zaytounians. Starting from 1945, we have the archives of the launch of a large subscription to build a new Zaytounian university: the operation allowed the construction of a university that would become, after the independence, the lycée Ibn Charaf; the same buildings that today house the Institut Supérieur des Sciences Humaines de Tunis. The building of the current Faculty of Sciences Humaines et Sociales de Tunis used to be part of the same project. At the time, Zaytounians felt constrained within this prestigious architecture; the most illuminated of these worked to modernize its fossilized teaching. Among there objectives were : to get out of the physical space of the mosque, to have functional classrooms, to have comfortable room and board for students, to adopt new academic methods, and to establish diploma equivalencies with foreign universities and launch a women’s section. They wanted to establish an efficient learning system that would be recognized in Tunisia and elsewhere, and no longer confined by a folkloric image, by dust-covered practices and a legendary notoriety. Before the creation of a theology faculty in 1961, Zaytounians themselves, without doubting the subsequent political events that would set the foundations of their teaching in a general manner, felt the need for a new physical space, and means better adapted to the spirit of the time.

We should note that the Zaytounians of the 1940s and 1950s, trained around the halaqat-s (circles around the masters leaning on the columns) of the prayer rooms, had a more rational vision of the future of teaching than the current counselors and people in charge, who misled the orchestration of a mediatized ceremony that should have been lighter, and more respectful of administrative wheels and more respectful of the rules of knowledge and the State that guarantees these.

Without mentioning people of art, what value can have this nth promotion of façade – reminiscent of the propaganda of the old regime and the perpetual need to present itself as a “kalifa in the place of a khalifa”? The country needs to reform its education system, rather than a mise en scène that could lead people to believe in a “renaissance.” The country needs a scientific and civic conscience to move forward, rather than rushing to find “saviors” from a mystique-covered past in which the people who actually benefitted were already conscious of the limits of the system in today’s world. Tunisia needs to get to better know and comprehend its past, including its Zaytounian past. It does not need empty advertising campaigns with easy declarations, ignorant shortcuts of history. The Tunisian transition needs people in charge who do really care about their duties towards the urgencies of the present and the demands of the future.

Translated by Carolyn Lamboley

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