Tunisia’s religion is Islam, with its Muslim population having a varied history. While Islam is the official Tunisian religion, this hides a certain reality with which the rest of the world may not be familiar.
What many people don’t know is that many Tunisians are not very religious, and there are multiple religions in Tunisia.
We look beneath the surface to understand the whole picture.
What is the religion of Tunisia?
Tunisia is almost entirely Muslim. The population of Tunisia is approximately 11 million people. 99% of Tunisians are Muslim, according to government data. There are other religions present in Tunisia, but they are small in numbers. Faith-based practices other than Islam tend to be widely-dispersed in the country.
While Tunisia’s official religion is Islam, the right to hold other religious beliefs is protected by its constitution.
Tunisia is officially a secular state rather than an ecclesiastical state, but the Tunisian government takes a hands-on approach to religion and its practice. They are involved in the management and payment of mosques and imams.
There are Christian, Jewish and Bahai communities practicing within Tunisia.
Has Tunisia always been Muslim?
Tunisia has a varied religious history with phases of active conflict. Islam became the main religion in Tunisia when it became part of the Umayyad Caliphate in 698 AD. It was re-taken from the Byzantine Christian Empire for the last time, and Islam grew steadily. The Byzantine empire had been Christian, as a breakaway from the old Roman Empire.
Tunisia and Carthage were part of Roman territory in Africa. This meant that Roman religious enforcement applied. Before the Roman Empire was Christian, roman state polytheism was compulsory. The Roman empire was relaxed about local populations worshipping their gods. They had to worship them together with the Roman gods, though.
Once the Roman Empire converted to Christianity, the script changed. Christian persecutions stopped, and they were able to practice their faith above ground. The roman catholic church became the state religion. Christianity was popular in Tunisia at this time.
How did Tunisia become heavily Muslim?
The Umayyad Caliphate tolerated other religions, but it had a clear preference for Islam. At various times building new churches were banned. Christians and Jews in the Caliphate were also subject to different tax laws.
Christianity retained a limited presence for around 200 years after the conquest of Carthage in 698 AD.
By the 9th century, the territory we call Tunisia was mainly Muslim. Berber communities sometimes practiced Islam alongside traditional ancestor worship.
What denominations do Tunisia’s Muslim population belong to?
Islam is not a homogenous religion. There are several denominations. The school which is most dominant in Tunisia is Sunni Islam. Sunni Islam has a less formal structure, which venerates clerics less than Shi’ite Islam. Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism. A minority of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims practice it in Tunisia.
Shi’ite Muslims do exist in Tunisia, but in very small numbers. Their communities are similar in size to Christian and Jewish populations. The schism between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam can make their religious differences controversial. The controversy is mainly between minority groups and hard-line religious figures. Most Tunisians do not object to pluralism.
In Tunisia, most people are Sunni Muslims. If a Tunisian person does not express different views, they will follow Islamic traditions and Sunni practices by default. Non-denominational Muslims who do not actively follow a tradition appear Sunni. Most Tunisian citizens do not describe themselves as very religious.
- Christianity – Christianity was once ubiquitous in North Africa. It is less common in modern-day Tunisia but still present. A recent census estimated that there were 7000 Christian citizens of Tunisia. The majority of Christians were from protestant or Anglican denominations. But there were also many Catholics living in Tunisia. Christianity is the largest minority faith. The Roman Catholic church has a functioning archdiocese in Tunis with 12 churches. A small number of Christian charities are allowed to operate in Tunisia. This includes some schools, clinics, and libraries, paid for by the Catholic church.
- Judaism – Judaism is not widespread in Tunisia, and a survey suggested that less than 2000 Jewish people were citizens. They are distributed between Tunis, Djerba island, and Zarzsis. There are very few synagogues in active use. The government subsidizes a small number of Jewish clergy. They also permit Jewish religious schools to be set up.
- Bahai – The Bahai community in Tunisia, have existed since the early twentieth century. The Tunisian government does not officially recognize them as a religion. Their practice is generally tolerated, but Bahai people report some harassment. The government did not accept the Bahai community’s petition for legal recognition in 2018. The lack of legal recognition causes problems. They struggle to establish a graveyard or an official church. The community has not been reliably counted, but it is believed to be around 1000 people.
- Other Denominations – Religious communities of Hindus and Buddhists have occasionally sprung up in Tunisia. They are not common. Generally, they come from abroad, and many of them are not citizens.
Freedom of religion
The government officially supports those practicing minority religions in Tunisia. The picture is complex, however. Their position could be summed up as pluralism with a preference. The president of Tunisia must be a Muslim, and openly ignoring tenets of Islam can be punished.
It is legal to convert from Islam to another religion, but it is socially penalized. There is limited government protection available to Tunisians leaving Islam. Some laws in Tunisia are based on the religious calendar, and proselytizing is banned.
There are explicit exceptions to religious freedom in the constitution. Many of them are vague. References to ‘public morality’ can be read in a number of ways. For example, cafe owners refusing to close during Ramadan have been prosecuted. Ringing church bells and advertising services are also restricted.
Are Tunisian people religious?
Not all of them. A recent survey showed that a third of Tunisians considered themselves ‘not very religious.’ For younger people, the figure was closer to 50%. Tunisia is one of the least religious countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Tunisians hold liberal attitudes toward the region.
Young people in Tunisia are more worried about economic hardships and unemployment. These problems can have a religious impact, however. The lack of jobs and poor prospects sometimes lends support to Salafist groups. Salafism is a very conservative strain of Islam, associated with extreme policies.
Terror attacks in Tunisia have made extreme religious views well known. These views are not widely held, but they are significant. The government attempts to suppress extremism but is not always successful.
Before the regime change in 2011, as part of the Arab Spring, the government managed religion. Overt expressions of religious faith were discouraged. Prominent beards or conspicuous religious observance were not common.
Despite the vast majority of Tunisians being Muslim, appearing to be a zealot was a problem.
The government was then and is now heavily involved in the practical aspects of religion. Imams are often government-appointed. Mosque buildings are state property, and the content of sermons can be audited. Under President Ben-Ali, radical religious ideas were often punished.
Since 2011, the pressure on hard-line religious groups has eased slightly. The fundamental principles remain similar, though. Islam is the main religion in Tunisia, and the current government wishes it to stay that way.
Extremists pose a problem for the government, though. Hard-line preachers are sometimes banned if they are deemed divisive.
Extremes on the Spectrum: Political Islam in Tunisia
The vast majority of Muslims in Tunisia hold relatively moderate views. There is a contingent within Tunisia that campaigns for a more radical path. Radical political Islam is a domestic problem for Tunisia, as well as an issue abroad.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for the killing of two national guards in Sousse. The attack was part of a dispute about a new government and the Islamist party Ennahda. Suicide attacks targeted the embassies of the United States of America and France. Tunisian members of the Islamic State have also committed attacks.
Dire economic conditions make some young Tunisians more sympathetic to extreme positions. Tunisia also has a complicated colonial history, which can drive anti-western sentiment. Political Islam is sometimes seen as a way to reclaim identity.
The rise of Political Islam
After the revolution in 2011, President Ben-Ali was deposed. Many imams were removed from their posts too. As political appointees, they were considered corrupt. The government lost control of many mosques. Religious expression became impossible to control during the uproar.
The conservative Ennahda party won many seats in the post-revolution election. In 2013, the Minister for religious affairs called on Tunisians to join in a jihad (holy war) in Syria. The tide of conservative religion has risen in Tunisia and elsewhere. However, the attention to conservative views does not imply that all Tunisians agree.
Post-revolutionary Tunisian religion is significant. Islam in Tunisia is in a stormy period, which affects more than just belief. Secularist politicians have been threatened and, in some cases, killed. Tunisia also typically benefits from the profitable tourism industry. Terrorist attacks on tourists and Tunisian citizens have damaged profits.
A battle for Tunisia’s soul
Tunisia has a long history of pluralism and relative tolerance. It has been possible for multiple religions in Tunisia to live in peace for centuries. The outlook for religions in Tunisia is uncertain. The future of religion in Tunisia depends on the broader situation. Economic factors, international alliances, and migration will exert influence.
If the economy prospers, then conservative political Islam may lose appeal. On the other hand, if Tunisia suffers, then minority religions in Tunisia could suffer. Islam will almost certainly remain the official religion of Tunisia.
Which interpretation of Islam will triumph is a mystery.
Here are the key ideas to keep in mind when you think about religion in Tunisia:
- 99% of Tunisians are Muslim
- Tunisia has a mixed religious history.
- Christianity has been popular in the past but not since the 9th century.
- Most Tunisian Muslims are Sunni Muslims, but not all.
- Muslims in Tunisia tend to be moderate.
- Christian, Jewish, and Bahai Communities practice in Tunisia.
- Relative freedom of religion exists, but it is limited.
- Conservative Islam is on the rise, but young Tunisians are becoming less religious.