Saturday, April 13, 2013

Tunisian Mufti TV

Tunisian state TV will now have a show for its mufti to promote what he views as proper Islam:
The Mufti of Tunisia, the country’s highest religious authority, will begin hosting a weekly program on a state-run television channel. The move, unimaginable under the previous regime, signifies the growing role of Islam in public life.
Othman Battikh, the Mufti, requested the program so that he might alleviate the confusion in society over conflicting opinions regarding Islamic law, he told Tunisia Live. Many of these opinions, called fatwas, have circulated in the country since the revolution, especially from outside of Tunisia. These are misleading people, said Battikh, and creating strife in the country.
The article focuses most on the contrast between this move and the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, which maintained a strict secularism in public life.  However, from a historical perspective, two other points stand out.  The first is simply the idea of a state mufti.  This process of government control over an official religious establishment in the Middle East developed slowly over the past thousand years, but is still striking to me since I've been reading books from multiple time periods which quote religious scholars as debating the propriety of working for a government, as opposed to holding government to account from the outside.  Furthermore, it leads to a political discourse which has shades of seeing Islamic universalism as expressed in an assembly of independent nations rather than individuals.

The second thing is the competition among religious authorities enabled by modern technology, a competition which undercuts the authority of the traditional hierarchies these states sought to control.  This mufti can't just show up on TV and say his piece, but he instead has to argue a case for paying attention to him instead of other preachers and issuers of religious opinions.  A student of Islamic history might note that such competition had always been present in major cities, but today this is happening everywhere for reasons that initially related to newspapers and the telegraph and now have more to do with cassette sermons, satellite TV, and the internet.

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