AWR friend Rekaya al-Hafi running for president in Tunisia

Sent On: 
Thu, 2019-08-08
Newsletter Number: 

Rekaya al-Hafi [Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī] yesterday announced that she will be running for president in the Tunisian presidential elections on September 15, 2019. These elections will be the second direct elections since the 2011 revolution. A presidential candidate must be at least 35 years old on the day of filing for candidacy and must be a Muslim. The candidate must have Tunisian nationality, and, if he or she has a second nationality, must abandon any other nationality.

Ruqaiyya was born in southern Tunisia in a very traditional environment. Her father did not want her to go to school outside her village and wanted to dictate who she would marry. Both she resisted and left for the capital Tunis where people enjoy greater liberties. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī developed into a humanitarian activist who is advocating women’s rights, the rights of religious minorities such as Christians and Jews and the rights of the poor and disadvantaged in society.  

We first came to know Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī during her visit to Egypt in 2016. She had come to know a couple who wanted to get married but could not because she was a Tunisian Muslim and he was a Spanish Christian. Until September 2017 Tunisia followed Islamic law that specifies that a non-Muslim man could not marry a Muslim woman. Consequently, a non-Muslim man who wished to marry a Tunisian Muslim woman had to convert to Islam and provide authorities with a certificate of his conversion as proof. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī successfully advocated for changing Tunisia’s marriage law.

Tunisia is very different from other Muslim countries. The country became independent in 1956. The first president, Habib Bourguiba [al-Ḥabīb Būrqībah] (1903-2000), served between 1956 and 1987. In these years he pursued a policy of secularization, separation of religion and politics. He secularized education and unified the legal system so that all Tunisians, regardless of their religious convictions, would be subject to the state courts. Būrqībah framed these changes as a modernist reading of Islam and not a break with Islam. Rukaiyya speaks highly of Būrqībah and remembers the speeches of Būrqībah on the radio when she was a child. This is what motivated her to fight for her education against the explicit will of her father.

Būrqībah’s policy changed the country. Tunis could be a city in France. The number of veiled women here is small. In theory 99% of Tunisians adheres to Islam but for many Islam is just a name, a culture and not faith. This is very different in southern Tunisia that is very traditional. Unfortunately, many of the fighters of the so-called Islamic State came from this part of Tunisia.

It is estimated there are around 50.000 Christians in Tunisia, a very small percentage on a population of 11, 5 million. Most Christians have Berber, Italian or French roots and most are Catholic. Christians are very active because of the schools and clinics they operate. The protestant churches, including the Eglise Réformée, number an estimated 2000 members, including a few hundred citizens who have converted to Christianity. The government, however, is discouraging religious conversions in order to keep stability. Many churches play an important role for African migrants. The Anglican Church, for example, consists primarily of expatriates.

There is also a Jewish community with around 1500 members and there are even a few hundred Baha’is, a group that is usually not tolerated in other Muslim countries. Tunisia is therefore seen as a model of religious tolerance and co-existence in the Muslim world. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī is explicitly advocating this religious tolerance and co-existence and represents the Eglise Réformée in its relation between the Tunisian government and civil society.

On August 17, 2017, Arab-West Report published her views on religion. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī is a theist, she believes God is love and loves all humankind, not only people of one particular faith. She wrote “God didn't want us to be separated, he wants us to be united. Our Lord has never been arrogant so why are we? Humans are full of hate, full of darkness and He wants to lead us to the light. Love and peace is the only thing we need. Are we aware of this? Probably yes but something inside us, it could be selfishness and it could be unwillingness, is dragging us down.”

Believers of all religions can be united if they would just focus on God’s love for humanity. “Remember that he is our father, creator and God. So love the Lord your God with all of your heart and remember that we are brothers and sisters. We belong to the same race and we believe in the same God. There is no difference between us. The noble Qur’an [Qur'ān] said “and the nearest them in love to the believers are those who say we are Christians." (Surah 5, verse 82)

Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī invited me to visit Tunisia in February 2018. She appreciates the set-up of Arab-West Report with students from different nationalities and religious convictions working on a database that advocates understanding between peoples of different cultures and convictions. Arab-West Report is based in Egypt and for this reason mostreports are focused on Egypt. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī, however, would like to see the development of a Tunisian Arab-WestReport. It is not difficult to create a Tunisian section in our database and give a Tunisian editor the authority over that section but, just as in Cairo, Arab-West Report needs a paid editor who coordinates the work and edits all material presented by students and possibly coming from other sources. Brill Publishers commented that editors of their publications are very often university faculty and do this alongside their work at university. Manouba University showed an interest in Arab-West Report but these contacts have yet to be further developed.

On September 18, 2018, Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī announced in a lecture about her work in the Christian Reformed Church in The Hague, The Netherlands, that she wanted to run for president in Tunisia. I reported about this in our newsletter of November 4, 2018.

Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī has been extremely active in trying to bring the Libyan civil war to an end through the tribal concept ofSulḥ, reconciliation. She visited the Arab-West Report office in August 2018 with a number of prominent Libyans which resulted in a report of Lorena Stancu in Arab-West Report. 

In April 2019 Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī visited the Dutch Foreign Ministry and requested the use of the Peace Palace for a Libyan peace conference. This was held off by the Dutch since new fights had broken out between forces of Field Marshal Khalīfa Belqāsim Ḥaftar and the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, an interim government that was formed in 2015 under the terms of the United Nations supported Libyan Political Agreement.

Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī’s mother is from the Sanousi tribe, a large tribe found in both Libya and southern Tunisia, and is thus well acquainted with the tribal methods of reconciliation.

We wish Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī much success in her presidential campaign. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī is well connected but does not have the financial means as other candidates with businesses or business connections. Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī, however, is determined to fight for what she believes to be God’s will and that is showing the love of God for all His creation.

We would like to wish this opportunity to wish Ruqaiyya al-Ḥāfī and all our Muslim friends a blessed Eid al-Adha [ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā].


August 8, 2019

Cornelis Hulsman, Editor-in-Chief Arab-West Report