Tunisia activists file suit against female circumcision preacher

Campaign of radicalization

Tunisian rights activists said Wednesday they were taking legal action against a visiting Egyptian Muslim preacher for inciting hatred and advocating polygamy and female circumcision.
Less than two months after Tunisia's Islamist-led government took office, successive visits by radical clerics have heightened fears among Tunisians that hardline version of Islam was allowed to spread across the country.
Wagdy Ghoneim, a radical imam known for his anti-Semitic sermons, was invited to Tunisia by Islamist organisations but his presence has angered some groups.
"We are in the process of filing a complaint... against those who are using mosques to political ends," activist and lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida said.
"There's an attack on Tunisia's sovereignty and there is no justification for using mosques to spread hateful and seditious ideology," she said.
In a letter addressed to the authorities, civil society group Kolna Tounes said the preacher's Tunisian tour, which had been due to last until Friday, should be cut short.
"He has incited to hatred and violence, notably against other religions. He has advocated polygamy despite it being banned under (Tunisia's) personal status code," the group said.
"He has also abetted the undermining of women's physical integrity by advocating female circumcision," the letter said.
Wagdy Ghoneim was invited by four little known Islamist organisations and arrived on February 11.
He was cheered by thousands at a sports venue in Tunis on Saturday and has also delivered fiery sermons at mosques in the eastern city of Sousse and in Mehdia, around 200 kilometres (125) miles south of the capital.
"Tunisia was the first country to have its revolution and, God willing, it will be the first to implement Sharia (or Islamic law)," Ghoneim told the religious radio station Zitouna on Wednesday.
Ghoneim served as a preacher in California between 2001 and 2005 before being forced to leave, officially because he had overstayed his visa.
He has since been living mainly in Yemen and Qatar and is on a British Home Office list of people banned from entering the UK, for allegedly encouraging acts of terrorism.
Activist and former Liberal Party official Emna Mnif condemned a "sucession of visits to Tunisia by those who claim to be religious experts but are only the promoters of backward Wahhabi Islam."
According to some newspapers, several other radical Wahhabi preachers have visited Tunisia in recent weeks, including from Saudi Arabia.
The regime of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted by a popular uprising in January 2011, was staunchly secular.
The first post-revolution election in October saw the Islamist Ennahda party win the most votes and sparked fears at home and abroad that Tunisia had vanquished dictatorship only to see other basic freedoms curtailed.
One of Ennahda's partners in the government coalition, the leftist Ettakatol, has urged the Islamist party to make its position on Ghoneim's visit known.
Speaking to local radio Shems FM, religious affairs ministry spokesman Ali Lafi said the sermons delivered by the Egyptian cleric in Tunisia were being closely examined.
Grand Mufti Othman Battikh, the country's highest religious authority, sent foreign preachers a clear message when interviewed by the same radio: "Tunisia has been Islamic for 14 centuries and we don't need them."
But analyst Slah Jourchi warned that the risk of a more radical and imported brand of Islam spreading in traditionally moderate Tunisia was real.
"Ben Ali left a religious vacuum by persecuting the Islamists. Tunisians grew accustomed to seeking religious inspiration on satellite television channels where these eastern clerics preach," he said.