Tunisia’s population is estimated to be just under 10.8 million in 2013. The government has supported a successful family planning programme that has reduced the population growth rate to just over 1% per year, thus contributing to Tunisia’s economic and social stability.
Ethnic groups in Tunisia
Sociologically, historically and genealogically, the population of Tunisia is mainly composed of Arabs, Berbers and Turks. While Ottoman impact has been most significant in the establishment of the Turkish-Tunisian community, there have also been other peoples who immigrated to Tunisia at different periods, which include sub-Saharan Africans, Greeks, Romans, Phoenicians (Punic), Jews and French settlers. Nevertheless, by 1870 the distinction between the Arabic-speaking masses and the Turkish elite had blurred, and today the overwhelming majority of about 98% identify themselves simply as Arabs. It also has a small pure Berber community (1% or less) concentrated in the Dahar Mountains and on Djerba Island in the south-east, as well in the mountainous region of Khroumire in the north-west.
For the period from the late 19th century until after the World War II, Tunisia hosted large populations of French and Italians, but almost all of these people, as well as the Jewish population, left after Tunisia’s independence. The history of Jews in Tunisia goes back some 2,000 years. The Jewish population in 1948 has been estimated at 105,000, however, in 2013, only around 900 were actually remained.
Historically, the first known people in what is now Tunisia have been the Berbers.
After the Reconquista and the expulsion of non-Christians and Moriscos from Spain, many Spanish Muslims and Jews also arrived.
Religion in Tunisia
Most of Tunisia’s population ( approximately 98%) are Muslims, while approximately 2% are Christian and Judaism and others. Most Tunisians belong to the Maliki branch of Sunni Islam, whose mosques are easily identified by their square minarets. However, the Turks brought with them lessons from the Hanafi school during Ottoman rule, which is preserved to this day among families of Turkish origin, and their mosques traditionally have octagonal minarets. Sunnis constitute the majority, with non-denominational Muslims being the second largest group of Muslims, followed by the Amazigh Ibadites.
Tunisia has a large Christian community of about 25,000 followers, mostly Catholic (22,000) and to a lesser extent Protestant. Berber Christians lived in Tunisia until the beginning of the 15th century. The 2007 International Religious Freedom Report estimates that thousands of Tunisian Muslims are converting to Christianity. With 900 members, Judaism is the country’s third largest religion. A third of the Jewish population lives in and around the capital. The rest of them live on the island of Djerba where there are 39 synagogues where the Jewish community is 2,500 years old, on Sfax and Hammam-Lif.
In Djerba, an island in the Gulf of Gabès, is the El Ghriba synagogue, one of the oldest synagogues in the world and the oldest in continuous use. Many Jews consider it to be a place of pilgrimage where, because of its age and the legend that the synagogue was built with stones from the temple of Solomon, is celebrated once a year. In fact, Tunisia, along with Morocco, is considered the Arab country that accepts its Jewish population the most.
The constitution declares Islam the official religion of the state and requires that the President be Muslim. In addition to the President, Tunisians enjoy a high degree of religious freedom, a right that is enshrined and protected in the constitution and guarantees freedom of thought, belief and practice of one’s religion.
The country has a secular culture in which religion is separated not only from political but also from public life. At one point in the period before the revolution, there were restrictions on the wearing of the Islamic headscarf (hijab) in government offices, as well as on the streets and at public gatherings. The government believed that the hijab was “a garment of foreign origin with partisan connotations”. Tunisian police reportedly harassed and arrested men with an “Islamic” appearance (such as bearded men) and sometimes forced men to shave their beards.
In 2006 the former Tunisian President announced he would “fight” the hijab, which he describes as “ethnic clothing. Mosques were not allowed to hold common prayers or classes. However, after the revolution, a moderate Islamist government was elected, leading to greater freedom in the practice of religion. It also gave way to the rise of fundamentalist groups such as the Salafists, who demand a strict interpretation of Shari’a law. The overthrow in favour of the moderate Islamist government of Ennahdha was in part due to the objectives of the secret service of the modern Tunisian government to suppress fundamentalist groups before they could act.
Individual Tunisians tolerate religious freedom and generally do not inquire about a person’s personal beliefs.