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Losing ground to Islamists, Tunisia's liberal parties get in the charity game

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“When you work with people on the ground you can communicate your ideas on society,” says Jlidi. “Islamists occupied the mosques; we’re going to occupy the public space.” 

Today Kolna Tounes has around 500 members and offices or representatives in 17 cities, Jlidi says. It has offered charity for the poor and small noninterest loans for business start-ups and backs cultural programs it says embody modern values.

Are liberalism and Islam mutually exclusive?

Last month that brought Jlidi and other Kolna Tounes members to a farm near the village of Boukrim, northeast of Tunis, and into partnership with dance teacher Nawel Skandrani.

Mrs. Skandrani, a ballet dancer, crafted the workshop to teach children poise and self-discipline, and thus “some idea of what it means to be a citizen,” she says. “And to give them the possibility to dream.” 

Most mornings last week, 34 school-aged children crowded into the farm’s barn, a one-story brick building fitted with a springy wooden dance floor, for lessons in dance and public speaking.

For some locals in Boukrim, such activities smack of a certain decadence.

“Teaching kids to dance is not the priority when some homes here don’t even have running water,” says Chihab Belhaj, a window framer and member of Hizb-ut-Tahrir. “And naturally, Islam and liberalism contradict one another.” 

Hizb-ut-Tahrir members help offer Quranic memorization classes each Friday in Boukrim’s mosque for around 120 local children, he says. 

That sits well with the worldview of Abdullah Ben Younes, an affable wheat farmer and acquaintance of Mr. Belhaj. He reveres Islam and distrusts the motives of groups like Kolna Tounes. 

“They talk about freedom of speech, for example,” he says. “But all they really want is the freedom to insult Islam.” 

That notion is rejected by Jlidi, himself a Muslim. He says Kolna Tounes avoids debating religion and wants to help Tunisians regardless of their religious leanings.

Skandrani says her local critics “should come understand what these kids are dreaming of. I’m not talking to them about religion, either for it or against. I’m not trying to brainwash them. Rather, to open their minds.”

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