The Secret of the Salafists’ Appeal In Tunisia

Despite being hounded by the government, the jihadist Salafists in Tunisia appeal to the youth in slums because they give them a sense of belonging and focus on indoctrination, writes Ghassan Ben Khalifa.

al-monitor A member of the main labor union body UGTT is held back during a clash between UGTT and Islamists, at a gathering where they called for a general strike and downfall of the government led by the Islamist Ennahda party in Tunis, Dec. 4, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

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salafist jihadist groups, salafist, muslim, islamist, ennahda

May 1, 2013

The US embassy incident on Sept. 14, 2012 — that is, the violent protests against the film "The Innocence of Muslims," which led to the storming and burning of embassy buildings and the killing of four protesters by the security forces — was a turning point for the Salafist phenomenon in Tunisia.

It seemed clear that the mutual caution that characterized the relationship between the ruling Ennahda Movement (of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the jihadist Salafist movement could not continue as is. The United States strongly protested what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other countries, thus forcing those countries’ new rulers to firmly deal with the jihadist Salafists, which the governments accused of being behind the storming of the embassy.

For the first time since Ben Ali was deposed, the Tunisian judiciary pursued and prosecuted the alleged leaders of the jihadist Salafist current (most notably, Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi, who repeatedly succeeded in escaping capture and is still at large). But in November 2012, the government’s campaign caused the death of two young men who were carrying out a hunger strike to protest the conditions of their detention.

There were official and non-official accusations that the jihadist Salafists were behind the weapons caches that the government uncovers from time to time. The Salafists were also accused of being behind the burning of a significant number of zawayas (shrines built to house the remains of ancient holy men), but Salafist spokesmen denied the accusations. Then, former interior minister and current Prime Minister Ali al-Arid accused a “jihadist Salafist cell” of being behind the assassination of the oppositionist and leftist leader Chokri Belaid on Feb. 6 (the martyr’s family accuses Ennahda). And from time to time, there are clashes with fundamentalist elements on the eastern border with Algeria.

A “puzzling” persistence

But despite government efforts, the jihadist Salafist movement has been able to persist and spread. In recent months, two notable phenomena came to the surface.

First, it appears that the Salafists are attracting a lot more young people from the slums that surround large cities (specifically, Tunis, Sousse and Sfax) than from the cities or the rural areas. Poverty is higher in the slums than in the cities or rural areas.

The second phenomenon is that despite the “limited” numbers of jihadist Salafists, they have proved their ability to persist and remain active. They are active not only in violent protests but also in proselytizing and charitable work. Interestingly, the media, which is generally “hostile” to the Salafists, has remained silent on their proselytizing and charitable activities.

The importance of the pre-modern ties

Poverty and unemployment alone are not enough to explain why the radical Salafist discourse attracts so many youth. Despite a noticeable presence of jihadist Salafists in some inland areas (specifically Sidi Bouzid), their presence remains generally ineffective. Even the village of Sidi Ali Ben Aoun (in the countryside of Sidi Bouzid), where al-Khatib al-Idrissi, one of the most prominent figures of the movement, resides, the Salafist presence is not heavy. But the movement has significant presence in the slums around the capital, such as Sidi Hussein, Tadamon and Dowwar Hayshar. In those slums, the jihadists control a significant number of mosques and they operate missionary, charitable and even medical associations.

While there are conflicting estimates of their exact numbers, a source close to the Center for Strategic Studies (which is affiliated with the presidential office and is doing a comprehensive study of the phenomenon) estimates the movement’s activists to be in the thousands. But the Center also estimates that those activists have sympathizers who may number 100,000 throughout the country.

Al-Amin al-Bouazizi, a social activist and researcher in cultural anthropology, attributes the difference between the cities and the slums to the latter’s failure to absorb those displaced from the country’s interior as they find themselves unable to transform into “proletariat” and adopt an urban culture like many have done during the Industrial Revolution.

At the same time, the youth of families who were displaced decades ago have lost their links with their extended family, specifically the tribes. In the country’s interior, a young person remains in the family’s care even after graduating from school. But in the cities, the family is unable to play the role of the protector, “which makes the youth vulnerable to whoever gives them a feeling of belonging,” according to Bouazizi.

As a result, according to Bouazizi, the youth of those families start to gradually form a “counter-culture” that manifests itself in rap songs or by flocking to the mosques. This climate is suitable for the emergence of jihadist Salafism because “where modernity failed, what preceded modernity becomes a suitable alternative.”

Immunity from media attacks

The popularity of jihadist Salafism among marginalized youth has other explanations. It is the Salafists’ ability to endure negative media coverage. Regardless of the accuracy of the reports by the traditional media (TV, radio and newspapers), specifically those considered “secular,” the Salafists (along with other currents of political Islam, such as Ennahda, Hizb al-Tahrir and the Ennahda-affiliated League for the Protection of the Revolution) are extremely critical of the media, which they call the “media of shame.”

Unlike the leftist and modern middle class (generally found in major cities and “affluent” neighborhoods), the slum youth (especially those who drop out of school) do not have many outlets to discuss public affairs or for leisure. This is what makes the mosques, discussion forums and social networking sites (where Salafists are especially active) so important. Moreover, they interact with their peers in the popular cafes, where unemployed youth spend large portions of the day. Those places are very crowded (unlike the cafes in wealthy neighborhoods) and there is a lot of interaction.

The irony of Salafists being more popular than the left

Salafist currents differ from leftist currents by being present in poor neighborhoods. There, the Salafists provide daily lessons to the youth who go to the mosques (an example is Sheikh Kamal Zarrouk). A source close to the Center for Strategic Studies described the jihadist Salafist current as “the political current that most focuses on indoctrinating its members.”

This allows the Salafists to bypass negative media coverage by using the two-step flow of communication model, also called the Multistep Flow Model, as described by Paul Lazarsfeld and Elihu Katz. According to this model, most people form their opinions by being influenced by opinion leaders, who in turn are influenced by the mass media. So according to this model, ideas flow from the mass media to opinion leaders, and from them to the wider population. This allows the opinion leaders to pass on to the general audience only the information that suits the interests, ideology and politics of the opinion leaders, who, in the Salafists’ case, are the mosque preachers.

The above partially explains why the jihadist Salafist movement is able to spread among the poor. It is a matter that concerns Arab and Tunisian leftist currents, because it explains why leftists in the Arab world are weak compared to their counterparts in Latin America and India, where the left has been able to win overwhelmingly at the ballot box.

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