Tunisia’s Salafists have a new jihadist mission. Since their return to the battlefield during the revolt against former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the Salafists have chosen a more direct approach to confrontations. Universities were the launching point of the existential Salafist battle. The dispute at the faculty of arts in Sousse and the controversy over imposing the veil are still fresh in our minds. Today's Salafists, though perhaps not all of them, are doing the “dance of fire” with the Harlem Shake, which is burning up the Tunisian street. The Salafists are not angry just about a dance, and the Tunisians are not afraid of sporadic Salafist attacks at schools, universities and in the streets. The issue is bigger than that. It is a time bomb that could blow up at any moment and for many reasons.
The “Salafist police” and the Harlem Shake
After the leftist dissident Chokri Belaid was assassinated and the country entered a critical phase, Salafist patrols began to appear in the Tunisian capital and other provinces. The patrols claim that they are maintaining security and punishing offenders. In one recording, a group calling itself the “Salafist police” patrol the streets under the slogan of “promoting virtue and preventing vice,” as jihadist music plays in the background.
The patrol includes dozens of Salafists armed with clubs, traveling either on foot or motorcycle. According to the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia’s official Facebook page, “the patrols are there to protect honor and property.” The Salafists have sent Facebook invitations to their supporters to go out and “police” the streets. Some Facebook pages include telephone numbers that people can call if they need help from a Salafist patrol.
The phenomenon has resulted in several clashes with residents and police officers, particularly in Sfax and Sidi Bouzid. In the Noor neighborhood of Sidi Bouzid, Salafists attacked youth they accused of “drinking alcohol and insulting sacred figures.” In Manouba, Salafists assaulted the police chief.
Today, with the proliferation of the Harlem Shake dance, hardly a day goes by without an attack by Salafists on dancers, with complete disregard for the sanctity of the school or university.
Salafists stormed Imam Muslim school in the capital and attacked the students who organized the dance. A few days later, about ten Salafists, backed by veiled female students, stormed the Bourguiba Institute of Modern Languages in the al-Khadra neighborhood to prevent students from organizing the dance. Interestingly, some of those Salafists were wearing military uniforms. A veiled student slapped her colleague and called her an “infidel.” On the same day, about 20 Salafists attacked high school students in Raqab, Sidi Bouzid. According to the teachers, the school was being monitored a few days before the attack, and the police were present but did not intervene.
The next day, there were clashes between students at the University of Manouba, near the capital, and Salafists who intervened to prevent them from performing the Harlem Shake. But the Salafists withdrew after the police intervened to separate the two sides.
In Sousse, during clashes between Salafists and students, the police used tear gas to disperse the students.
The president of the opposition party Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, declared his support for the Harlem Shake dance “as long as morality is respected.”
The president of the Tunisian Human Rights League Abdul Sattar Ben Moussa visited the interior minister (in charge of forming a government) and condemned the attacks. According to Ben Moussa, the interior minister promised to quickly address the phenomenon.
The “Muslim Shake,” the Salafist way
The Salafists’ jihad is not only being waged in the public dance arenas; senior Salafist sheikhs have warned from “straying from God’s way” and have issued fatwas calling others apostates. Jihad has even reached cyberspace, through a video called the “Muslim Shake.”
Salafist websites have issued fatwas describing the Harlem Shake as blasphemy. The websites of the Tunisian Salafist Sheikhs and of the Ahl al-Sunna wal Jamaa have put up a recording by Abou Suhaib al-Tunisi, a prominent Salafist, in which he called his followers “to be careful with the students in schools and universities who perform the dance.” He said those students have become blinded or are being paid by people who want to incite discord between the students and their Salafist brothers.
The Muslim Shake video shows five students in a classroom with one student dancing while wearing the famous Harlem Shake mask, then the call to prayer sounds and all the students, except the one dancing, head to prayer. The dancing student looks around and wonders where everybody has gone, then rushes to join them. Ironically, the phrase “con la terroristas” in the Harlem Shake’s lyrics means “with the terrorists.” Perhaps the Salafists should reconsider their opposition to that song.
Tunisia’s Islamists today face another kind of revolution — a revolution that mocks. In the choice between mockery and violence, violence has proven to be ineffective. The more Tunisian and Egyptian youth showcase their ability to transform a dance with sexual overtones into a popular revolutionary act, the more they disarm the Salafists of their most potent weapon: denouncements of apostasy.
That reality has forced the Salafists to brandish the “defense of Palestine” weapon, where a Salafist says in one of his recordings, “We want to prevent you from committing vice. The Israelis are killing our brothers in Palestine, and you are dancing?” That slogan has lost its luster because it is being aimed at youth who have grown tired of having that slogan used to suppress everything that bothers or frightens the ruling class — so they opted to struggle for Palestine in their own way.