Is Tunisia Facing a Salafist Uprising?

Article Summary
Tunisia recently experienced violent protests triggered by supporters of the Salifist jihadist movement who demonstrated against an art exhibit that included depictions of the  Prophet Muhammad, write Osman Hayani and T. Chanouf. Many Tunisians are afraid of that the "Salafi boogeyman" has been let out of the bottle. 

Tunisia [recently] experienced violent protests triggered by supporters of the Salifist jihadist movement who demonstrated against the exhibition of fine art, including paintings depicting God and the Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him.) The protests resulted in altercations with security forces and riots that destabilized national security, which is trying to get back on its feet after the revolution. Many Tunisians are afraid of the Salafist phenomenon and the attempts by its supporters to impose their views on a state that has been secular since independence. The coming out of the Salafists in the open and their violent reactions are making Tunisians fear that their country will resemble Algeria in the 1990s, where verbal and physical violence turned into an armed conflict.

Tunisians hold their breath. The Salafi Bogeyman is out of the bottle

On January 22, 2011, Islamists prayed in front of the Interior Ministry’s headquarters on Habib Bourguiba Avenue. In the past, Tunisians were afraid of even passing by that terrifying place. But President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali is gone, and so is the era of fear: the Salafists are out of the bottle. At their first gathering after Ben Ali’s departure, the Salafists came out of Fath Mosque, near Habib Bourguiba Avenue, waving banners calling for Sharia, law the victory of Islam, and bearing slogans of unity. One Salafist performed the call to evening prayers in front of the Interior Ministry. During the rally, some Salafists raised pictures of Osama bin Laden, and many of them were growing their beards. That event marked the unveiling of the Salafist movement.

On March 25, a Salafist removed a flag at Manouba University and replaced it with an Islamic unification flag. Prior to that, there was a major controversy between the university dean and Salafist students over whether female students can wear the niqab on university grounds. The Salafist students held the dean and occupied the university so impose their views on the students by disrespecting their privacy and verbally attacking female students who were not veiled. The Salafists have also begun controlling mosques in the absence of a government authority there.

At some mosques, the Salafists expelled the imams and replaced them with others. This coincided with the issue surrounding the movie Persia, which aired on Nasma channel and was considered disrespectful to God. That issue was a poisoned gift for Tunisia and a Trojan horse for the Salafists. It was an opportunity to put the secularists on the defensive and push Tunisian society toward Islamism. For secularists, the issue was an opportunity to reveal the defects of the Salafists and raise society’s awareness of their civil, individual, social, and collective liberties, which Tunisians already believe are being threatened.

Scenes from the 1990s

However, Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali sought to reassure Tunisians and Western tourists. During his visit to the Tunisian island of Djerba last month he made a speech directed to tourists as well as to hotel and tourist establishment owners in which he said, “Do not be afraid of the beards.” It was a political reassurance message unjustified by the reality on the ground. Tunisia is demonstrating the same behavior as Algeria in the early 1990s: things like thick beards, veiled women, proselytizing groups, and religious books, pamphlets, and videos, which are sold at the entrance of every mosque.

In the opinion of Tunisian activist Makram Khammar, Tunisians are being reminded of Algeria “even though it is too early to say that Tunisia will experience the same tragedy as Algeria. But the scenes and the developments are making us think that way”

The Salafists’ demands in Tunisia are not limited to the university and the mosque. Little by little, women wearing the niqab have been permitted to enter the classroom and take exams. Then prayer chapels were built within universities. Then Salafists were permitted to conduct lessons and religious seminars at mosques. Then they went out in public to prevent mixing between men and women, and to demand that foreign tourists dress modestly. Things have reached the point where violence occurs. There were attacks against movie theaters, liquor stores, hotels, billboards showing pictures of women, and against the church and Bishop of Tunis. The head of the leftist Workers Party, Hamma Hammami, said that he “received death threats from some Salafist groups.’’ Prior to that, the house of Nabil Karaoui, the director of Nasma channel, was burned. Police stations were attacked and burned, like what happened last week in Jendouba, and two days ago in Tunis and Sousse, the latter being a tourist area where the first person was killed. Salafist violence has become unbearable. The Salafists went from verbal violence to physical violence, as shown in the violent confrontations between Salafist groups and security forces and police in Sousse and Jendouba. The university student who organized “The Street Reads” event attributed the emergence of the Salafist banners in Tunisia to Ben Ali’s repression, but she prays to God that Tunisia does not succumb to a security crisis, nor that it goes from Ben Ali’s backwardness to Salafist backwardness.

The official spokesman of the banned Tahrir Party in Tunisia, Reda Belhaj, to El-Khabar: “The minority is using Salafism as a boogeyman and is seeking Western protection.”

The spokesman for the banned Tahrir Party, which calls for the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in Tunisia, said that the leaders of the Salafist movement in Tunisia are unable to control their supporters. He said that the secular current and those he describes as “opponents of the Islamic awakening” are blowing the events out of proportion in order to harm the Islamists’ reputation and obtain Western protection.

El-Khabar  In light of the controversy between the Islamists and the secularists and the emergence of the Salafist movement, where do you think Tunisia is heading?

Belhaj  After the revolution, Tunisia is seeing the expression of what was repressed. So, the conflict between the Islamists and the secularists was expected. The secularists seek to preserve a legislative and intellectual order, which used to be guarded by the dictatorship, in the name of democracy and its illusions. Popular sentiment is not helping them; they are isolated. The Islamists who are in power seek to reassure the secularists, not because of the secularists’ size or abilities, but to appease the West. This is the dilemma. How can a Muslim liberate his country from occupation, oppression, and subordination without even disagreeing with the West, let alone resisting and confronting it? The Islamic awakening is the decisive factor here. More than once, the Islamists poured into the streets by the tens of thousands to support Islamic Sharia and to call for the establishment of a caliphate. Everybody has to understand that there are three parties to the conflict, not just two.

El-Khabar  Is it true that the Salafi movement poses a threat to political and civil liberties, as alleged by leaders of democratic and secular parties?

Belhaj  The brothers in the Salafist movement say that they are unable to control their supporters because they are diverse, open, and non-partisan. So, some transgressions have taken place. But the opponents of the Islamic awakening are blowing things out of proportion to make themselves look like victims in front of public opinion and to show the West that they need to be protected, even if that requires a new dictatorship.

El-Khabar  Is the rise of the Salafist current related to the democratic forces’ goals of removing the government?

Belhaj  There were demands and attempts to overthrow the government within a month after it was formed. Those who want that also want a tiny minority to run the country or to form a dictatorship that would protect the country from the Islamic tide. The only one who has the right to remove the government is a genuine Islamic project: meaning, through a massive popular revolution, or if those in power returned to their senses and established full Islamic rule by putting a caliphate in place, which would make Tunisia stronger and better in the context of unifying the Muslim countries. Anything other than that would be a return to the darkness.

El-Khabar  How would you rate the performance of the government, which is run by Ennahda and the troika?

Belhaj  The government is confused because it was formed according to a false balance of power. Electoral law contributed to that by inflating the weak and gave them what they do not deserve. How can political life be mended when the majority is being prevented from exercising its right as a majority? Ennahda has obtained more than two thirds of the votes; an outside force is behind all that.

Nighttime clashes with police in the neighborhoods of Tunis. Salafists defy the curfew

A young Tunisian died yesterday after receiving a bullet to the head during violent protests by Salafists in Sousse. On Tuesday, Violence gripped the capital, Tunis Salafists were protesting the curfew implemented by the Tunisian authorities as a result of the escalating violence. According to the Interior Ministry, 146 Salafists were detained.

Media reports quoting medical sources at Sousse Hospital said that Fahmi al-Oueini died after receiving a bullet to the head during clashes between security forces and Salafists in the city on Tuesday. The director of Sousse Hospital told AFP that the hospital received 10 wounded, among them four members of the security forces.

Tunisian media reports said that Oueini was from the city of Tataouine and was studying in Sousse. He died when security forces tried to disperse Salafists and other deviants who were trying to burn down the police headquarters in the city. Four people were also arrested during the confrontations. The Salafists challenged the curfew implemented by Tunisian authorities. Several groups went out at night and clashed with police officers in a number of neighborhoods in Tunis. Media reports spoke of several arson incidents targeting governmental and commercial institutions.

Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh announced that 153 people had been arrested. Laarayedh expected that number to rise and the violence and riots to continue due to “the current tensions.” In a joint statement, the president, the Constituent Assembly and the government condemned the extremists, the “threat to freedom” and “anything that harms the sanctity” of the people and the nation.

Meanwhile, the permanent military court in Tunis sentenced President Ben Ali  in absentia to life in prison for the willful murder of demonstrators during the revolution.

Head of the Ennahda movement, Rashid Ghannouchi: “Al-Zawahiri is a disaster for Islam and Muslims”

Rashid Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamic Ennahda Movement, which leads the ruling coalition in Tunisia, said that that al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri is “a disaster for Islam and Muslims, and has no influence in Tunisia.’’ The statement was made  in response to al-Zawahiri’s calls on June 10 for a coup against Ennahda.

Found in: al-qaeda, salafists, islamism, ennahda

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