Sectarian Tensions in Tunisia Reflect Larger Geopolitical Rivalry

Article Summary
Is antagonism toward Tunisia's minority Shiites motivated by religion or politics? Synda Tajine argues it's a proxy in the fight for leadership among Arab countries between the U.S.-aligned Gulf states and those defending the Syrian regime, led by Iran.

Shiism, not very well-known by Tunisians, is creating a buzz. We are witnessing a resurgence of positions that are hostile to this facet of Islam, considered by some to be "heretical" and a "threat to the Sunni Maliki identity" of the Muslim community in Tunisia.

Salafists are crying conspiracy and calling for a war against these "intruders of Islam," denouncing an attempt by Iran to establish, through offshoots of proselytism, its bases in Tunisia. Does the conflict between Shiites and Sunnis have reasons to break out in Tunisia? Is it an ideological conflict or an attempt at political diversion?

On Aug. 17, 2012, the city of Gabes witnessed Salafist attacks against a group of Shiites who were protesting on "Al Quds [Jerusalem] Day." The Iranian flag that was waved and the pro-Bashar Al-Assad slogans that were chanted during this event only served to further fuel the historical tensions between the two religious groups.

However, this was not the first time in recent weeks that small groups of Shiites were attacked in Tunisia. A group of Salafists also attacked an Iranian Sufi band, which came to accompany the show of Lotfi Bouchnak on Aug. 15 at Kairouan, under the pretext that they were "Shiites."

In Tunisia, the Shiite faction represents a very small minority in comparison to the Sunni majority in the country. They have a discrete presence that still counts some followers in some cities such as Mahdia, the old Fatimid capital, and Gabes, formerly known as the "hotbed of the Tunisian Shiism." However, there are no exact figures to assess the Shiite presence in Tunisia at the moment.

Abdelhafidh al-Bannani, Tunisian Shiite and author of the book "Introduction to the History of Shiism in Tunisia," said that the presence of Shiites in Tunisia remains very minor and is likely to remain this way since Shiites prefer the union of different Muslim confessions rather than the constitution of a base of their own. According to him, proselytizing is not part of the aspirations of the Shiites, who do not aim to gather more followers.

Despite its minority, it is clear that Shiism is disturbing, especially for the advocates of a "homogeneous Tunisia" and of a model of society that "fits everyone."

In Tunisia, "Shiites are a cancer to fight, a real spreading danger that must be confronted." These were the words of Adel Almi, president of the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform. Almi states that Shiism, even if only a minority, is currently receiving more and more "simple-minded" individuals, who let themselves be indoctrinated and led by this branch that is "foreign to Islam."

The Salafist preacher Bashir Ben Hassan argues that "there is no room for these people in our country," adding that, "We will not let them do it. They will either repent or return to Iran." According to him, Iran is seeking to spread Shiism in Tunisia to serve its interests.

The leader of the Salafist movement, Abu Yadh, calls on his disciples "not to be silent before the Shiite invasion in Tunisia," or that of the "non-Muslims who have no place in our country." The preacher even supports the Salafist attacks in Bizerte, which were carried out during the visit of Lebanese Samir Qantar, who is close to the Shiite movement of Hezbollah and the pro-Assad positions.

The schizophrenia of the Salafists, whose positions range from an attitude that is sometimes favorable to Hezbollah, for its involvement in the Palestinian cause, and others hostile to the movement because of its Shiite allegiance, places them at the heart of the plot and makes them perfect targets for this attempt at manipulation against a practically nonexistent phenomenon in Tunisia.

Salafists blame the Iranian influence for what they perceive as a "spread" of Shiism in Tunisia, arguing that the Islamic Republic of Iran, by encouraging the expansion of this branch in the Arab-Muslim countries, will also have Tunisia in its sights, given that the revolution of Jan. 14, 2011, has made it an excellent base for the exportation of the "Iranian Revolution experience."

Sadok Chourou, of Ennahda’s radical wing, supports that theory and even accuses outside parties, namely Iran, of being behind what he calls the “the Shiite minority’s spread in Tunisia.” But the Iranian officials who visited Tunisia last April strongly deny that. The Iranian foreign minister asserted that "Iran has no plans to ‘Shiitize’ Tunisian Muslim society.”

Nevertheless, the Salafists continue their mobilization against this "undesirable" phenomenon. They have created the Tunisian League for the Fight Against Shiism. It is led by lawyer Ahmed Ben Hassana and calls for shutting down the Iranian cultural center in Tunis, which it accuses of working for ideological ends that threaten the "Sunni Maliki Tunisian identity."

But this identity is not threatened at all, according to Abdelhafidh al-Bannani. He says that "there currently is no real sectarian conflict between Shiites and Sunnis in Tunisia," but rather a petrodollar-funded media war.

The Salafists, who claimed to be fierce defenders of Islam, now find themselves at the heart of this media war. The historic rivalry between the two Muslim sides has certainly left its mark, but today the religious dimension is merely a camouflage for more complex strategic considerations.

The oil monarchies’ obsession with the Shiite question appears to be nothing more than a diversion. The two Islamic sects, which have significantly different religious practices, also hold two opposing attitudes toward the United States. Iran, the center of Shiism, opposes it, while Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries support it.

The age-old rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis seems today to be at a decisive turning point. What at the surface appears to be religious in nature is actually a fight over who will lead the Arabs. That fight is compounded by the petrodollars factor and the Iranian nuclear issue.

The Syrian conflict is now at the heart of these political considerations and will determine the fate of the "Shiite crescent," which consists of Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The fall of Assad’s regime could considerably weaken Shiite influence in the region.

The "influential" media of the Gulf monarchies understand that very well. Al-Jazeera has certainly played a role in the Tunisian revolution and is now heavily covering Syrian developments. But it is strangely silent on the Bahraini conflict, which is threatening to overthrow a Sunni regime facing a population that is 70% Shiite.

Tunisian political leaders are following the movement

In Tunisia, the ruling Ennahda Party, which has long understood geopolitics, has chosen its camp. Even though everybody is aware of the admiration that high-ranking party leaders, including Rached Ghannouchi, have toward "the Supreme Guide of the Iranian Revolution," Ayatollah Khomeini, Ennahda’s "precious partners" still control its funding and dictate a strategy that favors having a good "international reputation," which takes into consideration the interests of the Gulf countries and their petrodollars.

Even though Ennahda has publicly said that they favor a pluralistic Tunisia in which all Islamic denominations can flourish, they have not condemned the Salafist attacks on Shiites in the cities of Bizerte and Gabes. The leaders of the Islamist party, which has often advocated freedom of worship, have not reacted to those attacks even though they were against a very small minority.

In Tunisia, the rivalry between Shiites and Sunnis dates back to the Fatimid era. It certainly was a historic conflict. But today it is being fueled by the Iraq War and the current Syrian conflict. It is a chance for some Tunisians, mostly Salafists, to join the Free Syrian Army and participate in bringing down the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Under the diktat of the Gulf monarchies, the unifying Ennahda discourse seems to follow a strategy that is definitely not “unifying” and clearly favors one side over another, along with both sides’ alliances.

The coveted and admired Middle East has so decided.

Found in: tunisia, sunni maliki identity, shiism, islam, iranian interests, iran, ennahda, conspiracy

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