Salafists and Shiites Vie For Influence in Tunisia

A Tunisian MP, in an interview with El-Khabar, claims rising conversions to Shia Islam have spurred a pushback from Salafist groups infiltrated by supporters of the former regime who are willing to use violent tactics to sow chaos.

al-monitor Salafist protesters wave flags during a protest in front of the Tunisian TV headquarters in Tunis March 9, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Topics covered

zine al-abidine ben ali, tunisia, shiism, samir kuntar, sadek churu, islam, ennahda party, ennahda

Aug 23, 2012

According to MP Sadok Chourou of the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party in Tunisia, conversion to Shiism is on the rise there, which has prompted a tide of protests by Salafist movements against the visit of Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese Druze who converted to Shiism.

Kuntar was released from Israeli prisons [as part of an Israel-Hezbollah prisoner swap]. Salafists have also accused the Iranian Cultural Center of promoting Shiism in Tunisia. Moreover, Chourou accused the supporters of ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of infiltrating Salafist movements, committing acts of violence and spreading chaos in the name of Salafists in an attempt to regain power.

Is it true that conversion to Shiism is on the rise in Tunisia, and that people are violently protesting against this phenomenon, as happened during the visit of Samir Kuntar to Tunisia?

Indeed, endeavors are being made on an almost daily basis to spread Shiism in Tunisia, particularly in certain areas such as Gabes. This has provoked other parties, including Salafists of various stripes, who have strong positions against Shiites, and resulted in the use of violence.

Who is behind the spread of Shiism in Tunisia?

Before the revolution, Shiism had been kept low-key. However, with the flow of freedom that prevailed in the country, cultural and informative seminars have been held to promote Shiism. It is very likely that the Iranian Cultural Center in Tunisia is playing a major role in spreading Shiism, for there are no Shiite institutions in the country. The promotion of Shiism is the result of foreign activity. Even the tide of Salafism is the result of foreign intervention, as some external parties are trying to spread it in Tunisia, which has become a pit of exported ideas and doctrines coming from the Gulf and Iran in particular.

How many Shiites are there in Tunisia?

There is no specific number. However, they are increasing and have become a phenomenon in Tunisia. They are making efforts to spread Shiism, most notably by visiting families house to house and by preaching in mosques.

Why do some Salafists resort to the use of violence to express their ideas, even though some of their political parties have become a part of the government?

The truth of the matter is that some members of Salafist groups are not actual Salafists. They are remnants of the former regime, who have infiltrated Salafist groups to commit acts against the government. We believe that true Salafists do not espouse the use of violence. Ben Ali is using some remnants of the Constitutional Democratic Rally Party (RCD) to serve such an ill cause. These people were the most affected by the revolution, and their only way to regain power is to spread chaos.

Has the government become unable to control the mosques?

Due to a lack of lack of ideological unity [among the mosques], some movements have managed to dominate them. Some skirmishes have also occurred between different groups, which is normal.

But the residents of the state of Sidi Bouzid, the hub of the revolution, have been demonstrating against the Troika government as it has failed to achieve the desired development?

Completion of the development programs requires time and effort. Some parties, such as the RCD and other left-wing parties that were defeated in the elections, have been taking advantage of this fact to turn public opinion against the government.

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