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Opinion: The Islamist Divide | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Egyptian Salafi Muslims chant slogans during a protest in support of the bearded police officers who were prevented from carrying out their work in the interior ministry, in front of Abdeen presidential palace in downtown Cairo, Egypt, Friday, March 1, 2013. Source: AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

“If you are fools, try stopping us!” This is the title of a campaign being led by an extremist Islamist group in Tunisia. By “fools,” the group is referring to the Islamist Ennahda party and its government. The paradox is that Ennahda Islamists doubt the presence of terrorist groups and condemn the prevention of preaching campaigns and charity activities under the pretext that these are Islamic. But history repeats itself. The Islamist Ennahda government is currently the one issuing the bans.

And what is banned today is the Ansar Al-Sharia group. The interior ministry has banned “all organizations, people or political parties from preaching in public places without prior permission,” and the Salafi movement’s members are being deterred by the removal of tents that were set up to spread their religious campaigns and distribute leaflets.

Ansar Al-Sharia described Ennahda leaders such as Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi as “tyrants under the guise of Islam.” The group also warned: “[We] remind you that our youths who displayed heroism by defending Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and the Levant will never hesitate to make sacrifices for their religion in the land of Kairouan in Tunisia.”

When it was the government of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali that similarly prevented extremist religious groups from gatherings and detained their leaders, these groups became part of the opposition. They saw Ben Ali’s acts as tyrannical, claiming that he was manufacturing crises in order to accuse Islamists of terrorism and prevent them from working in politics.

The situation is not exclusive to Tunisia. Take Egypt, the most populous country to have been part of the Arab Spring. Egypt has likewise witnessed the beginnings of confrontations between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government and jihadist groups. The Egyptian interior minister was quick to announce that “the police dealt a powerful blow to a terrorist cell that was planning a suicide bombing and was in the final stages of plotting an attack on a foreign embassy.”

The Brotherhood also used to accuse the Mubarak government they would eventually rise up against of making up accusations against Islamist groups in order to justify besieging them. The Brotherhood used to view any statements made concerning terrorist plots and the targeting of Egyptian or foreign institutions as being completely false.

So how do these groups justify themselves now that they have come to power, and now that they are suffering from the same ills? They are suffering from religious extremism that attacks not only the government, but society as a whole. Most importantly, how do we foresee a future of fighting extremism and terrorism?

Governments that fought terrorism were accused of being on the side of the West, and of implementing campaigns against Islam. Today, the governments that fight extremists do so under the banner of Islam; now that they are in power, religious extremism is viewed as something that must be removed.

This is a positive development, although it is not void of opportunism. Such groups are claiming to be competent after having involved themselves in the international community on intellectual, political and democratic levels. Gratitude must go to extremist Salafist groups who, through their foolish actions and extreme ideas, have ended up improving the image of the Brotherhood, and other groups of a similar nature.