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Salafism in Tunisia: A brief history | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat- When trying to make sense of the state of Salafism in Tunisia, the main thing which baffles any visitor to the country is the lack of political presence of Salafi political parties. Apart from Hizb ut-Tahrir, which will be examined in this article, these are entities which have a long history in Tunisia.

It is certain that Salafism in Tunisia has a particular identity of its own. Before returning to Tunisia in an effort to integrate itself into the new post-revolutionary political system, it existed primarily outside Tunisia’s borders and nearly always operated in countries and regions which were in the throes of ideological crises. Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq, countries riddled with armed conflict, are examples of this. This accounts for the Jihadist nature of the movement, as well as it rejecting politically scientific foundations, contrary to what is found in the case of its counterparts in other Arab countries.

The partisan reality of the Tunisian ‘Jihadi’ Salafi movement is in a clear state of fragmentation. There exist no charismatic leaders willing to unite these different fractions into one being for which to develop its policies and organize its strategic demands. This fragmentation is also apparent in the huge variation in the philosophies of these separate political strands, each with its own adherents who claim them ‘symbols of Tunisian oratory’. Add to this the alleged ‘major infiltration’ of other parties into the Salafi movement, such as Ennahda Party, left-wing figures and the Security Police; not to mention gangs smuggling alcohol and drugs into the country.

It is worth remembering that the loud volume of these groups is overly representative of their size on the ground. Tunisian analysts estimate them to be more than 6,000 in number, spread over various regions.

In order to fully understand the situation of Salafism in Tunisia it is important to bear in mind the influences of the movement on the political memory of the country.

News of the inherent danger in Salafi ‘Jihadi’ activities first circulated after Tunisian security forces discovered a training camp operating at Tabarnak Mountain, south of the capital Tunis. The camp was led by Tunisians trained in Algeria with the group ‘Salafi Call and Combat’, which would later give birth to Al-Qaeda’s North African wing. Confrontation between the former and the Tunisian Army resulted in the death of the cell’s leader and the other members’ detainment.

Tawfiq Medini, specialist researcher and author of “A history of the Tunisian political opposition, from the beginning to the revolution”, one of the most comprehensive publications on the subject of Tunisian political history, says: “Ten days after the first battle, the rest of the elements of the group were arrested. The Salafi leaders operating in Tunisia today include Seif Allah Ben Hassine, who leads an organization known as ‘Ansar al-Sharia’, and who is a student of the Jordanian Abu-Qatada. It is said that he managed a training camp in Afghanistan for North Africans before his arrest and imprisonment in Tunisia.

“Ben Hassine and the elements of the Suleiman Organization were allowed to leave prison after the revolution to form pressure groups which, in the beginning, focused their efforts in the border areas in supporting refugees. They prevented the music and theatre groups which came to entertain the refugees from performing. It is most likely that Tunisian Jihadi Salafis are an integral part of a wider, international network; as the name ‘Ansar al-Sharia’ is also used by the Al-Qaeda Salafis who operate in Yemen.”

In the town of Sousa, where there is a large presence of organizations of this sort, the Faculty of Arts was the location of a noteworthy incident which was covered by local newspapers. A group of Salafis stormed the faculty, allegedly supporting the right of a Niqab-wearing woman to register there. However, the incident ended with the group vandalizing the car of the faculty’s director.

What is the main difference between Tunisian Salafi groups and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Ennahda party which, after all, shares with them the same ideological point of reference?

On the subject of disagreement between these two sides, Adel Alami, President of the ‘Association for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice’ says in his interview with Asharq Al-Awsat that in theory, such problems are created “within the political divide. These disagreements did not arise until Ennahda assumed a role in the corridors of power. The most prominent discord surrounds their inability to arrive at a final decision regarding the definition of certain legislation, the public display of vices such as alcohol, nudity in the street and not wearing the veil. Such manifestations do not indicate that we are true Muslims. As we approach the Holy month of Ramadan, there is a large amount of trepidation that public breach of the Islamic law of fasting will be permitted by the authorities.”

Alami, whom Asharq Al-Awsat met in a glitzy hotel lobby, seemed calm. His thick beard was carefully trimmed and while somewhat casually dressed in trousers and a shirt, still donned the distinctive Tunisian hat. He was keen to express his rejection of all forms of violence, whatever justifications there may be.

Alami added, “Ennahda has promised that it is fulfilling the all the political requirements. However, we are not comfortable with the party not stipulating that sharia is the only source of legislation. As Salafis, we will not abandon this demand.”

En route to the famous Zitouna Mosque in the capital, it is necessary to pass through a long and crowded alley, packed with popular shops and peddlers with their distinctive chants and groups of tourists. This alley leads to the ancient mosque with its large courtyard and Islamic engravings, in distinctly Andalusian character. In a corner of the mosque five youths gather in a circle to study the Holy Quran after the end of the Friday prayers: they are all bearded and wearing the distinctive clothing of the Salafi groups.

Chatting with Asharq Al-Awsat about their concept of the new, post-revolution Tunisia, they all agree that “real Islam ought to prevail over the new Tunisia,” and that they do not belong to any political party or organization which carries out acts of violence. However, only one of them has mentioned that he follows Sheikh Khatib Idrisi.

Who is Khatib Idrisi? Medini says that Idrisi was “imprisoned between 2006 and 2009, charged with issuing a fatwa which encouraged engaging in jihadi operations as well as failure to report a terrorist crime. Idrisi’s followers are active on social networking websites. He has his own official Facebook page.

“Idrisi has called for protests against the satellite channel Nesmah, but restricted these protests to the separate governorates of the country, warning against taking them to the capital and thus being dragged into operations involving destruction and arson. However, the Salafis did indeed stage a large demonstration through the streets of the capital after Friday prayers, denouncing the channel with the slogan “the people want an Islamic Caliphate.” In the evening they burned down the house of the channel’s director.”

Tunisian academic Amal Qarami wrote an article in the ‘Ennahar’ newspaper in which she claimed: “The Salafis are not one bloc. Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is still banned, is present on the political scene via the slogans of the demonstrations which call ‘apply sharia’ and for establishment of ‘the Caliphate’. As for the so-called ‘Jihadi’ Salafi movement, it does not hesitate to use violence, has no time for dialogue with others and aims to purge society of secularism.”

The separation between Hizb ut-Tahrir and other jihadi Salafi factions, which Qarami presents, raises questions regarding exactly how the followers of the two movements are in fact different.

To return to Medini, whose political publications are considered among the most useful when it comes to understanding political activity in Tunisia, and who in an excerpt from his book “A history of the Tunisian political opposition” regarding Hizb ut-Tahrir before its entry into Tunisia, says: “The Jordanian Taqiy-al-Din al-Nabahani is considered the principal theoretician of Hizb ut-Tahrir due to the books he penned. Perhaps the most prominent of these is “The System of Islam”, which perhaps was first published under the title “The Road to Belief”. It is the most important book of Hizb ut-Tahrir, as teaching it to new members takes nearly two years. This is in addition to other books, namely “The Economic System in Islam”, “The Governmental System in Islam”, “The Social System in Islam”, “The Islamic State”, “The Foundations of Progress” and “The Islamic Character”.”

Regarding the entry of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s literature into Tunisia, Medini says, “The establishment of Hizb ut-Tahrir’s Tunisian branch was delayed until the 1980’s. It was established by Mohamed Fadel Cheetara, who joined Hizb ut-Tahrir during his studies in Cologne, West Germany. After his return to Tunisia, he entered into a series of secret contracts with a number of Islamist figures in an effort to recruit them into the party. This was until he convened the founding meeting of the local committee.”

The leaders of Hizb ut-Tahrir have attempted to “infiltrate the military institution with the aim of planting organizational cells within the ranks of the army, and to attract senior officers to educate them in an Islamic way.”

Later on, “some elements of Hizb ut-Tahrir were referred to the military court, which sentenced a number of the accused military personnel to 8 years in prison and 11 civilians to 5 years – these included Mohamed Jerbi, leader of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Tunisia.”

It is worthwhile noting that the overwhelming majority of the Salafi spectra do not belong to the traditional, politically ‘scientific’ Salafi tendency, which exists elsewhere (in Saudi Arabia, for example). Nor do they have any religious authority in the Arabian Gulf which serves to theorize their political activities.

Interestingly enough, renowned Tunisian leftist, Chokri Belaid, is one of the most prominent lawyers defending the members of the Salafi tendency and has handled nearly 90 percent of the files belonging to Salafis wanted by the security forces.

Belaid stresses that the Salafi movement in Tunisia has become “an open field to many political spectra, to the extent that it has become out of control politically.”

He explains, “There is a Salafi faction that is highly-disciplined in the composition of its literature. This belongs to Al-Qaeda. Then there is a reforming Salafi faction, then a Salafi faction infiltrated by Ennahda Party, then a Salafi faction infiltrated by security organizations, and finally a Salafi faction infiltrated by international intelligence organizations.”

Belaid accuses The Ennahda Party of lumping the Salafi tendency “under the rubric of protecting all that is sacred and of giving the Salafis a free hand, enabling them to climb the pulpits of mosques in order to paint the picture that in the midst of the political chaos there is an extreme religious right wing represented by the Salafis on one side and on the other an extreme left wing. Ennahda stands in the middle, centrist. Now, Ennahda finds itself controlling but a small wing of the Salafi tendency, as the Salafi factions that operate above ground are infiltrated by gangs smuggling alcohol and drugs. This is true to the extent that some of the groups specializing in arson also have a long history in the secret smuggling of alcoholic drinks.”

Alami also confirms this. He points out, “There are groups affiliated to the Salafi movement – yet originally they were deviants and convicted criminals released from prison. Their robbery and rape cases are well-known. These groups have found their haven in this hard-line tendency, and because they are criminals, they are controlled by cruelty. In the chaos they have found a ‘breathing space’ with the Salafi brethren – the hard-line character is their common denominator. Some of them have remained as unlicensed merchants of alcoholic drinks, hiding among the members of the Salafi movement.”

Abdessattar Ben Moussa, President of The Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights – one of the oldest independent human rights organizations in North Africa – has warned: “Violent, outlawed members of Salafi groups evade punishment. They roam round attacking wherever they go in order to spread terror, committing physical and psychological violence against women, intellectuals, journalists, creative figures, trade unionists, politicians and human rights activists. They violate academic freedom, educational institutions, houses of worship and the headquarters of trade unions and political parties. This is coupled with their exploitation of religion and their deeming citizens to be infidels.”

What is certain is that even the pulpits of mosques are no longer completely under the influence of governmental decisions: the political vacuum has led to some mosques recruiting preachers with known backgrounds in activism.

A notable incident involving mosques no longer under government supervision is related by Medini: “The Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and the partisan members participating in the governmental coalition have all confronted the actions of the Egyptian Islamist Wajdi Ghunaym, who travelled across the country visiting mosques affiliated with the Ministry of Islamic Trusts. He related to them an address dividing the Tunisian people into two halves: infidels and Muslims. It also ridiculed the national anthem, condoned the hitting and circumcision of women, allowed raising arms against the state, considered the people’s possession of sovereignty as infidelity and deviation, claimed that personal freedom was null and void and tantamount to corruption and allowed the imposition of the penalty for desertion on anyone who practices freedom of religion. Habib Luz, Deputy of the Constituent Assembly and a leading member of Ennahda was seen accompanying Ghunaym.”

This state of internal conflict has been conveyed in Ghannouchi’s comment, as Medini tells, “Ghannouchi has considered that the problem is not represented by this Islamic caller, but by the media which incites revolt. Moreover, one of Ennahda’s ministers has said that Tunisia is open to all forms of opinion – from the extreme right to the extreme left. At the same time, Tunisian President Rachid Ghannouchi has described Ghunaym as ‘a virus’. After this happened, conflicting demonstrations were held by the Salafis and the secularists.”

What is certain is that the ‘jihadi’ Salafi movement in Tunisia is in its ‘formation’ stage, yet lacks any real clear direction. Nonetheless it is efficient in its practice of violence, and lacks a peaceful political form which would be able to participate in making important decisions regarding the political future of Tunisia.

The principle feature of fragmentation in the higher levels makes it difficult to control the actions of the movement effectively, due to its lack of united leaders who are able to reach mutual agreement. On the other hand, other sides concerned consider that all participants in the situation in which Salafism finds itself are under security surveillance. Their threat can be contained if there is political pressure to do so from the decision makers.

However, the future of Tunisia remains unknown in this respect. This is especially true in light of frequent news reports relating the discovery of huge amounts of weaponry smuggled in from neighboring countries.