London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Online social networks and forums are eagerly debating the future of the Islamist trend in Tunisia, in light of the latest developments following the departure of ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Observes monitoring these discussions will notice that the majority focus on the return of Islamist leaders, who are based abroad. It seems that leading figures in the Renaissance Movement, led by Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi, are not the only ones preparing to return to Tunisia. Many Islamists from various backgrounds may seek to return, after spending long years in exile.
Asharq Al-Awsat spoke with Mohamed Ali Harrath, Secretary General of the Tunisian Islamic Front, and Director General of the satellite television station ‘Islam Channel’. He confirmed that the Front has been engaged in internal consultations since the overthrow of Ben Ali, and is currently considering proposals to form a political party.
Harrath (47 years old) claimed he was the most prominent founder of the Tunisian Islamic Front in 1986, before he fled to London in 1990. He had escaped from a campaign calling for his arrest, and to eradicate the Front of its Islamist symbols, and Salafist members. Harrath stressed that leaders of the Front can still be found in Tunisia, despite the fact that hundreds of its followers are in Tunisian prisons.
However, he went on to reveal that dozens of Islamists escaped from Tunisian prisons a few days ago, following the fall of President Ben Ali. These escapes came as the result of either the widespread confusion that surrounded the events, or due to special agreements with prison officials. Harrath went on to clarify that members of the Tunisian Islamic Front were alive and well, and were currently dispersed across all Tunisian cities.
During the interview, the Tunisian Islamist detailed how he came to arrive in London. Firstly, Harrath fled on foot to the Algerian border, and then traveled to Pakistan. From there he went on to Yugoslavia and Germany, before he settled in the British capital. He said: “Some 200 leaders of the Islamic Front escaped with me; and most of them are located in European countries. However, thousands of our supporters are still in Tunisia.”
The Secretary General of the Tunisian Islamic Front now predicts an extensive spread of Islam on the ground in Tunisia, a country which he describes as 100 percent Muslim, 100 percent Sunni, and 100 percent behind the al-Maliki school of jurisprudence. The al-Maliki school of jurisprudence is the Shariaa foundation of the Salafist trend, a trend which is becoming increasingly prominent in the field of Islamic Dawa, having always been prominent in the political arena.
With regard to the principles of the Tunisian Islamic Front, Harrath said: “[The Front] aims to spread the correct interpretation of the Koran and the Sunnah. We also call for greater public participation in politics, in order to reduce malpractice and consecrate the good in the country, and in the ruling regime. We consider our interpretation of Islam to be the solution for the people’s problems, because it is a religion that has come to be applied across the entire world.”
Harrath said: “What we want, and hope from God Almighty, is that Islam will shine from Tunisia once again. In the past, this country was the base for spreading Islam into Africa, and the heart of Europe.”
However, Harrath stressed that the Tunisian Islamic Front has adopted a tolerant and moderate interpretation of Islam, which is far-removed from violence and extremism. He said: “We, as Tunisian Islamists, are seeking to promote a positive image, rather than alienate others. We would like to amend the negative stereotype that has been portrayed by some media outlets, and by the behavior of some who claim to be affiliated to Islam. We want to correct the image of Islam. We want to put an end to [religious] clashes, and change the false portrayal that Islam is against the freedom of thought, and the freedom to follow other faiths”.
With regards to Saudi Arabia’s decision to host ousted President Ben Ali, Harrath said: “This stems from a true Arab and Islamic tradition. This is not the first time that such a step has been taken. There are dozens of Tunisian opposition members, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who live in safety and security in the land of the Two Holy Mosques.” Harrath said he was personally aware that Saudi Arabia had been pressured to hand over Tunisian opposition members, but it strongly refused to do so, and no member of the Tunisian opposition has come to harm. Harrath added that he was an outspoken opponent of the Ben Ali regime, and used to travel each year to Saudi Arabia to perform the fifth pillar of Islam [pilgrimage], where no-one stopped or obstructed him. He claimed that Saudi Arabia is following a long-adopted policy; and he did not think that this was contrary to the will of the Tunisian people in any way, nor have the Saudis interfered in Tunisian internal affairs. Harrath pointed out that Saudi Arabia’s offer to host the ousted president was a matter of Saudi sovereignty, and the decision has spared a “bloodbath on the Tunisian streets”, citing the likely outcome, had Ben Ali clung to power and refused to leave the country.
The “Salafist trend” is currently the subject of much debate for those following Tunisian affairs. It has been able to grow within the country despite the attempts of the previous regime to “dry up the sources”, a policy which had been implemented since the early 1990s.
The trend has managed to spread “silently”, amidst an anti-Islamic climate. Furthermore, it is not a temporary manifestation, as some people have claimed. Information suggests that we are facing “a religious, cultural and even behavioral transition that has been adopted and defended by all sectors of society, especially youths”, according to Sami Ibrahim in his study “Salafism in a Tunisian Climate.”
Salafism – as with all Islamist trends – was a major concern for the previous regime. The government sought to tackle it via the media and culture, and also with use of the security forces. As a result, thousands of youths were put on trial and imprisoned, according to statistics from Amnesty International. In both 2008 and 2009, concrete action was taken by the Religious Affairs Ministry, by issuing books and publications calling for people to confront Salafist thought, which it described as “alien”.
Following the collapse of the regime, the media published a document accredited to the Interior Ministry during the Ben Ali era, dated 2008, which emphasized the need to tighten surveillance regarding Islamists and those in contact with them. The document also encouraged increased monitoring of internet cafés and their customers, veiled women, and those frequenting mosques. One paragraph called for “continued attention towards women wearing items of clothing that could promote sectarianism,” i.e. the Niqab, and a “comprehensive investigation of such individuals”.
As for the Renaissance Movement, this is the most representative manifestation of the Islamist trend in Tunisia. However, the organization itself has denied this claim, ever since it was known as the “Islamic Orientation Movement”, as it says that it does not seek to monopolize Islam in Tunisia, and recognizes the right of all Tunisians to practice their faith as they wish.
The movement changed its name from Islamic Orientation to Renaissance during the Ben Ali era, in order to adapt to the Parties Law, which rejected any party that adopted religion as its source of authority. However, this was not sufficient to gain legal recognition.
The Renaissance Movement is not as powerful as it was in the past, because of its lengthy absence from the political scene, and the oppression it suffered during the years of Ben Ali’s rule. In fact, experts in Tunisian affairs say that the movement now appears somewhat cut off from reality and society.
If the Renaissance Movement returns to the spotlight, and resumes its activities in Tunisia, it will face competition from the rising Salafist trend. No one knows the real magnitude of this movement, yet it may become a candidate for power, considering the current support within the trend to form a political party.
However, the Renaissance Movement remains the primary organization within the Tunisian Islamist arena. Over the past years the movement has been calling for political reform. Its leaders say that they are in favor of peaceful and gradual change toward a pluralistic and democratic system. They consider the movement to be part of a wider alliance that includes a number of democratic parties, all with the common goal of reform.