Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat – In a statement on Tuesday, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture warned that “the frequency of Salafist attacks on cultural events” in the country threatens to incite “sectarian tensions” that are “alien” to Tunisian society, which is characterized by its “moderation.”
The ministry said: “In the wake of some Salafist elements venturing to attack the al-Aqsa festival (last Thursday) in Bizerte (northern Tunisia), as well as the frequency of attacks on cultural events in different regions of our country, the Ministry of Culture condemns this dangerous and unprecedented slide. It considers this not just an attack on freedom of expression and creativity, but also something that threatens to produce a form of sectarian tension that is alien to our Tunisian society which is known for its moderation and tolerance”.
The ministry called on “all parties to respond to such manifestations of extremism” as well as for “those responsible to be held accountable, with no tolerance shown towards them”.
In this context, Tunisian writer Kamal Ben Younes, author of the book “Islamist and secularists in Tunisia: From prison and persecution to challenging the governance of the country”, said that: “The Salafist movement has become a reality that cannot be overlooked, although there are differences within the Salafist movement itself, as there are those who believe in violence…and there are those who are peaceful and call for coexistence. The latter group does not represent a threat to anyone”. He added “as for the Ennahda movement, it must follow its own leaders, who are well known”.
In a statement to Asharq al-Awsat, Ben Younes pointed out that “the fear of creating additional space for conflict is what is prompting the Ennahda movement to avoid the Salafist current. It is postponing the inevitable confrontation and the prosecution of individuals involved in the violence so as not to turn the country into an arena of confrontation between different parties under a single Islamic reference”.
He added that “the leaders of the Ennahda movement, and especially those participating in the leadership of the country, are working on the points of contention through dialogue, putting forward questions and trying to answer them. This in itself might be more fruitful than a security solution with regards to one of the most important challenges facing the democratic transition in the country”.
Ben Younes stressed that confronting the Salafists head-on amidst Tunisia’s poor security conditions would be tantamount to “political suicide”, particularly when taking into account that the ruling tripartite coalition (particularly the Congress for the Republic and the Democratic Forum for Labour and Liberties) is suffering from a range of internal contradictions and debates. The Tunisian writer said that this could lead the coalition to fall prey to secular currents that are lying in wait for the coalition to implicate itself in political dilemmas, especially those relating to issues of individual and collective freedoms.
According to Mohammed Alqomana, head of the Reform and Development Party, the possibility of the Salafist movement uniting under a single political organization is very difficult. He attributed the Salafists constant interference on the Tunisian street to the weakness of local authorities, the relative absence of the rule of law, and the gradual return of some remnants of the former regime voicing their right to participate in public political action, hence relying on some elements of the Salafist trend to implement some of their “personal agendas”, as he put it.
Regarding the relationship between the Ennahda movement and the Salafist trend, Alqomana informed Asharq al-Awsat that the Ennahda movement, thanks to the announcements of its political leadership, “has annoyed a growing number of the Salafist current”. However, he added that the Ennahda movement fears that the Salafists, in spite of their limited influence in the country today, could become a dominant force in the Tunisian street, imposing its alien views on Tunisia’s society.
Alqomana asserted that the relationship between the Ennahda movement and the Salafists was thorny and not easily explained. He claimed that the Ennahda movement is seeking to gain some time by waiting for the actual (rather than temporary) transition of political power to determine its true relationship with radical parties that do not seek to form political organizations. Alqomana added that during the past period, the Ennahda movement has sought to enable some parties close to the Salafist current with legal authorization to carry out political work, including the Reform Front Party, led by Mohammed Khoja, Hizb ut-Tahrir, which advocates the idea of an Islamic caliphate, as well as the al-Rahma Party. This is a policy that could lead to the reshaping of the Salafist map in Tunisia.
There has also been a recent spate of attacks on cultural events in Tunisia carried out by radical Salafist groups. On 16 August, 200 Salafists armed with swords, sticks and stones attacked the festival of “Nasra al-Aqsa” in Bizerte, in protest at the attendance of Lebanese figure Samir Kuntar, who had formerly been detained in an Israeli prison and who is accused of supporting the Bashar al-Assad regime. The Salafists wounded four people, including a security officer.
On 15 August, Salafists prevented an Iranian musical group from playing at the conclusion of the International Festival of Sufi and Inspired Music in the Tunisian governorate of Kairouan, on the grounds that it was a “Shiite” group. Whilst on 14 August, Salafists in Menzel Bourguiba prevented a theatrical production starring the Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli under the pretext that it “mocked religion”.
The (independent) Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights has warned that “violent and lawless Salafist groups have come to spread terror and enact physical and psychological violence upon women, intellectuals, journalists, artists, trade unionists, politicians and human rights activists. They are targeting educational institutions, places of worship, and the headquarters of trade unions and political parties. In this endeavor they are exploiting religion and denouncing other citizens as infidels”.