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Tunisian Religious Tensions and the Emerging Bogeyman: Salafism

Tunisia Live
by Emily Parker
June 15, 2012


Persons labeled as 'Salafists' have recently dominated the international media, but who are these individuals precisely?

The international headlines read like thriller films: Hardline Islamists Seed Terror in Tunisian Town (AP, May 26, 2012); Tunisia on Edge as Salafists Stage New Rampage (AFP, May 27, 2012); Tunisian Salafi Islamists Riot, Clash With Police (Reuters, May 27, 2012); Salafist Attacks Spark Outcry in Tunisia (Magharebia, June 1, 2012); 1 Dead, 62 Injured in Riots by Islamists (AP, June 1, 2012).

In language bordering on paranoia, individuals labeled as “Salafists” have dominated domestic and foreign news headlines over the past few weeks. The accompanying stories detail incidents in which the alleged Salafists have burned police stations and bars in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid, have lashed out at tourists and students in Sejnane, have attacked dramatists during a celebration in downtown Tunis, and have ransacked an art exhibition and police stations in the suburbs of La Marsa.

But who exactly are Tunisian Salafists? Do they pose a legitimate “threat” to the security, freedoms, and openness of Tunisian society – the key aims of the revolution? Were all perpetrators of the violent incidents in Jendouba, Sidi Bouzid, Tunis, Sejnane, and La Marsa observant Salafists – whose main aim is to emulate the virtuous behavior of the Prophet Muhammad and his followers? Or are we witnessing the transformation of Tunisia’s Salafists into the proverbial bogeyman – Tunisia’s newest form of jinn, or genie – at the hands of media and government institutions?

Descriptions of Salafists as being inherently violent and a risk to Tunisia’s fledgling democratic freedoms have rung international alarm bells. Over the last few weeks, various countries – including Switzerland, the United States,  Belgium, and Australia – have issued travel warnings urging caution to their citizens planning trips to Tunisia. In a country largely dependent on tourism, such warnings have aroused growing concern, especially as the tourism season rapidly approaches.

Moreover, as Tunisia’s new government struggles to prove its competency, members of the opposition have raised allegations accusing the dominant moderate Islamist Ennahdha party of indulging these “Salafists.” Unanswered questions remain over the government’s impartiality and its ability to deal equitably with law transgressors, whether Salafist or otherwise – questions which reverberate poignantly in the ears of Tunisians who recently labored through a revolution against corruption.

Tunisia is moving through a delicate transitional stage. Hailed as the “success story” of the Arab Spring by most external commentators, analysts, and news organizations, the tiny north African nation is under additional pressure to ensure that the gains of the revolution are maintained.

In this climactic atmosphere, it is little wonder why all parties have an opinion concerning the so-called Salafists. But before the further proliferation of conspiracy theories and paranoia that Salafists have hijacked Tunisia’s revolution, it is necessary to delve deeper into this school of thought and into recent events.

The word ‘Salafist’ scares people

The phrase “radical hardline Islamists,” one of the most commonly-used phrases to characterize Salafists over the past few weeks, is simplistic at best and uses the term as a blanket for religious extremism in general. In recent years, the word “Salafi” has conjured up images of bearded Al Qaeda militants. However, Salafi jihadis, who view violence as a permissible expression of Islam, only comprise one sub-group of the bigger group.

Saleh Bouazizi, spokesperson for the Reform Front Party – the first Salafist party to be granted a license to participate in Tunisian politics in May of 2012 – stands in staunch opposition to this characterization of violent, bearded Salafists. Refusing to cooperate with Ansar Al Sharia and other elements of Salafism which condone violence, the Reform Front party of Salafists stands “firmly against terrorist acts,” according to Bouazizi.

In an exclusive interview with Tunisia Live, Bouazizi asserted that members of his Salafist party, “refuse to respond to provocation using violence, but rather by using our civil rights.”

According to Marwa, a Salafist from the Tunisian governorate (province) of Nabeul, preconceptions concerning the religious practices of Salafists abound. “The term [Salafist] can be troublesome in so many countries…The word ‘Salafist’ scares people,” she added.

Marwa explained that Salafists mainly distinguish themselves by the fact that they follow the salaf – literally “the ancestors” – and the sahaba, the companions and disciples of the Prophet Muhammad. Salafists believe that these early generations of Muslims practiced the purest version of Islam. Therefore, their beliefs, behaviors, piety, and morality serve as models for future generations to emulate.

To Marwa, the distinction between Salafists and other believers is clear-cut: “If you [emulate] the followers of the Prophet [Muhammad], then you are a Salafist. And if you don’t, then you are not,” she said.

What is happening here is not consistent with Islam at all

On May 19, 2012, local and international media sources announced that a large group of Salafists set fire to liquor stores and bars in the town of Sidi Bouzid. According to various press sources, all those involved were Salafists motivated by a religious campaign against the sale of alcohol.

But according to Kais Bouazizi, the owner of a store in the “Nour” neighborhood of Sidi Bouzid, those involved in the burning events were not necessarily adherents to Salafism. “While I am a practicing Muslim, what is happening here is not consistent with Islam at all,” he asserted, adding, “I know these ‘Salafist’ people — some of them were drunkards a week ago, and now they are pretending to be the voice of God in Sidi Bouzid.”

Just one week later, on May 26, media sources again reported that in an attempt to forcibly ban the sale of alcohol in Jendouba, “Salafists” had burned down bars in the region.

According to one Jendouba governorate employee who requested to remain nameless, most of the Salafists involved in the events were recent adherents and were not religiously motivated. “They became ‘new Salafists’ only after they were released [from prison], following the revolution,” he argued.

Similarly, on June 11, rioters labeled by media sources as Salafists targeted police stations, a court, and an art gallery. But Ennahdha party leader Rached Ghannouchi asserted his belief that non-Salafists may have been involved – even paid – to carry out lawless acts in the name of Salafism, in order to inflame sensitive religious tensions and to jeopardize the gains of the revolution during this unstable transitional period.

In yet another incident linked to the “Salafists,” on June 11, rioting ensued in Tunisia’s wealthy suburb of La Marsa following the desecration of the controversial Printemps des Arts exhibit. However, prominent Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni, who witnessed the events, asserted in her most recent blog entry entitled The Marsa Incidents: Salafists or Miscreants? “We all agree that we have not seen a Salafi, but people behaving like juveniles.”

When contacted by Tunisia Live for further comment, Ben Mhenni added, “The fact that these people are using violence shows that they have nothing to do with religion…When we read about our religion [of Islam], we see signs of peace and tolerance – nothing to do with violence.”

Spokesperson for the Reform Front party, Saleh Bouazizi, echoed Ben Mhenni’s sentiments when he pointed out to Tunisia Live that the use of violence on the part of any Salafist results from “ignorance of true Salafism.”

Calling on believers to “reflect a good image of Salafism,” Bouazizi referred to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad as a non-violent example to emulate, should the need to express discontent arise. “We should follow the footsteps of our Prophet, who was attacked and was forced to leave his own country. When he came back with his victory, instead of revenge he chose to forgive…We should not respond to these people [who have chosen violence]…” the Reform Front spokesperson said.

Labeling herself as a “true Salafist,” Marwa is also against participating in any act which could result in violence or destruction, including demonstrations. “Demonstrations in the streets have bad effects on people. Shops are destroyed, people are injured because of them…[true] Salafists do not participate in demonstrations because of the potential for violence,” she explained.

Before labeling all of those involved as “bearded hardline extremists,” it is necessary to distinguish between the multiple players in Tunisia’s recent events. Differentiating between ”old” versus “new” Salafists, Salafists who advocate the use of violence versus those who do not, and religiously-motivated individuals versus disenfranchised youths and petty criminals,  would allow for a more nuanced understanding of recent events.

They don’t come from the sky

While Tunisia may be witnessing a proliferation of acts carried out in part by a sub-section of Salafists, Hamadi Redissi emphasized that they “…don’t just come from the sky.” But if Salafism has existed in Tunisia for centuries, what factors explain the recent debut of Salafists on the Tunisian stage?

Unlike the story put forth by many news sources, Redissi views increased religious fervor as only a small piece of the puzzle leading to this “Salafist swell.” Instead, he attributes the recent surge of Salafist action to a variety of other factors.

First, Redissi highlights that in March of 2011, the current government released a large number of Salafists from prison who had been convicted of crimes of terrorism under the former regime. Sheikh Abou Iyadh, leader of the Ansar Al Sharia movement and a Salafist, fought in Afghanistan and was sentenced with 43 years of imprisonment by the Ben Ali regime before being freed from prison after the revolution. Mohamed Bakhti – head of the Salafist movement which led protests at Manouba University earlier this year, and who was incarcerated in 2007 for “terrorist activities” before being released in 2011 — is also a member of the group.

Roused by these convicted criminals, it is little wonder to Redissi why groups comprised of both Salafists and opportunistic miscreants have recently resorted to violence.

Ahmed Ounaies, a political analyst and Tunisia’s former foreign affairs minister, also claims that Tunisia may be witnessing more Salafist activity as a reaction to the relatively small role that Salafists played in Tunisia’s January 2011 revolution, and the Salafists’ consequent desire to exert more influence in the country’s transitional period.

“I think that [the Salafists] were completely marginalized in the Tunisian revolution, and they feel this,” Ounaies told Tunisia Live.

As an example of this perceived marginalization, Ounaies cites the fact that no Salafist groups stood for office in Tunisia’s historic October 23rd elections, and explained that they therefore do not feel represented in the current government.

Moreover, several Salafist groups’ applications for political licenses were denied by the Ennahdha government. Although the Reform Front recently obtained a license, Ounaies emphasizes that, “The violent [Salafist groups] did not get a license. That is why they are so violent and active now in the country. They feel that they are minorities.”

Fethia Saidi, sociologist and professor at the University of Tunisia, agrees with these explanations, adding that the Salafist cause has also been furthered in the post-revolutionary period by their increased mobility, expanded access to preaching locations, and more freedoms of speech.

“[The Salafists] existed before the revolution, but the government was in control of them…[After the revolution], there were more freedoms. Now they can teach others about Salafism in the mosques, since they have more control,” she explained.

If the revolution handed a microphone to Tunisian society, then the voices of these previously marginalized individuals were amplified by a desire to reshape the space left behind by a deposed dictator.

According to Marwa, their volume is augmented by the media focus on the issue. “The media itself now [targets] the Salafists. Maybe this is because their [the media’s] views conflict with those of Salafists. They fear these people who now have more chances to control Tunisia,” she said.

The Salafists are ‘Ennahdha’s children?’

Police forces intervene to break up a peaceful protest against extremism. Lack of police response to alleged "Salafist" acts has fueled conspiracy theories.

Redissi identifies the victory of the Islamist party Ennahda in Tunisia’s recent elections as another factor which has led to an increased Salafist presence on the streets of Tunisia. As evidence, he emphasized the fact that Rached Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s party leader, has referred to the Salafists as “Ennahdha’s children” on multiple occasions.

Many also point to the minimal amount of Salafist arrests following rioting and bar ransacking in Sidi Bouzid and Jendouba as evidence that the current government is more forgiving of Salafists and that Ennahdha may be working in partnership with them.

In an interview with NPR, however, Ennahdha spokesperson Faycal Nacer insisted that the current government is not conspiring with the Salafists, but rather is working with an element of Tunisian society through the democratic system.

“If they [the Salafists] are extreme, it’s because they’re victims of the old dictatorship. So we’re using dialogue to convince them to become part of the democratic and political process,” Nacer stated.

According to the Spokesman for the Ministry of the Interior, Khaled Tarrouche, the government has responded appropriately to acts of violence, and in doing so did not distinguish between Salafists and other individuals.

“We [the Ministry] are against violence as a whole – violence committed by anyone. We don’t distinguish between Salafists and non-Salafists,” he said in an interview with Tunisia Live last week.

The great divide

Estimates do not peg the number of Salafists within Tunisia as particularly significant — according to Agence France Presse (AFP), foreign researchers put Salafist numbers in Tunisia at around 10,000.

Consequently, Ounaies does not foresee them playing a large role in Tunisia’s political future.

“I don’t believe that they [the Salafists] would affect [Tunisian society] in substantive matters [such as] in the Constitution, in the legislation, or in political decisions…They are seeking a place in the [political] arena, but I don’t think they would enjoy any elected [position] in the future legislative assembly. And I don’t think that they would wait around as an option,” he said.

In Redissi’s eyes, however, the recent events and increasing media coverage of Salafists have proven that a new Islamic landscape has taken root in Tunisia, one which, “blew away the traditional cleavage between the secularists and the Islamists.”

Consequently, the battle currently being fought in Tunisian society, according to Redissi, is not between the religiously-inclined and the secularists, but rather, within the religion — between the Islamists and more moderately religious individuals.

Moreover, Redissi asserts that this schism between elements of Tunisian society brings into question the application of democracy and its compatibility with Tunisian religious life. According to Redissi, elements such as Ennahdha, whose members only go so far with their religious demands as to not infringe on the ideals of democracy for fear of losing support, lie on one side of the divide, while other elements like the Salafi jihadis –who do not currently hold a significant amount of political power — are more willing to challenge the ideals of democracy, or at least to implement its tenets inconsistently.

“This is the real cleavage – the great divide. It is not between the secularists and the extremists. It is between those who think that democracy and Islam are consistently compatible, and those who apply democracy only when it suits them and the shariah,” Redissi said.

In an atmosphere in which various parties along the religious spectrum are jockeying to shape post-revolution Tunisia, Ounaies contended that the real danger to Tunisian society lies in “…disturbing the political arena, which is now undergoing a constructive movement. We are now trying a new behavior as a community to [practice the] realities of pluralism and to act as diverse voices.”

Salafist Reform Front spokesperson Bouazizi asserted that this is precisely why his party formed.

“We are trying to guide people and to convince them with our ideas, if they want to, but without violence. We do our job…gradually and with civilized communication…We are ready to work with any political party,” he explained.

The question as Tunisia moves through this constructive period is how the country’s various social and political actors will choose to interact, and whether genuine dialogue – without demonizing or phenomenalizing one another  – is possible.

When speaking with Tunisia Live after the most recent events in La Marsa, Lina Ben Mhenni explained, “We have to learn what real freedom of speech is. We have been living under censorship for decades, and we are not accustomed to dialogue. We have to learn how to engage in dialogue and to respect each other… But this will take a long time.”