Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia

Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia in August, after a lull following the riots and curfew last month. From the legalization of Salafist political parties to reported attacks on individuals, politicians, and cultural events, this seemingly growing minority group continues to grab the attention of Tunisians and outsiders alike. The major headlines:

Attacks on cultural events

After three consecutive nights of Salafist demonstrations against cultural events, Le Figaro says that Salafists are imposing their morals on Tunisia. Tunisia Live provides on the ground reporting of the cancellation of cultural events.

From Beja: “The organizing committee of the summer festival of Goubellat in Tunisia’s northern governorate of Beja decided to cancel the twelfth edition of the event, which was scheduled to kick off last Thursday, August 2. The decision was made due to pressure put on the organizing committee by a group of individuals allegedly affiliated with the Salafist stream of Islam.”

One week earlier, a similar event was cancelled after Salafist protests in Sejnane, also in Northwest Tunisia.

On August 16 France 24 reported, “Hardline Islamists have prevented an Iranian group from performing at a Sufi festival in Kairouan, south of Tunis, deeming their Shiite chanting violated sacred values, Tunisian media reported on Thursday.

Meanwhile popular Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli had his one man show cancelled in Menzel Bourguiba due to Salafist protests. From Al-Arabiya: “The comedian told private radio station Mosaique FM that the imam of the town in northern Tunisia had called for the show to be disrupted and accused Abdelli of offending Islam. “Bearded Muslims appeared at my show… They came and laid their prayer mats down in the auditorium in the morning, saying they were going to pray all day long,” he said. “The security forces were there and they told us that they hadn’t received any orders to intervene,” Abdelli added. “I was afraid, I’m not superman. I was there to have a good evening and a laugh, not to get beaten up.” Protesters also tried to disrupt a subsequent show of Abdelli’s in Sfax later in the month.

Attacks on politicians and shiites also made news.

On August 6, Tunisia Live reported that Abedlfattah Mourou was attacked at a conference on tolerance in Islam. “Yesterday, Abdelfatah Mourou, a prominent Tunisian Islamist figure, was hospitalized after he was attacked by an attendee of a conference entitled, Tolerance in Islam, which he was heading in Kairouan. The assailant struck Mourou in the head with what appeared to be a water glass following a dispute. Mourou passed out and was taken to the hospital, where he was given five stitches in the forehead.” Western Culturel blog has a video of the incident.

Attacks on Tunisian shiites were reported in Gabes and Bizerte, and condemned by human rights groups.

U.S. neo-con Elliott Abrams describes the events in Bizerte: Kuntar was referred to as the “Dean of the Lebanese Prisoners.”…He spent nearly thirty years in an Israeli prison (because Israel does not have the death penalty, except for Nazi war criminals) and was liberated in an exchange with Hezbollah in 2008 for the bodies of the kidnaped Israeli soldiers….So that is the man who was the honoree and center of attention in Bizerte. Here the story moves from the despicable to the absurd. Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist through and through, defended the Assad regime in Syria, which has now killed over 20,000 Sunnis. Accordingly, Salafi gangs using sticks and knives attacked the closing ceremony of the anti-Israel rally, shouting slogans that in essence accused Kuntar and the organizers of being pro-Shia. Several people were wounded badly enough to be hospitalized.

Four suspects were eventually arrested and then released.

What’s behind the attacks on shiites? Ennahda hardliner Sadok Chorou provides insight, saying in an interview, “Before the revolution, Shiism had been kept low-key. However, with the flow of freedom that prevailed in the country, cultural and informative seminars have been held to promote Shiism. It is very likely that the Iranian Cultural Center in Tunisia is playing a major role in spreading Shiism, for there are no Shiite institutions in the country. The promotion of Shiism is the result of foreign activity. Even the tide of Salafism is the result of foreign intervention, as some external parties are trying to spread it in Tunisia, which has become a pit of exported ideas and doctrines coming from the Gulf and Iran in particular.

Tunisian jihadi Abou Ayadh called on the government to stop the shiite wave in Tunisia and to “combat these enemies of Islam” (article includes pictures).

On August 22 the Culture Ministry condemned the attacks perpetrated by Salafists at El Aqsa Festival in Bizerte. The Ministry also condemned the proliferation of attacks against cultural events across the country, describing them as “dangerous drift.” The Ministry believed that “what had happened was not only an attack against freedom of expression and creation but also augurs of a sectarian conflict strange to our Tunisian society, known for its balance, tolerance and moderation.”

Much of the English-speaking press debated whether or not Salafist parties were a threat to Tunisian democracy. Anne Wolf writing in Open Democracy on Aug 14 urges us to use caution before condemning legalization of Salafist parties

The new Salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to ‘tame’ the most violent and radical Salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually mobilise some of Tunisia’s religiously ultraconservative populace, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country’s new democracy….But before rejecting Jabhat al-Islah in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind what the Salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially more violent movements spreading throughout the country

Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta concur, writing in Jadalliya:

In many ways Ennahda tends to see the Salafists as potential traveling companions who need to be re-educated and reintegrated into political institutions. The secular parties see them as ideological rivals and as anti-democratic, and therefore, mobilize strongly against them. Paradoxically, this interplay might positively reinforce the construction of a democratic and more liberal Tunisia because finally, all sorts of issues can be discussed in public, and differences about the nature and direction of the country can be aired. Thus, contrary to expectations, university elections rewarded leftist lists rather than the Islamist ones. It is for this reason that we also see contradictory behavior among Salafists, who at times use street violence to demonstrate against perceived attacks on religion, and at other times seem quite happy to refrain from demonstrating more forcefully against the government or reject the calls to violence coming from al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, despite proclaiming quite openly their admiration for international Jihadism.

Robin Wright, in a New York Times op-ed, cautions those who might support salafists. “Salafis are only one slice of a rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. The variety of Islamists in the early 21st century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights.”

Meanwhile Tunisian Meriem Dhaoudi is more alarmed.

Tunisia‘s hardcore Salafists emerged only after the popular uprising that resulted in toppling the dictator Ben Ali. This culture of Salafism was nurtured in Tunisia by a great influx of Wahhabi preachers welcome to Tunisia with the blessings and welcome of the Tunisian government.  Early this month Abdel Fattah Mourou, a founding member of the ruling party Ennahda was attacked and injured in a conference on religion and tolerance. Apparently the Association of Religion and Tolerance offended the sensitivities of the ultra-conservative Muslims whose ears have recently become accustomed to an intolerant discourse imported from the Gulf and orchestrated in order to generate hatred and violence in Tunisia.

The time has come to rebel against religious fanaticism in Tunisia. Hardline Islamism has become more visible and threatening in recent weeks starting from targeting the two Tunisian Olympic medalists Habiba Ghribi and Oussama Mellouli on social media networks for inappropriate clothing and anti-Islam behaviour.

While “Anglos” debated political inclusion of Salafists, the French press was busy writing about an attack, blamed on Salafists, on a French elected official in Tunisia. The Nouvel Observateur reports:

The shameful attack a few days ago suffered by  an elected member of the French Republic in Tunisia…Walking very peacefully with his family on a street in Bizerte, Jamel Gharbi, an elected official from Sarthe, was attacked by a Salafist gang of thugs. Staying behind to allow his wife and daughter to flee, he was beaten with fists and with clubs. He managed to escape, narrowly escaping a lynching pure and simple.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the incident very serious, provoking an official apology by Tunisian officials. Nouvel Obs sees the event as a growing sign of fascism in Tunisia. “Everything happens as if Ennahda and the Salafists had divided the work: the first constructed a facade of democracy in Tunisia, the second implement the fierce repression of freedom of expression, (leading to) a de facto Islamization of Tunisian society.”

French weekly Marianne reports that Tunisian salafists are taking on the role of the police. It looks first at the recent headlines: “The Salafists are the police in Sidi Bouzid,” “Salafists abuse an imam of the mosque in the city Errahma El Khadhra” “Ennahdha at the heart of violence Wednesday night at El Hancha” “clashes between Salafists and Shiites in the city of Gabes “,” a French elected attacked by Salafis in Bizerte” but also a satirical Television producer arrested, artists prevented from going on stage, festivals canceled under threat from Salafis. In recent days, the headlines Tunisian speak volumes about the climate of fear that Islamists are spreading in the country. According to the website Maghreb Intelligence, several areas in central and south-eastern Tunisia “are now hostage to Salafist activists who have money from the Gulf countries and rely on the support of generous donors from the Tunisian diaspora in Europe.”

French weekly Le Point piles on, seeing a double sided game from Ennahda: “For the sociologist Samir Amghar there is in fact a real collusion between the two Islamist parties.”The leaders of Ennahda, being in power, are forced to keep a moderate speech in public,” he says. “But internally, a good portion of them agree with the Salafist ideology.” In this strategy, the Salafists are responsible for carrying out the behind the scenes “dirty work.” “The Salafists are putting pressure on the sensitivity of the Muslim Tunisian public opinion to create a balance of power in favor of Islamisation of society,” said the specialist in the movement. This may explain why, on August 1, Ennahda filed in the National Constituent Assembly a bill … punishing infringement of the sacred.”

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Ramses Kefi argues that people should calm down, Tunisia has not yet become Afghanistan, and his wife still wears a mini-skirt.

Thug violence vs. Salafist violence – do definitions really matter?

Tunisian soldiers stand guard outside the national assembly

With a return of calm on the streets of Tunis after the remarkable instability in Tunisia over the past week the question has now moved to who and what has caused the recent violence. While conspiracies abound, most press accounts have pointed the finger at religious extremists intent on destabilizing the regime. Some at the time of the riots disputed whether “salafists” were actually involved, with many blaming former regime officials. With events a few days in the past, some have pointed to a quick-to-judge press that is willing to blame the bogeyman of “salafists” for any violence in the country.

First of all, critics are right to point out that the press liberally uses the term Salafism to describe a heterogenous movement. Salafi movements can be found throughout the Muslim world and take on many forms. For various reasons, including a general misunderstanding of Islamist movements in both the West and Tunisia, Salafist has become a catch all term for religiously-oriented groups whose goal is to create a more conservative society for Tunisia, oftentimes through coercion, violent and non-violent. This is important because it is obvious that much of the violence in Tunisia since the revolution, while blamed on Salafists, is actually caused by thugs and opportunists who are taking advantage of a much weakened security apparatus.

For example, the riots in La Marsa on Monday (to which I was an eyewitness for 3 hours of violent clashes) included large numbers of young delinquents who were more than happy to take the opportunity to throw rocks at cops for a couple hours. As I reported to France 24 the following day: “I can’t say that there were tons of Salafis, but among the protesters, I saw quite a few bearded men screaming “Allahu Akbar” [“God is great”] and throwing stones at the police. [Salafist men generally wear their beards long]. There were also very young guys, teenagers who looked like they should be at home playing video games.”

Some have used the fact that there were obviously non-religious elements among the rioters to say that this is yet another example of the hysteria among elite Tunisians and the foreign press for anything conservative and Islamist.

The reality is that in a riot one doesn’t have the opportunity to interview arsonists on whether their goal is a return to a 7th century caliphate or simply to try and injure policemen and “burn shit”. It is clear that at times there is an intersection between these two motivations, with the former giving intellectual space for the latter. The government, well versed in Islamic scholarship, has oftentimes taken the position that it is absurd to link the thuggish actions of petty criminals to an intellectual movement that calls for the return to traditional Islamic, and presumably peaceful, values. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi has even called himself a Salafist to prove the point that the word is being misused.

But while the government has been outspoken in its condemnation of violence, it has often supported the intellectual underpinnings of the violence committed. This is a pattern in the “Salafist” attacks around the country – a small group of religious conservatives will use delinquents, criminals or opportunists to manipulate a situation. (This account of how a political party office was destroyed by extremists by Sameh B sums up how so many of the stories of extremist violence have played out, starting with verbal harassment by self-described Salafists followed by physical violence by young men who the Salafists have encouraged to do their work for them.)

The government’s position, which has supported many of the positions of extremists while condemning their actions, is a potentially dangerous misdirection at a time when ultra-conservatives have come to play an ever more important role in public discourse in Tunisia. Time after time in the past week the government condemned the violent actions of rioters along with the artists. The Interior Minister, who wisely called off protests announced by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi last Friday, was brought before the Constituent Assembly to talk mostly about the supposedly-offensive artwork rather than the steps necessary to stabilize an obviously reeling country.

The government has said that it will take steps to control violent movements on many occasions, but oftentimes this has felt like lip-service. While a planned secular protest against violence was called off by the interior ministry, a jihadist one was allowed. The government ordered the art gallery in La Marsa to be closed after last week’s events but  had allowed an illegal sit-in by conservatives to go on for almost three months at the state television station. A conflict at the Manouba university over niqabs has been left to fester for an entire academic year because the government has decided not to intervene – leaving the university to solve the problem.

This past week has finally seen clear and concrete actions by the government on the security level (this is important and highly needed) and calls to be tougher on extremist preachers. When a preacher at Zitouna mosque, an important mosque and center of Islamic theology called on the assasination of the artists responsible for the offending artwork, the Ministry of Religious Affairs called for his sacking. Yet just today reports have said that the preacher will not in fact be sacked. The government has yet to release a clear statement on the matter.

But what sometimes looks like irrational fear or Islamophobia, among both many Tunisians and the press, is also based on the almost daily first-hand accounts one hears when living and traveling in Tunisia. Verbal (and sometimes physical) attacks on mixed groups of men and women have been widely reported among the country’s expatriate community since the uprising last year. Just last month separate groups of students and diplomats were physically attacked by a Salafi mob in Sejnane. While physical violence has been rare, and the country remains comparatively safe, an environment of threats of violence has been left to fester while the intimidation has been met with little challenge from the state, and sometimes denial of well-documented events.

Are the men who sexually taunt women over their supposedly immodest dress Salafists or thugs? Does it matter? The fact is that an intellectual space has been opened in Tunisia for those hoping to instill their conservative values on society. This space allows sexist thugs to harass women, violent gangs to team up with religious extremists, and preachers to foster hatred among their followers – no matter whether their theological beliefs correspond to one of the many Salafist worldviews. What has been created is a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which extremists justify the actions of thugs and thugs do the (implicit) bidding of extremists. This is how militia’s are formed and which is why it is dangerous to underplay the interactions between intellectually motivated groups versus those motivated only by violence.

I appreciate the efforts of those who have called out the press for their wanton use of the term Salafist. The use of specific theological terminology for a heterogeneous group does little to clarify the situation. Nevertheless, in order to be intellectually honest, one must also admit that extremist violence is not always committed by extremists. Where hateful ideas are allowed to fester (and sometimes encouraged), hateful actions will follow – regardless of the actors’ beliefs.

Photograph: Zoubier Souissi/Reuters

A news update from Tunisia

Due to some travel outside of Tunisia last week, I was unable to post many updates. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve been reading to catch up on the news from Tunisia from the last ten days. I’ll be publishing more in-depth stories on political parties, salafist activities, and economic matters over the course of the week. Stay tuned.

Salafism

Salafi show of strength in Kairouan: Concerns over Salafist activities dominated the news in Tunisia and abroad. A rally by Ansar al Sharia in Karouan drew thousands of supporters. Leader Abou Iyad spoke about a return to a much more conservative country, including this comforting message “To those in charge of tourism in this country, we say that for over a year there has been no attack on a single hotel or a single tourist,” he said. “We restrain ourselves.” Watch the video here. Good to know that however much they would like to attack tourists, they are showing restraint.

The rally was sparked by the ban on two convicted Moroccan preachers accused of supporting and encouraging terrorist attacks in Morocco in 2003. Some bloggers are dumbstruck, particularly by shows of support among the protesters for Osama Ben Laden.

Opposition blames the government: Analysts argue over whether the recent Salafist activity (violent and non-violent) is an attempt to destabilize the country – with the government response being limited. The Courrier de l’Atlas wonders how the government can propose democratic dialogue with protesters who think democracy is a sin. Slate wonders, whether amid the chants of anti-semitism, whether the Salafis are controleble or not. One analyst blames the prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, for treating the Salafis with kid gloves. Another that these events are proof that the revolution has been confiscated. But the government has said that perpetrators of violence will be prosecuted.

Tunisian jihadism in the news: Some accuse Ennahdha of complicity in the rise of jihadism, as reports showed increasing Tunisian jihadi activity in both Tunisia and abroad, notably Syria. Others asked how the movements could be stopped. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to address the issue of Tunisian combattants in Syria.

Violence in Jendouba, Kef, and Sidi Bouzid blamed on Salafists, and a homecoming: Reports say that there has been a return to calm in Jendouba after this past weekend’s clashes between Salafists and police. The French press picked up on the insecurity felt by locals in Jendouba. Sidi Bouzid saw Salafist elements attempt to close bars in the city. Some suggested moving the bars outside of town. A Nawaat contributor noted the increase in clandestine alcohol sales in the city, and blamed the alcohol sellers for an uptick in violence in the southern city. One lamented the lack of Tunisia’s national beer in the home of the Tunisian uprising. A brothel and several bars in Kef were also attacked by Salafists. Tunis’s main port reportedly welcomed dozens of Salafists from Sicily, causing a minor incident at the port of La Goulette.

Television station threatened, attacked: A Tunisian television station was attacked, reportedly by Salafist’s concerned over reporting about Salafist attacks around the country.

PM Essebsi death threats: Meanwhile, in April former interim Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi received death threats from a Tunisian Imam during a public sermon. He filed a complaint and the judgment is expected today.

Social Movements

Reconciliation between unions and the government: Social movements continue in virtually every sector of the country’s economy. A meeting between business leaders, unions, and the government called for a new roadmap for labor relations. The roadmap is expected to take 8 months to complete. Analysts described the complex relationship between the three.

Ongoing protests continue: Some analysts wondered whether a protest by the unemployed would lead to Kasbah 4 – a reference to mass protests last year that toppled the first interim regime. Other protests continued among professional groups, including school teachers, airline employees, and doctors and pharmacists. A continued form of protest in Tunisia, especially in rural areas includes road blocks. One report states that road blocks have doubled in May, while the security situation continues to improve. Protesters in Kef attacked the government headquarters of the region over the lack of development projects in the government’s 2012 budget.

Foreign Policy

France: France’s foreign policy in the Maghreb remains complicated. Slate Afrique reports this week that France’s Hollande fully supports the regimes in Algeria and Morocco. This followed early gaffes by the new Hollande administration over comments relating to Western Sahara. While Hollande presses his democratic bona fides to Tunisia’s leaders, he continues France’s policies of supporting non-democratic regimes across the rest of the Maghreb.

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Sana Sbouai looks at how Tunisia is viewed through the lens of French newspapers. The answer – it’s all about Ennahdha. Money quote:

The general feeling is that Ennahdha is the country and there is no other news. Everything seems to revolve around the Islamists. There is no real coverage of the economy, unemployment, young people’s lives, education, associations, civil society in general. Nothing about transitional justice, changes in government, ministries, no record of 100 days of government, nothing about the work of the Constituent Assembly on the work of the opposition or simply on expectations of Tunisians.

Tunisia: Mohamed el Dashan asserts that Tunisia is adopting a more muscular foreign policy after its leadership ushering in the Arab Spring. He argues that this will start with the Arab Maghreb Union, a long moribund project recently restarted by the Marzouki administration.

The Amero-Qatari conspiracy: Moroccan-Italian analyst Anna Mahjar-Barducci describes the fear of many Tunisians that the country is being manipulated from afar, in particular, by Qatar. She also notes that while Qatar sends $500 million to Tunisia in aid, it continues to host Ben Ali family member Saker el Materi, who may be in possession of up to $5 billion in stolen assets from Tunisia. Demdigest nods. Meanwhile, the U.S. donates millions more.

Independent Elections Commission

A press conference at ISIE on May 18 commemorated the body that oversaw last year’s elections. Political party leader Rached Ghannouchi of Ennahdha reaffirmed his party’s (the government’s?) stand that the ISIE should remain independent.

Ben Ali

A recent poll showing 42% of Tunisians supporting a return to Ben Ali’s regime sparked controversy. A prosecutor in Kef seeks the death penalty against the former dictator, accused of killing protesters during last year’s uprising. Meanwhile, Roman artifacts reported stolen from Algeria turned up at Ben Ali’s family member’s houses.

Government

Scandal at the Constituent Assembly: Rumors over a secret pay increase for deputies sparked outrage among civil society. Some called for an investigation into all assembly spending. Opposition leaders took advantage, pledging to not take any increase in their salaries.

The salary scandal at the assembly follows on the footsteps of the voting scandal that continues to resonate, Wafa Ben Hassine is outraged. The same analyst despairs at the divide between assembly rules and actions, especially concerning the publication of committee schedules.

Market fire: The government denied responsibility for a fire that destroyed hundreds of businesses at a busy Tunis-area market.

Controversy swirled over a plan to blacklist 81 Ben Ali era judges. Dozens of judges protested at the lack of due process.

Ennahdha

A poll puts Ennahdha’s support at close to 50 percent, down from earlier this year, but above the total votes received in October’s elections. One critic wonders whether Ennahdha’s electoral victory is assured, noting that in the absence of a credible opposition, the constitution will be the only rampart against authoritarianism. One analyst claims that Ennahdha isthe other side of the same coin as the former ruling party, the RCD. He calls it an RCD halal.

Military training: A French analyst has made waves over a report in which he offhandedly stated that Ennahdha is providing military training to its supporters. Reports have not been substantiated by any other sources.

Marwan Muashar writes that Islam is compatible with democracy  - the west shouldn’t worry. Writing with Marina Ottaway at Carnegie, he calls Islamist political party development a work in progress, but assures readers that Ennahdha is indeed worthy of the term “moderate.” Cavatorta looks at Ennahdha beyond the personality of Rached Ghannouchi and to the aspirations of Tunisia’s pious middle class – conclusion – they want a thriving private sector and limited government interference in their lives.

Economy

Tunisian Central Bank Controversy: Reports of the imminent sacking of Central Bank Governor Mustapha Kamel Nabli remain unconfirmed. He remains a controversial figure in Tunisia due to his ties to the former regime and his support among foreign governments (he will also be the subject of a longer blog post here this week). Meanwhile, he is at the African Development Bank annual meetings this week to receive the award of best central banker in Africa for 2012.

Tunisia downgraded to junk: Tunisia’s bond rating was downgraded to junk status. Analysts claimed both a disaster while politicians condemned the ratings agencies. Nevertheless, the IMF pointed to signs of recovery in the country, but noted the risks of Europe’s continuing woes. The European debt crisis is dampening exports.

Tourism: Tourism receipts are increasing, but the industry is still vulnerable. One analyst describes how Tunisia can come out of the crisis.

Foreign Aid: One analyst questioned whether the G8 commitments from Deauville were being honored. The response – yes, but the Tunisian government must establish greater credibility. The State Department released a statement touting its Deauville commitments and Tunisia’s open government initiatives. Meanwhile, the EU released its roadmap for development funding in Tunisia – doubling its previous commitments. Finally, a report on Tunisia’s fast-changing telecoms market after years under the monopoly of state/family control.

Justice/Civil liberties

The Mahdia affair, which saw the condemnation of two Tunisians to 7 years in jail for posting images deemed offensive on Facebook, continued to outrage activists. IREX called for the convictions to be overturned. A report noted that 80% of Tunisians felt free to express themselves. It begs the question, what about the other 20%? The BBC reports on Freedom of Expression in Tunisia’s media. The Demdigest questions how Arab spring countries can effectively exclude former regime elements, who remain the countries’ elites.

A Balancing Act: Ennahda’s Struggle with the Salafis

My new article, co-written with Brandeis researcher Aaron Zelin, has been published at the Sada Journal of the Carnegie Endowment. An excerpt:

On a day when organizers had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise a black and white flag inscribed with the shahada, the Muslim testament of faith: “There is no god but God and Muhammad is His Messenger.” On that day, March 25, a small group of protesters also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater. These controversial and heavily covered events raise questions over how the Tunisian government, led by the Islamist party Ennahda, will handle growing conservative movements.

While much of the Tunisian and Western press has focused on the debate between Ennahda and the secular opposition, Tunisia’s ruling party has also faced criticism both from within its own party and from more conservative Salafi groups. Ennahda’s approach to instilling Islamic values in society contrasts sharply with that of Salafi trends: while the party believes that society should gradually, and through democratic institutions, adopt the principles it once lost under colonialism and secular dictatorships, many Salafis assert that democracy infringes on God’s sovereignty by establishing humans as legislators. This intra-Islamist debate may prove to be the true battleground in the ongoing transition.

Read the full article here.

Photo courtesy of Sada Journal.

Have Tunisian Salafists written themselves out of the new constitution?

Tunisian Salafists demonstrated this weekend on Avenue Habib Bourguiba in central Tunis. Thousands of supporters rallied for the Quran, for the institution of Charia law, and to show Tunisians that they would not back down.

But the image that will remain for most Tunisians is one of a half dozen Salafists scaling the clocktower in front of the Ministry of the Interior and waving their black flags with the shahada. See above photo courtesy of Tunisia Live.

The government, led by moderate Islamist movement Ennahdha, has been walking a tightrope with Salafist groups. The Interior Minister told Le Monde last week that jihadist groups were the number one danger for Tunisia, but he was also careful to distinguish between Salafist groups and jihadist ones. Ennahdha leaders have told me that their goal is to not push these groups underground, but to neutralize them by allowing them to protest.

Nevertheless, Ennahdha seems to be feeling the pressure from ordinary Tunisians, who group both violent and non-violent fundamentalist groups as extremist. This might partly explain Ennahdha’s announcement today that it will leave the first article of the constitution as is. Article 1 has been the subject of debate, particularly for those who argue that it should include charia as the principle source of legislation.

The debate over charia is far from over. However, it appears that the more the Salafist are in the news, especially when they are allowed to deface public buildings, the less popular they become. The question is whether or not the public will continue to support Ennahdha’s “light touch” when it comes to these groups – or whether it will force Ennahdha to track further toward the center.

Update on Tunisian government’s reaction to extremism

As I noted last week, some members of the Tunisian government seem to be taking a harder line against religious extremism. The latest example comes from Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, who spoke yesterday in a ceremony honoring two women who stood up to a group of Salafists who had dishonored Tunisia’s flag.

The Associated Press reports:

Tunisian President Marzouki warned fundamentalists Monday against any attempt to destabilize the country or to use violence for ideological reasons, a clear allusion to Salafists, whose activity has increased as of late.

“It will not be tolerated for anyone to impose his views by force, to treat others people as apostates (infidels), or to harm Tunisian citizens for ideological or political beliefs of any kind,” he warned.

Marzouki’s speech was aimed at calming criticism that the government has been unwilling to condemn acts committed by religious fundamentalists in recent months, a common complaint by secularists in Tunisia.