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

Constitution watch – Reaction and problems with the preamble

Last week the Constituent Assembly officially released the agreed upon preamble to the new constitution. Here are a few brief takeaways from its release.

1) It’s just a preamble. Constitutional preambles set the tone and background for a constitution, but they are rarely in and of themselves law. The preamble to the U.S. constitution is one sentence (54 words)(1). The French constitution is 100 words and two sentences(2). Even the UN, not known for its brevity, has a charter in bullet points of only 236 words.

The Tunisian preamble, on the other hand, runs 433 words (in English) and 8 paragraphs. It includes references to Tunisian history, Arab history, Muslim culture, the Palestinians, and the environment. The fact that the preamble took six months to draft, and the fact that it is a kitchen sink of ideas does not necessarily bode well for the timeline set out by the Constituent Assembly speaker Mustapha Ben Jafaar, who has promised that the document will be complete by October 2012.

Additionally, Constituent members took the not so humble step of honoring themselves in the first line. “We, the deputies of the Tunisian People, members of the National Constituent Assembly, elected through the merits of the Revolution of dignity, freedom, and justice”. It’s noteworthy in comparison to other constitutions, such as the U.S. and French, which make pains to show that the constitution itself emanates not from their leaders, but from the people themselves (“We the people”).

2) This is clearly a document of compromise. The length and wordiness of the document is no doubt a result of compromise positions within the Constituent Assembly. More conservative members were no doubt pacified by the document’s reference to the country being founded on the “fundamentals of Islam” – something that liberal Tunisians see as a back door to introducing Sharia law.

Meanwhile more liberal members will be happy with references to an “open and moderate” Islam based on its reformist movement. The latter is a reference to Tunisian intellectual theologians who in the early part of the 20th century helped provide a path toward a civil state through a more modern interpretation of Islamic theology. Contrast this with previous versions of the document that were released through members of the constituent assembly, which provided a much more bold references to Islam and the country’s Islamic identity.

3) The document is careful to avoid references to universal values or rights. While the document does endorse human and equal rights among Tunisians, it does not take the bold step of endorsing universal rights, such as the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Many Muslim countries have refused to sign on to this document as some consider it to subjugate Islamic sharia to man-made rights. Liberals in Tunisia had hoped that the assembly would have taken this bold step which would have set precedents for the country’s judges to use as a basis for adjudicating rights claims. The document as is remains so vague that the constitution itself or the country’s civil code will have to set out exactly what rights will be considered fundamental.

4) The question of Palestine makes a not-so-subtle, and somewhat problematic, appearance. The document states that “individuals have the right to self determination, and for movements of justified liberation, at the forefront of which is the liberation of Palestine.” It’s a curious construction,  obviously based first and foremost by the motivation to include the populist sentiment to support the Palestinian cause. What’s interesting is the reference to self-determination, which is the legal basis for Palestinian statehood, in the absence of warfare. However, self-determination is also the basis for independence movements across the world, notably among Western Saharans in their dispute with the Moroccan government and in Berbers in Kabylie in Algeria. It will be interesting to see whether this clause will cause diplomatic problems for the government at the same time that it is looking to restart the cause of pan-Maghreb unity.

Finally it’s important to note that beyond calling for the separation of powers, the preamble does not provide for the system of government (parliamentary, presidential, mixed) or outline a “bill of rights”. These hugely important questions will be the subject of future debates at the Constituent Assembly.

Tunisia Live has translated an English version of the preamble into English, it can be accessed here.

For more on the constitution see also Alice Fordham’s article in the National and Thierry Bresillon’s excellent article in French at Rue 89, and Nadia from Tunis on her blog.

Previous Constitution watch can be found here and here.

1) We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

2) « Le peuple français proclame solennellement son attachement aux Droits de l’homme et aux principes de la souveraineté nationale tels qu’ils ont été définis par la Déclaration de 1789, confirmée et complétée par le préambule de la Constitution de 1946, ainsi qu’aux droits et devoirs définis dans la Charte de l’environnement de 2004.En vertu de ces principes et de celui de la libre détermination des peuples, la République offre aux territoires d’Outre-Mer qui manifestent la volonté d’y adhérer des institutions nouvelles fondées sur l’idéal commun de liberté, d’égalité et de fraternité et conçues en vue de leur évolution démocratique. »

Constitution watch – updates on the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution

In what hopefully (depending on government progress and my discipline) will be a regular feature on the blog over the coming months, I give you my first “constitution watch” – updating readers on progress in the Constituent Assembly in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

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Two articles this week discussed contents of the preambule of the new constitution, which were leaked, separately, to reporters.

An article appearing in the Tunisian magazine Leaders reports that the new constitution will explicitly define the Tunisian republic as a civil state. According to their sources in the assembly it will also maintain the first article of the constitution and define the regime as republican, abolish the death penalty, and confirm respect for universal values.

In a separate article published by Tunisia Live on Wednesday, the English-language site reports that the constitution will emphasize “applying Islamic principles to the constitution, explicitly defining the Arab-Muslim identity of the state.” The article is unclear on whether these are separate articles in the preambule or not. “The draft also describes the new regime as “republican, democratic, and participatory,” based on respect for the people’s sovereignty and the separation of state powers.” The report also states that the draft will be released to the public next Monday, June 4.

There are no major revelations here, although it will be interesting to see how “applying Islamic principles to the constitution” will actually read in the final draft. Many secular opponents of the government have feared that while Ennahdha has specifically rejected references to sharia in the constitution, they will try to introduce a form of religion-based value tests for the country’s lawmakers and judiciary.

For a further discussion on how the constitution is actually being put together, see this article by Duncan Pickard in the Carnegie Endowment.

See also my previous discussion of including Sharia in the preambule here.

May Day in Tunisia – what you’ll see and what you will not see

Protests are planned today in Tunis and other major cities to celebrate labor day. If the protests follow the story arc of other recent protests led by opposition groups, the headlines this evening will talk of the mobilization of Tunisia’s opposition, whether the government is prepared to deal with workers’ issues, and the continuing frustration many  Tunisians feel about their economic fortunes.

While Ennahdha has called on its supporters to join the protests in an effort to neutralize this potential bad publicity, the move has the potential to backfire. Opposition groups, angry at the violent crackdowns during recent protests, will be none too pleased to share the stage with supporters of the very regime that cracked down on them. The potential for confrontation is real.

Photo-journalists will ensure that any violence is captured and broadcast around the world; the headlines will scream of further clashes between the opposition/secular forces and the Islamists – with some Salafis thrown in for good measure.

But a far different story is playing itself out across cities and towns across the country. This is a story one is unlikely to see in the newspapers. It is the story of Ennahdha’s massive mobilization and organization that is taking place all across the country. While opposition parties debate in the halls of Tunisia’s big cities, most small cities have one political party – Ennahdha. In a recent trip north of Tunisia, I was struck that every city I went to had an Ennahdha office that was large, open, and active. Opposition offices were invisible. This was true before the elections, when secular parties were crushed, and it remains true today.

Opposition parties remain fragmented, weak, and unable to reach out to ordinary voters.

It is likely that Tunisia’s opposition movement will congratulate itself tonight after what they perceive is a groundswell of support they received in Tunis today. They will read headlines in the Washington Post or Le Figaro and know that the world is watching their struggle. They are correct that many Tunisians are frustrated at the government and its ability to change things quickly. They are correct that the world is watching. But they are mistaken if they believe that marching downtown today will suffice to reach their voters. The lessons of October’s defeat have not yet been learned by Tunisia’s opposition.

Will Egypt’s disfunction spillover to Tunisia? The presidential race raises questions

Despite the obvious parallels between the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions, and the clear effect Tunisia’s successful ouster of Ben Ali inspired Egyptian activists, there has been surprisingly little cross-pollination of democratic ideas between Egypt and Tunisia. But as the Egyptian presidential race heats up and Tunisia enters another dangerous escalation between secularists and Islamists, there is the possibility that Tunisia’s Islamists, long a bastion of moderation among Muslim Brotherhood-inspired parties, will adopt Egypt’s more conservative approach. This could have two contradictory effects in Tunisia, both of which could drive further fissures through Tunisia’s increasingly divided political landscape.

Despite the dominate narrative of the Arab Spring – as a collection of uprisings linked by common cause against authoritarianism in the Arab world – Tunisian public debate has been largely insulated from events elsewhere in the Arab world. While Tunisians are aware of and sympathetic toward the other uprisings – especially in Libya and Egypt – there has been little public discussion of the paths toward democracy these countries have taken. Tunisians rightly see their path as a model to follow – rather than the violent and chaotic paths followed by their neighbors.

Tunisia’s separate path has also been due to the much more moderate inclinations of its leaders. After well-run and fair elections, Tunisia’s Islamist party immediately joined hands with secularist counterparts to run the government and write the constitution. Unencumbered by ultra-conservative political parties in the government – such as Salafi parties – the coalition has taken many moderate stances, including the announcement last month that Ennahdha would not endorse inclusion of sharia law in the new constitution.

Ennahdha’s moderation, however, has cost it support both among its more conservative members, many of whom are more influenced by traditional Muslim Brotherhood political ideas (from whence the movement began) and by an increasingly vocal Salafi movement, which while officially excluded from politics, is making itself and its views seen across the country. And despite its moderation on key positions, its inaction against rising extremism and its seeming complicity against very public threats to basic freedoms has made Tunisian secularists skeptical if not openly worried about the future path Ennahdha will take.

It is against this backdrop that events in Egypt could conspire to influence Tunisian politics. The New York Times reported today that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate has taken a much more conservative line:

“This is the old ‘Islam is the solution’ platform,” he said, recalling the group’s traditional slogan in his first television interview as a candidate. “It has been developed and crystallized so that God could bless society with it.” At his first rally, he led supporters in a chant: “The Koran is our constitution, and Shariah is our guide!”

One month before Egyptians begin voting for their first president after Hosni Mubarak, Mr. Morsi’s record is escalating a campaign battle here over the place of Islam in the new democracies promised by the Arab Spring revolts.

The article goes on to describe how throughout the post-Mubarak period, Egypt’s MB has played a much more moderate game:

The Brotherhood, the 84-year-old religious revival group known here for its preaching and charity as well as for its moderate Islamist politics, took a much softer approach in the official platform it released last year. It dropped the “Islam is the solution” slogan, omitted controversial proposals about a religious council or a Muslim president and promised to respect the Camp David accords with Israel.

What effects could a more conservative Egypt have on Tunisia? They are twofold:

Firstly, while Ennahdha is a well-oiled and disciplined political machine, its leadership is widely recognized as lying at the more liberal end of the party’s political spectrum. The debate over sharia was, by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi’s own confession, widely contested within the party before being decided upon. Ghannouchi’s argument was not a defense of civil institutions, but rather a wish to avoid a controversial debate at a critical time for the country.

If Egypt tilts further to the right, Tunisia’s more conservative Islamists – many trained side-by-side with their Brothers in Egypt – could begin to press for more conservative stances within Ennahdha – testing Ghannouchi’s leadership. Tunisia’s Salafi groups may be further emboldened at pressing for more radical change. At the same time, Ennahdha’s secular partners in the government (CPR and Ettaktol), already under pressure from opposition groups to join them, would be forced to choose between abandoning their partner in government, or going along with a platform much more conservative than they had agreed upon.

Secondly, Tunisia’s secularists (in this case I use the term to describe both secularists in the liberal sense, as well as those from the Bourguiba mold), already anxious about a country run by Islamists, may take bolder actions against the government. Already Tunisian secularists are sounding the alarm bells. At a meeting yesterday, secularists from various parties gathered to voice their extreme concern over events over the weekend which saw Salafi activists disrupt a planned event of a well-known secularist activist and a physical attack on a political figure. The events, troubling in and of themselves, caused even greater alarm by the perceived luke-warm response of the Ennahdha ministers at the justice and interior ministries. The meeting yesterday included calls for the opposition to boycott the Constituent Assembly and to change their tactics from those of opposition movements to “resistance” movements.

Tunisia’s secularist will look with anxiety to an Egypt which has turned further to the right. Coupled with Ennahdha’s moderate rhetoric, secularist alarmism has mostly fallen on deaf ears in Tunisia. Most Tunisians simply do not see their country following the path of Iran or Saudi Arabia, and the Algerian civil war – with its complex moral narrative – is already a decade in the past. An Egypt which has turned toward the extreme would provide secularists with a narrative that could be a call to action among secular sympathizers in the country.

Both of these effects would be dangerous for Tunisia. Already polarized, Tunisia’s fragile political system would break down if the CPR and Ettaktol abandoned the government. Neither Ennahdha nor the secularists have enough seats to form a majority government. But even barring this extreme example, political parties will find it increasingly difficult to compromise in an even more polarized political environment. With elections scheduled within a year, the government may find it difficult to write the constitution on time – creating further pressure in the system as the country would face a constitutional crisis and the government (in whatever form it took) would face criticism that it could not act.

Ghorbal: Tunisia ignoring the real problem with the constitution – the courts

Samy Ghorbal, a Tunisian writer and political advisor to the opposition PDP, writes in Slate Afrique this week that while secularists celebrated Ennahdha’s abandonment of inscribing sharia law in the new constitution, they are ignoring the real problem – which is how the constitutional council interprets the constitution.

His argument, which no doubt many of my more conservative readers will take issue with, nonetheless raises the important fact that many essential debates over the shape of Tunisia’s future regime have yet to take place.

Some excerpts, translated by me, below. The whole article, in French, is worth a read.

…The real battle [not that based on Article 1 of the constitution], focusing on the architecture and processes of constitutional review, is just beginning. Because it is the role of a constitutional judge to propose and establish an interpretation of this section [Article 1). It is he who will tell how it should be understood, what it permits and what it prohibits….Everything will depend, ultimately, on the court or the Constitutional Council to be established; the checks and balances within it; and how its members will be appointed.

Tunisia has no tradition of independent constitutional justice. It is starting from zero. Established by presidential decree in 1987, the Constitutional Council, which ceased to exist after the (January 2011) Revolution, when the Constitution was repealed, was complicit in the dictatorship of Ben Ali. Can a constitutional court, which has long indulged in a servile/auxiliary role of the state, fulfill its cultural revolution and become the guarantor of rights and freedoms? Will it be given the means to do so?

These issues are of crucial importance for the future of the young Tunisian democracy. Yet they are strangely absent from public debate, and have found little echo in the Constituent Assembly. Most “modernist” parties were content to generalize about the rule of law and the need to ensure separation of powers in their election manifestos – without going into details.

The proposals unveiled by the Islamists in their program by 365 points, submitted on 14 September 2011, are equally succinct. Yet, to think about it, they leave no worry. Ennahda says it wants to establish a parliamentary form of democracy, “based on the separation of powers and judicial independence.”

In fact, in their system, all power emanates from the parliament, and, in the event a party would have the absolute majority, then all power emanates in reality from the majority party. Institutions would become hostage to one party or faction – starting with the Council or the Constitutional Court, whose president is elected directly by Parliament. There would be every reason to fear that this body is diverted from its intended liberal and turns, simply,as the guardian of the Islamic identity of the state and religious morality.

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.