Secular extremists the new buzzword on the Tunisian right

In an interesting parallel to American politics, Tunisia’s right wing, predominantly the Islamist party, Ennahdha, have embarked on a campaign to call out what they consider to be “secular extremists.”

The Associated Press’s Paul Schemm reported this week:

Said Ferjani, a high ranking member of Ennahda, told The Associated Press that the last thing they wanted right now was a culture war between the Salafis and what he calls the “secular fundamentalists.”

“We are dealing with the business of government, we have floods in the north, a sinking economy and these people are talking about the burqa and the hijab (headscarf),” he said with exasperation. “I don’t think they are very grown up.”

Tunisian blogger Kaouther Ferjani recently wrote about an incident at the Constituent Assembly, where an Assembly member, Tahar Hmila, was verbally assaulted by two women:

Hmila explained that Tunisia suffers from both right-wing extremism and leftist extremism and that they “two sides of the same coin”…

…He urges the government to continue to work hard in bringing success and stability to the country as it would leave little room for both leftist and right-wing extremists to cause disruption.

With news of right wing (Islamist) extremists dominating news in recent weeks, Ennahdha and its supporters appear to be trying to balance what they perceive to be an unfair debate. Essentially, they posit that when a left winger protests for their beliefs, they’re portrayed as freedom fighters, whereas if a right winger does the same thing, they’re obscurantists looking to bring Tunisia back to the Middle Ages.

Ennahdha supporters have been dismayed by attacks on their movement, a movement they see as democratic, having finally gained power legitimately through democratic elections. And yet, despite a clear democratic mandate and a difficult period for the country, the opposition not only attacks their positions but questions their legitimacy and their commitment to democracy.

As an example, since forming the government, much of the Tunisian media has insisted on using the term, provisoire or interim, to describe the government. The explanation used is that the government was set up only for a limited period of time until a new constitution was ratified. (Of course, by the same logic, any democratic government could be called interim, by their nature they are not meant to last.) The rhetoric has appeared more petty than anything else.

Thus, when left wing Tunisians accuse the ruling party of harboring extremist sentiments, Ennahdha’s supporters get exasperated to be grouped together with jihadists and terrorists.

The calculation by Ennahdha seems to be, if you can’t convince them that you’re moderate, you should play be the same rules. It’s a dangerous, but often effective game – for both sides. We’re all extremists!