Tunisia has recently focused its attention to victims of extreme weather that has affected large parts of the country, particularly in the west and north of the country. The historic winter weather, with some regions receiving over 6 feet of snow, has brought out the best in Tunisians. Just days after the situation deteriorated, civic organizations organized solidarity caravans to help those affected. The relief efforts, which included providing food, blankets, and tarps, were badly needed and much appreciated by local populations.
But as Aaron Zelin, publisher of the Wasat and Jihadology websites notes, it wasn’t just Tunisian civil society that mobilized. Far right wing jihadists in Tunisia also answered the call to provide relief to their compatriots and coreligionists.
On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihadfi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate.
Zelin goes on to examine the implications these kinds of efforts might have in recruiting people to their cause, and what that might mean to Ennahdha. The entire article is well worth a read.
I have two brief observations:
Firstly, Zelin’s piece shows a side of the religious right in Tunisia that is often ignored or dismissed. Secular elites often belittle salafists as backwards “beardos” who want to drag Tunisia back to the 7th Century, without ever looking at what might be appealing about their cause. The reality is that groups like Ansar al-Shariah appeal to those who think that the country has been off course because it has gotten away from its moral grounding. It’s likely that while the majority of Tunisians take a markedly more moderate stance toward religion, few would object to the kind of aid the group is providing.
Secondly, Zelin’s work exposes limitations in the Tunisian press to the diversity of opinion in Tunisia right now. When Zalin approached me about the situation, I have to be honest, I’d never heard of Ansar al-Shari’ah or their aid caravan. While I had read dozens of articles about the relief efforts of civil society, businesses, political parties, and foreign governments, Ansar al-Shari’ah never came up. One thing is certain though, the town of Haidra, the beneficiaries of the group’s aid, know very well about the group now.
These problems exposes a real danger for Tunisia. Despite the lifting of press restrictions after the revolution, there remains both an inablility to recognize why some Tunisians are drawn to hard-line ideologies and this is reinforced by an echo chamber of like minded beliefs. While culture wars rage on Facebook, there is little true public understanding of the groups that are waging war for Tunisian public opinion in the neighborhoods and small towns across Tunisia.