Salafi Trouble in Tunisia’s Transition
Published Monday, June 11, 2012
One of the prominent developments in the aftermath of the fallen dictatorship in Tunisia was the resurgence in the public sphere of groups with Salafi backgrounds. Their sudden incursion into the political arena and the polemics that they generated in different political matters resulted in their increased use of violence against other political and social actors.
These actions have left large segments of Tunisian society skeptical about the outcome of the country’s political transition. Nothing in Tunisia’s post-authoritarian era seem to be deterring these religious zealots from challenging the rule of law and the state power.
Nowadays, Salafi groups show off their power in a way that infringes on the sanctity of Tunisian citizens and their recently recovered freedom. Their modus operandi varies in accordance with their goals. They have taken control of more than two hundred mosques, which should be under the auspices of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. They have carried arms and clashed with the national army and security forces in Bir Ali Ben Khalifa (governorate of Sfax) in February 2012. They brought down and dishonored the national flag at the University of Manouba in Tunis in March.
On May 4, they shut down a book fair in the town of La Soukra (governorate of Ariana) under the pretext that it displays Shia manuscripts that promote “deviant religious beliefs” and threatened to set fire to the whole exhibition. Two weeks later, on May 20, thousands of Salafis paraded around the Great Mosque of Uqba ibn Nafi in Kairouan demonstrating their martial arts skills and raising the al-Qaeda banner over its minaret. Six days later, they attacked police stations in the El Kef governorate, fought with vendors selling alcoholic beverages and burned bars in the city of Sidi Bouzid – the town that sparked the Arab uprisings – using Molotov bombs, and stormed hotels in the city of Jendouba.
Ironically, the Tunisian media, which constantly denounces such acts of violence adopted by those groups, never tried to understand the rationale of their doctrinal roots. What sets these groups apart from other Islamist movements is the flawed logic that gives priority to religious and theological issues at the expense of political activity.
Historically, Salafi movements encourage adherence to the teachings and practices of ‘those who preceded,’ namely the Prophet and the virtuous fathers of the faith who were Mohammad’s companions (as-Salaf al-Salih, the “pious ancestors”) – a group that includes the first three generations of Muslims.
During the mid-19th century, the Salafi movement opposed the forces of conservatism in the Muslim world and promoted “modernism.” The abolition of the Caliphate in the early 20th century gave rise to a conservative Salafi wing, from which Wahhabi ascendancy has been marked.
These Salafis, however, consider themselves more as muwahideen (followers of tawhid or Oneness of God) or Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamaa (the followers of the prophet Mohammed and the Salaf) than Wahhabis.
The nuances between the three contemporary trends of salafiyya, which differ in terms of their approach in implementing doctrine, are significant. The Salafiyya Ilmiyya (‘scholarly’ or ‘scientific’ Salafiyya) drew on conservative Islamic thought going back to the legacy of the 13th century scholar Ibn Taymiyya and his protégé Ibn al-Qayyim as the cornerstone of their beliefs.
In accordance with their teachings, these Salafis emphasize the preservation of the practices and ideas of the first Muslim community. Innovation, interpretation, evolution, adaptation, creation, and so forth were all terms excluded from their vocabulary and mental framework, implying the utter, absolute rejection of rational thought.
Given the perfect nature of the “pious ancestors,” there was no room left to improve anything in this idyllic society. Modern political concepts such as nation-state and democracy are branded as bid’a (heresy). It should be mentioned here that Salafi scientists do not inherently prefer violence as a means to seek their aims; nor do they refuse to be part of political game.
Conversely, the sahwa trend of Salafi political reform movements do vigorously involve themselves in politics. They adhere to established political institutions and accept democratic and pluralist principles as well as rules framed by existing constitutions.
In fact, they openly reject the concept of a theocratic state, focusing instead on justice, freedom, and the need to implement the constitution rightly rather than reject it entirely. They still defend the idea of the application of Sharia, however, they recognize that the level of diversity, the multiplicity of cultures, and the contemporary socio-economic realities that today influence the way of Muslim societies require the adaptation of Islamic legal creed to the notions of ihya (revival) and tajdid (renewal) which does not involve an alteration in the sources, principles and fundamentals of Islam, but only in the path the religion is comprehended and lived in accordance with time and place.
The third variation of Salafism is the jihadi one, which rejects the existing political order and challenges it through violence. This extremely conservative wing of Salafism rejects all national and pan-Arab identities and stresses the concept of the Islamic umma, or Muslim community, as the sole identity of Muslims.
This minority strain began using violence as a tool to impose their vision on society and control individual behavior. This became the defining characteristic of what would be known as salafiyya jihadyya. There is, however, a very important distinction between the “Greater Jihad,” which is either an internal spiritual struggle or the struggle of believers to build an Islamic society, and the “Lesser Jihad,” which implies taking up arms in the legitimate defense of the Islamic umma against foreign aggression.
Jihadist Salafi groups have employed the concept of ‘Lesser Jihad’ in two ways. On one hand, they use it as rationale for taking up arms in the legitimate defense of the Islamic umma against foreign aggression, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan. On the other hand, they use the concept as a way to legitimize their militant efforts to remove corrupt and tyrannical Arab regimes, tawagheet.
Thus, rather than being a continuation of politics by other means, this kind of jihad is in sync with a rationale in which action is no longer conceived on the basis of its outcomes, but rather in terms of its continuity to the cause that it promotes. This interpretation of jihad is increasingly employed by jihadist movements in order to use violence against both believers and non-believers, contradicting Ibn Taymiyya’s own goal of using it to express Islamic identity in individual and collective rituals rather than on a political and territorial basis.
The notion of jihad has developed significantly over time and been used in response to colonialism, as a metaphor for reform (both social and intellectual), and as an excuse for violence. It is in this sense that jihadiyya emerged most prominently on the world stage during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by focusing on the arena of war-making.
With the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, this kind of salafiyya quickly emerged in Tunisia seeking to reshape the political order by substituting national history and its territorial foundation watan (national homeland) with the broader political umma islamiyya (Islamic community).
The latter could explain the presence of Tunisian youths fighting within the Syrian rebellion who apparently received training on insurgency warfare in Libya’s western mountain camps before being sent to Syria. There have been stories of young jihadists recruited by radical preachers in many mosques across the country sent to Turkey where local coordinators arranged to have them smuggled across the border into Syria volunteering to go to war against the enemy (Assad regime). These stories started flourishing in Tunisian as well as Arabic newspapers.
After an abrupt and prolonged absence from home, the families of jihadists are often contacted through a brief international phone call telling them in a Levantine accent that their offsprings are “martyrs.” This dramatic fate may be just what these young men expected when they slipped out of Tunisia to Syria. However, like the “Arab Afghans” who went back to their countries in the early 90s, Tunisia can expect a wave of fighters coming home in few years with new combat skills. This while the country is still struggling in its transition would be a big nightmare similar to the Algerian atrocities of the “bloody years.”
Back in Tunisia, the Salafi cloud appeared on the horizon only recently. It was neither involved in the uprising nor took the vanguard of the popular movement that toppled Ben Ali’s regime. The group’s jihadiyya component, known as “supporters of Ansar al-Sharia” (the Partisans of Islamic Law) and led by Saif Allah Ben Hussein, alias Abu Iyadh, who was released from prison in March 2011, is isolating itself from the country’s political dynamics by calling for an Islamic Caliphate based on a literal exegesis of Sharia. It theorizes about the rejection of civil state, the principles of citizenship, democracy in its universal acceptance as well as denouncing pluralism based on liberalism and secularism. This ostracizing sectarian discourse will only contribute to the further polarization of Tunisian society already deeply divided and will compromise the building of a civil state able to defy radicalism and defend the public sphere as a place of equal citizenship regardless of religious affiliations.
Nowadays, there are signs of sedition in Tunisia that the interim government, led by the al-Nahda party, should rigorously but firmly contain by implementing the law without reluctance. Zero tolerance for those who discard democracy and liberty should be the rule since the stability of the country, its security, socioeconomic prosperity and the sacrifices of its people for freedom, dignity and social justice are seriously jeopardized.
Rather than campaigning for the upcoming elections and “doing well in parole,” the interim president Moncef Marzouki and his associates must realize that Tunisians are expecting him to govern and lead the country. Organizing lectures in the Carthage Palace seeking to debate Islamism and secularism with and between elites is a luxury that a country with 800,000 unemployed workers and endless social problems cannot afford.
Marzouki’s populist politics in political transition does not address the legitimate demands of Tunisian aspirations for improving their living standards within the confines of a modern state that respects its people and their Arab-Islamic identity. It does not provide them with public freedoms and failed to protect the diversity of their society. Those who turned a blind eye to the princes of darkness by using political opportunism should understand that the principles of democracy – rule of law, citizenship, universal suffrage, accountability, transparency and checks and balances – are indivisible and should be enshrined in Tunisia’s nascent democracy. At the end of the day, it is their legitimacy, political legacy, reliability and credibility that will be at stake.
The real question is whether or not this transition will bring about true freedom and representative democracy, or if it will give birth to a kind of democratic despotism, like those systems that have spread across some Latin American countries as well as Russia and the Ukraine, in which democracy becomes simply about voting between rival factions of elites.
There are three key dangers ahead: first, is democratic despotism based on populism; second, the emergence of a disintegrated and weak state with clanism and regionalism as the main feature behind it; third, an unrestrained parliamentary democracy in which a majority becomes tyrannical and starts using the ballot box to oppress or restrict individual rights in the name of ideology or religion. These are the three great dangers facing Tunisia and though we need to be worried about them, so far I believe that optimism is appropriate but caution is needed.
Noureddine Jebnoun is a faculty member at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.