The Middle East Channel

Who are Tunisia’s Salafis?

Recent protests at the U.S. embassy in Tunis and corresponding attacks on the nearby American Cooperative School have cast sharp light on the Salafis allegedly responsible. Media accounts quickly dismissed the protesters as "Salafi fanatics," though some resembled rioting football fans more than religiously garbed ruffians.

Local journalists covering previous instances of Salafi-oriented unrest -- from the October 2011 demonstrations against the film Persepolis to this June's riots at an art exhibit in Tunis's upscale La Marsa district -- have tended to narrate events from afar without directly interviewing Salafis. Such slipshod coverage has tended to leave readers with a broad-brush portrait of Tunisian Salafism -- one that obscures important details concerning the movement's composition and complexity. Far from being a monolithic group of highly organized extremists, Tunisia's Salafis are in fact a loose collection of religiously right-wing individuals whose identities and motivations require far closer scrutiny. 

The emergence of "Salafism" as a political category is itself a very recent development in Tunisia. Before the January 2011 revolution, Tunisia's Salafis seemed virtually invisible and almost entirely apolitical. During the 1990s and, to a lesser extent, the 2000s, both moderate and militant Islamists were imprisoned, forced underground, or driven into exile. Like leftists, insubordinate trade unionists, provocative bloggers, and a whole host of perceived regime opponents, Islamists -- who sought to engage in faith-based forms of political activism -- were systematically silenced. Former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali likely allowed a small window of space for ultra-right wing activities, largely as an effort to justify his rule as a necessary bulwark against terrorism during the 2000s. For the most part, however, Islamists -- both mainstream moderates and potentially militant right-wingers -- spent the better part of the 1990s and 2000s simply trying to fly under the regime's radar and avoid arrest.

Following the revolution, Tunisia's long-muzzled media establishment -- which had little experience in meaningfully critiquing social or political developments -- struggled to make sense of the upsurge in conservative forms of religious dress, such as long beards and full face veils. Last summer, many secularly inclined Tunisians described Ennahda and the Salafis as practically synonymous. This year, as Salafi styles of conservative dress and religiously oriented protests have become increasingly commonplace, media outlets have begun devoting more attention to unpicking the divisions between the two groups. Though many secular opponents of Ennahda still believe the two movements are interchangeable, Tunisian press coverage now generally portrays Salafis as ultra-conservative, violently natured persons whose sympathies lay to the right of Ennahda. Ennahda has sought to encourage that interpretation, repeatedly characterizing itself as a centrist movement caught between Salafi and secularist extremes.

The distinction between Tunisian Salafism and mainstream Islamist politics is an important one, and represents a step toward better understanding the dynamics of intra-Islamist competition in Tunisia. While the most liberal strain of Salafism overlaps with the most right-wing strain of Ennahda, the two movements are distinct and often at loggerheads.

Simply positioning "Salafis" as a broad group of radicals who may challenge Ennahda from the right, however, fails to sufficiently explain the nature of Salafi activism in Tunisia. Tunisian press and political commentators  ontinue to regularly employ the term "Salafism" as a convenient by-word for "bearded youths whose rage we don't understand." The term "Salafism" has, in fact, become a convenient conceptual dumping ground, a kind of catchall waste bin into which journalists and some academics have tended to blithely toss individuals and actions that seem aggressive or incomprehensible. Like "Islamism," a term that has been used to link actors as disparate as Osama bin Laden and Oxford professor Tariq Ramadan, the word "Salafism" often confuses more than it clarifies.

"Salafism" in Tunisia refers to a broad umbrella of religiously conservative social movements that position themselves to the right of Ennahda. Within the broad stream of Salafi social movements, we can differentiate two main currents: Salafiyya ‘Almiyya, often translated as "scientific Salafism" but probably better understood in English as "scripturalist Salafism," and Salafiyya Jihadiyya, or jihadi Salafism. Tunisian Salafis, particularly jihadi Salafis, frequently use these terms to explain divisions within the Salafi movement and to describe their own positions vis a vis social and political norms. According to Lubna, a 27 year-old student who calls herself a Salafi jihadist, the scripturalists are "too weak to ever change the system." "They might pray and dress like Salafis," explained a 21 year-old jihadi Salafi named Mejdi, "but they're very different from us."

Scripturalist Salafis generally eschew political involvement as impious and pointless -- a sign of buying into a corrupt, worldly system destined for decay. These Salafis look toward a morally pure caliphate characterized by the complete imposition of sharia law -- which they tend to interpret with varying degrees of conservatism -- as the ultimate goal. They see elections as a treacherous path leading away from that pious caliphate, and generally disparage the concept of democracy as a misguided ruse -- a tempting but ultimately vapid distraction best avoided. Instead of engaging in politics or throwing their efforts into protest-oriented jihad (most literally understood as a righteous struggle, but generally understood by Tunisian jihadi Salafis to mean very public, potentially violent protests), scripturalist Salafis usually prefer to hunker down. They focus their lives on following the texts of Islam and living according to the example of the first three generations of Muslims who followed Muhammad, a group known as the salaf al-salah (literally, followers of the prophet), from which the word "Salafi" derives.

A small group of scripturalist Salafis, led mainly by individuals who found themselves on the right wing of the Islamic Tendency Movement (Ennahda's predecessor movement) in the 1980s, has embraced a more political path. These individuals, including, perhaps most notably, Mohamed Khouja, leader of the mildly Salafi party Jibhat al-Islah (the Reform Front), had ties to Ennahda leaders in the 1980s but ended up breaking off, often going into exile or joining the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. 

This political wing of scriptural Salafism seems to be quite small, especially in comparison to other Arab countries such as Egypt, where Salafism has become a mainstream political force. The overwhelming majority of Salafis, scripturalist and jihadi, claim to have rejected politics. Many, if not most, Salafis did not vote in the October 2011 elections. Those who did vote, however, tended to cast their ballots in favor of Ennahda, believing it to be a pure, Islamic party that would enshrine sharia as the key cornerstone of constitutional legislation. When this failed to happen, many on the religious right were crestfallen and deeply disillusioned with Ennahda's so-called "Islamic" credentials. Like Houda, a 24 year-old Salafi girl who participated in the pro-niqab protests at Manouba University this January, many swear that they will never again be "duped into voting" for any political party, even those who claim Islamic credentials.

Like their scripturalist counterparts, jihadi Salafis usually reject political participation, but they tend to view the scripturalists as increasingly out of touch and irrelevant. Jihadi Salafis often deride the scripturalists' quietist approach as foolish. They argue that the best way to transform Tunisia's inefficient and corrupted political system into a just Islamic government, or caliphate, is to preach vocally and uncompromisingly through both personal example and protest. Preaching, or making dawa, they say, involves more than just quietly busying oneself with selling Islamic CDs or wearing a niqab. It involves a very direct and deliberate challenge to Tunisia's state system, which jihadi Salafis see as a rotten and irredeemably corrupt holdover from the dictatorial days of the pro-secular autocrat, Ben Ali.

Support for jihadi strains of Salafi thought grew during the 2000s, as Ben Ali ratcheted up arrests of domestic opposition forces and suspiciously bearded young men under Tunisia's 2003 Counterterrorism Law, adopted under U.S. pressure and widely denounced by international human rights organizations. The combination of widespread local arrests, which provoked resentment and feelings of marginalization, and the increasingly symbolic debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan motivated certain Tunisian young people to look toward more radical internet preachers during the 2000s -- preachers who sometimes espoused support for a more violent brand of jihadist activism against "infidel" forces, both domestic and international.

The relationship between Salafi jihadists and Salafi scripturalists in Tunisia is that of a vocal, sometimes violent activist movement to a more pacifist and sometimes integrationist movement. This dynamic is comparable -- in the very loosest of terms -- to the relationship that existed in the 1960s between the supporters of the Black Panthers and Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States. Though the struggle for a sharia-based caliphate in Tunisia is far from directly comparable to the struggle for African-Americans' civil rights, the Salafis' perception of their own activism is important here: Salafis tend to see themselves as deeply marginalized actors in a context of lingering secular authoritarianism and global oppression of Arab voices. Most Salafis seem to hail from lower middle class or poor backgrounds, and most are quite young -- in their 20s or 30s. Many come from precisely the same socioeconomic stratum as the young men who die on boat journeys to Italy, or the youths in depressed interior towns like Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa, and Kasserine who first agitated against the old regime and in favor of their economic and personal rights. These young people tend to feel angry, voiceless, and rejected by an elite class of educated secularists living on the coasts.

Broadly speaking, the two groups -- Salafis and secularists -- have very little contact, and many nurture deep-seated stereotypes and conspiracies about the other. For Tunisian secularists, Salafis can appear to be bearded, violent caricatures -- senseless radicals bent on destabilizing Tunisia. Rumors that young Salafis are being paid by shadowy Saudi sheikhs abound. Secularists tend to place blame for the U.S. embassy violence squarely on Ennahda's shoulders, arguing -- with some justification -- that Ennahda has been taking an overly soft accommodationist approach to Salafi extremism. Many feel Ennahda may actually be in alliance with the Salafis, and are disgusted that the party has, in their opinion, failed to stand up for "Tunisian values," which they frequently define as freedom of artistic expression, openness, and moderation. Some secularists go so far as to believe that Britain and the United States may be creating a Salafi monster by feeding secret funds into Enndaha. "Before you ask me my opinion on politics here," one anti-Ennahda protester at last month's National Women's Day rally told me, "go back to Britain and tell that government to stop funding Ennahda. Without British and American money, they'd be nothing!"

Salafi youths, on the other hand, frequently perceive Tunisian secularists to be tools of the French -- unreflective, extreme elitists whose only concerns are drinking beer and parading about in skimpy bathing suits. Salafis of all stripes often accuse more secular-oriented Tunisians of taking money from Europe and the United States to fund their civil society organizations. Many believe that the country's mainstream Islamist movement, Ennahda, is pandering to the Americans and potentially even accepting U.S. funding. Salafis, particularly the more vocal jihadi Salafis, tend to share secularists' rage against Ennahda, blaming the party  for failing to stand up for "Tunisian values," which Salafis generally define as sharia-based Islam and restrictions on blasphemous forms of expression. "Where was Ennahda when we were protesting against the blasphemy in La Marsa?" a 23 year-old jihadi Salafi recently asked me. "They were trying to be hands-off, to play it safe -- but they forgot Islamic values. They don't have Islamic principles -- that was just a political trick for the last election."

For young Salafis, many of whom feel unrepresented by Ennahda, economically disenfranchised, and increasingly shunted aside by the elitism of Tunisian party politics, the promise and purity of Islam remain immensely inspirational. Leaders like Abu Iyadh -- whose admonition not to fear America and to stand up for Islamic values stirred hundreds of Salafi hearts in a downtown mosque last week -- command immense popularity among Salafi youths in general, and jihadi Salafis in particular. Abu Iyadh, a founding member of the Tunisian Combat Group, which was active in the jihad against the United States in Afghanistan, has become something of a legend amongst such young people, who frequently invoke him as a proud symbol of Arab power against unprincipled regimes, both in Tunisia and abroad. Many are members of the Facebook pages for Abu Iyadh's group Ansar al Sharia, as well as the Tunisian wing of the international group Hizb al-Tahrir, which, although strictly speaking not a Salafi group, enjoys widespread popularity amongst Salafi youth for its strong line on Palestinian liberation and other popular causes.

Violent outbursts, such as occurred in front of the U.S. embassy on September 14, have been happening on a smaller scale throughout the country since this winter, as attacks on liquor stores and protests against various concerts and cultural events deemed "un-Islamic" have spread. Such instances are symptomatic not just of intra-Islamist ideological divisions, but of broader questions surrounding the weakness and disorganization of Tunisia's security apparatus and the flagging state of Tunisia's economy, which has worsened since the revolution. The identities and motivations of the protesters involved in these various incidents remain unclear. Certain residents of Sidi Bouzid have privately confided that some "Salafis" accused of raiding their city's liquor providers were actually local thugs who only donned beards after the revolution. The absence of reliable investigative journalism in Tunisia makes it very difficult to verify or deny such claims without physically going to Sidi Bouzid and other towns that have experienced incidences of religiously tinged unrest to personally interview the so-called Salfis involved.  

Ben Ali's departure on January 14, 2011 released a host of formerly unaired and long-suppressed grievances. After decades of repression, many Tunisians are talking openly across the political table -- hearing one another's views in an atmosphere of free debate for the very first time. This process of self-reckoning has proven both exhilarating and immensely frightening for many Tunsians, some of whom are shocked to see their so-called Islamist party rejecting a fully sharia-based constitution, others of whom find it difficult to fathom that their seemingly secular state could be the site of anti-blasphemy protests and pro-niqab rallies.

The U.S. embassy protest must be seen as one particularly regrettable episode in Tunisians' long-term attempt to come to grips with a legacy of deeply destructive state authoritarianism -- a system that violently suppressed political expression and dissent.  Working out precisely what freedom of artistic expression means, for example, in a country that has not yet even determined whether its political model will be presidential, parliamentary, or a mix of the two will take time. There will be messy episodes along the way as Tunisians go through a long, sometimes grueling process of self-reckoning and state building. Ultimately, a measured understanding of Salafism is at the very heart of the struggle to build an inclusive Tunisia that offers a peaceful, politically representative arena where the voices and concerns of all groups can be heard.

Monica Marks is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Middle Eastern Studies at St Antony's College in Oxford.

SALAH HABIBI/AFP/GettyImages

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