The Emergence of Salafism in Tunisia

Analysis, posted 08.19.2012, from Tunisia, in:
The Emergence of Salafism in Tunisia (Photo: AP)

Political Islam did not really play a prominent role in the success of the Tunisian revolution. Islamists were notably absent from the protests and the revolutionary slogans were about freedom, dignity, and jobs rather than Sharia law or the creation of an Islamic state. This made it reasonably easy for Europeans and Americans to support the Tunisian uprising, as it looked surprisingly non-threatening to the West. In fact, the Tunisian protesters seemed to have much in common with their European and American counterparts involved in demanding more accountability from their own political elites. 

The October 2011 elections, however, offered a different and surprising, at least for some, picture of the country. The Islamist party Ennahda became by far the dominant political movement and now leads a three-party government coalition together with two secular left-leaning parties. This means that former Islamist political prisoners and exiles are today in power. Ennahda’s landslide victory contradicted the assumptions of many analysts and scholars about Tunisia, which was believed to be a haven of secularism in North Africa, thanks to the modernizing policies of both Bourguiba and Ben Ali. If the electoral strength of Ennahda was not enough to question the effective penetration of Tunisian elite-led secularism in society, the very public emergence of Salafism certainly did the trick. Since the departure of Ben Ali, Salafism has acquired a public presence in urban centers, with Salafists from a variety of different movements involved in numerous high profile incidents: holding demonstrations against blasphemy, targeting films and art exhibits, or challenging dress-code regulations in universities. While the actual number of Salafist activists is relatively small, their highly mediatized activities have placed Salafism at the center of both political and scholarly attention. It is this phenomenon, too easily stereotyped, that deserves analysis. 

In particular, the crucial question of the provenance of these Salafists forcefully arises given the reluctance to accept that they are the product of the domestic Tunisian reality. Thus, the francophone press both in Tunisia and France has been covering what they call the “Salafist danger” or the “Salafist cancer,” as if the phenomenon were an aberration in Tunisian society and a significant threat to the construction of a democratic political system. When one looks at the different Tunisian Salafist movements, there are two points that emerge and are worth analyzing. First, far from being simply an externally-generated political phenomenon, Tunisian Salafism has strong domestic roots. Second, and quite paradoxically, the public presence of Salafism might generate a democratic and liberal backlash that could strengthen social and political pluralism in the longer term as large sectors of society mobilize against illiberal and anti-democratic forces. In addition, operating within a more democratic and liberal framework might change the way in which Salafists relate to the state.

As mentioned above, there are different strands within Salafism that are present on the Tunisian public scene. Broadly speaking, there are two large families within Salafism: scientific and Jihadi. The crucial difference between the two families is over the use of armed struggle to attain political objectives. Within scientific Salafism in Tunisia there are groups advocating political engagement and acceptance of democracy within the confines of Sharia law (Jabhat al-Islah) and groups involved in preaching a purist version of Islam (dawa and Wahhabism-influenced groups). It is, however, Jihadi Salafism that has attracted most attention. In particular, more recently, it is the issue of Tunisian Jihadi fighters in Iraq that has surfaced in the press. Far from simply being treated solely as a security issue, the debate over the fate of Tunisian fighters in Iraq generated intense debates about the history of Jihadism in Tunisia, its validity as a form of political expression, and the role that it plays in the currently volatile politics of the country.

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