After Protests, Tunisia’s Salafists Plot a More Radical Revolution

The past week's unrest and protests across the Muslim world were largely the work of more puritanical Salafists, many of whom harbor as much ire against their own governments as they do against the West

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R. Byhre / Demotix / Corbis

Tunisian police officers carry a wounded colleague as smoke billows from the U.S. embassy during a violent demonstration that led to the storming of the compund in Tunis on Sept. 14, 2012

In a park hidden from the road and strewn with trash, two young Salafist men dressed in the traditional garb of gray tunics and sandals laid out their plan for revenge against the anti-Islam YouTube video out of California, as well as cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a French satirical magazine this week. In the meeting place they had picked for an interview with TIME on Thursday, the men said they were prepared to wait — years, if necessary — for the right moment to avenge the insults from both the U.S. and France. “We never know when the reaction will be, but sooner or later this revenge is going to be seen by the West, just as we saw with the Danish cartoons,” said Mahmoud, 25, a slender man with black hair, referring to drawings of the Muslim prophet, which appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2006 — two whole years before al-Qaeda detonated a car bomb outside the Danish embassy in Islamabad in apparent revenge, killing five people. With hard-line Islamic youth under tight surveillance since the disastrous attack on Tunis’ U.S. embassy last Friday, Mahmoud said that devout youth like him would simply wait until the heat’s off, before taking action, including possible “jihad.” “We can do anything,” Mahmoud said, “but at the right time and place, under the right circumstances.”

Whether such words by Tunisia’s young Salafists are just fiery bluster or a real threat cannot be known, of course. But after days of violent protests across the Muslim world over the video Innocence of Muslims, Tunisian officials are taking no chances.

On Friday, one week after enraged Tunisians converged on the U.S. embassy in their capital, scaled its walls and smashed windows, then hoisted the black al-Qaeda flag on the embassy’s flagpole and torched the nearby American school, Tunis’ streets bristled with security forces. In a striking echo from Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, military tanks were deployed outside the French embassy downtown, on the very avenue where giant protests drove out the country’s dictator in January 2011, inspiring the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East.

Nearly 20 months later, police armed with teargas canisters and rifles blocked streets on Friday before noon prayers outside the Salafists’ El Fath mosque in central Tunis — a stark contrast from last Friday, when security forces were unable, or perhaps partly unwilling, to stop the violence from spinning out of control; it was from this mosque that hundreds of worshippers piled into convoys of vehicles and stormed toward the U.S. embassy. And while Tunisia’s Salafist leader Abou Iyadh told crowds at the mosque last Monday that Muslims should fight an “infinite battle” to defend Islam, the message on Friday was drastically different. In a half-hour sermon blasted over Tunis’ busy streets through the mosque’s loudspeakers, the country’s Minister of Religious Affairs, Noureddine Khadmi, pleaded for calm. “It’s totally forbidden in Islam to kill ambassadors or anyone who is sent from another country,” said Khadmi. “We need to protect relations between nations.”

To Mahmoud, the young Salafist, such conciliatory appeals from the government — which have intensified all week — simply confirm a key suspicion of the country’s Salafists: that the Arab Spring has betrayed devout Muslims like him. An accountant by trade, with his first baby on the way, Mahmoud said he joined the young protesters in last year’s Jasmine Revolution (as well as last week’s protests) out of intense hatred of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had jailed hundreds of Islamists. But while elections last October brought to power Ennahda, a moderate Islamic organization banned under Ben Ali, Mahmoud said the new government had abandoned Muslim devotees like himself. U.S. military aid to Tunisia has roughly doubled since the revolution — proof, Mahmoud said, that the country’s true loyalties lie with the West, rather than Islam. “The government is pretending to be a revolutionary government, but it is not,” he said. “Instead of meeting the expectations of people who revolted against the dictatorship, they’ve adopted the easier option of executing the Western agenda.”

The quandary for Tunisia’s new democratic leaders is how to rein in youth like Mahmoud, without risking further confrontation. In an interview on Thursday, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, a secular politician who returned from exile in Paris last year, told TIME he believed there were about 3,000 people who posed a threat of religious violence in Tunisia — a fair number in a country with just 10.6 million. “We have to stop this phenomenon,” he said, sitting in his office in the seaside palace previously occupied by Ben Ali. “These people hate democracy, they do not want this democracy.”

Indeed, sitting in the city park on Thursday, Mahmoud and his friend, who calls himself Mohamed Amin, said they had no interest in Tunisia’s democratic process; the government is deep into writing a new constitution, which will pave the way for regular elections. Instead, Mahmoud said true Salafists like himself believe that Koranic scripture comprises all the rules by which people should be governed — an intensely strict interpretation of Islamic Shari‘a law. “Democracy is against the model we believe in,” Mahmoud said. “It is power to the people. But in Islam, we believe in power to God.”

In recent months, Mahmoud has joined protests at Tunis’ al-Manouba University, where women students are banned from wearing niqab in class — a rule that dates to Ben Ali’s era, and which has not yet been changed. Even among the country’s new Islamist leaders, there is a sense that the rise of hard-line Salafism is perhaps a backlash against decades of dictatorship, when outward shows of Islam were banned. In the vacuum, more extreme views took hold underground. “For 20 years even moderate Islam was suppressed,” Rached Ghannouchi, head of the ruling Ennahda party, told TIME on Thursday; Ghannouchi, whose party won Tunisia’s first democratic elections last October, was himself exiled until last year. “So these young people got their understanding from satellite channels from abroad, and from the Internet.”

With religious fervor now uncorked, even Ghannouchi — who proposes outlawing anti-Islamic expressions — is perceived as being not religious enough for young, devout Tunisians. Monica Marks, an American doctoral student from Oxford University who has spent nine months interviewing Salafists across Tunisia, says that the “vast majority” voted for the ruling Islamists in last October’s elections, but would not vote for them again — the next elections are due next year — “because it did not bring Shari‘a.” While some of Tunisia’s Salafists hold jihadist views of violence, others want “a kind of Amish Islamic existence,” she says, adding that many Salafists she meets remind her strongly of the Jehovah’s Witnesses she knew as a child in Kentucky. While Tunisia’s government “takes Shari‘a cafeteria style,” advocating some tenets of Islam but not others, she says, “these young people wanted something more pure, more black-and-white.”

In Mahmoud’s eyes, increasing numbers of young Tunisians are seeking such purity. It will not spring from the new Arab Spring democracies, where even their protests against the YouTube video and the French cartoons have been blocked. Instead, Salafists will plot another future. “The next step,” he said, “will be an Islamic revolution.”

12 comments
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studentworkingmom
studentworkingmom

What I see are the consequences of unhappy Saudis with the US foreign policy, particularly with US betrayal of Mubarak. It should not come as a surprise when the US discovers that Saudis DELIBERATLY I REPEAT DELIBERATELY allowed Wahhabis/Salafis fund unrest in  all north Africa and maghreb countries to jeopardize so-called "La Arab revolution". It unfortunate but true Bush was more successful in working with the Saudis: they were more cooperative in controlling wahhabis and their funding of radical/fundamentalists. Unless the US regains or tightens up controls of the financial outflow of the Saudi Arabia, there will be no peace and situation will deteriorate further.

Soliman_the_Magnificent
Soliman_the_Magnificent

There are reports of not only Saudi Money funneled into north africa, but also  Qatar - competing with Saudi influence overseas. Same thing with Syria and funding rival rebel groups...

The money was - if not directed to salafi groups - was to gain political influence, especially in Egypt.

The US did not betray Mubarak. It gave him some lee way untill a certain  breakpoint where if the US Administration did not outright DUMP him, they would risk any semblance of future relationship with the Egyptian PEOPLE.  The US could have held on to Mubarak untill the last drop of blood, but then you d have a similar scenario to the Islamic revolution in Iran and the whole US embassy in Tehran deal...that's probably why the Iranians hated the US and the Egyptians- generally speaking - dont (even after the embassy protests, where no one was killed).

Talendria
Talendria

I agree with you, but there has to be an alternative for these boys besides prison or jihad.  Why can't they get a job, start a family, and simply become a productive member of society?

Tounsi
Tounsi

I have been following the events recently in my country and elsewhere in the muslim world. I have been also following many FB pages that have islamist tendencies, and have noticed one tendency recently among those young Tunisians who describe themselves as islamists or salafis or any of those denominations, and that is "IF NAHDHA FAILS IN FRONT OF THE SECULAR POLITICAL MAFIA (e.g. RCD amp;Co.) IN TUNISIA THEN WE HAVE NO OTHER ALTERNATIVE BUT THE JIHADI SALAFIS". Many young Tunisians feel that they and their religion are under attack from those "seculars" who were in power and oppressed them and humiliated their religion for the past 56 years of secular dictatorship. They feel that those same secular dictator's associates are on their way to power again in Tunisia with the help of the west, especially france. They feel that the Islamic party which they have elected to power they either :

1- have failed or 

2- have been cornered and sabotaged by those secular mafia who still control the local and international media, and the money, with the help of france and the west ... or

3- they are themselves in bed with that secular corrupt mafia

the result that you can easily see on most of those "islamist" pages, is that most of the young Tunisians are simply saying : if Nahdha fails for anyone of those reasons, then the jihadist radical parties and movements in Tunisia will be our only alternative and last resort to express ourselves and protect our religion. 

I have personally never thought that I would see such ideas among our youth evolve in that direction, but it is the case today. You can easily check that on many big islamic pages on FB. And believe me this is just a small reflection of what is going on in the minds of the majority of the unemployed Tunisian youth.

So I believe that making those youth able to canalize their expression through moderate parties such as Nahdha by helping Nahdha against all those who are trying to sabotage its success, is orders of magnitude better than leaving that youth to the jihadists and the extremist violent islmaists, better for Tunisia and for all of us.

Hichem Sellami
Hichem Sellami

 Annadha has to help itself first.  It is in a position of power now, but it has failed to capture the opportunity, by insisting on naming people based on allegiance rather than competency, and by taking strong decisions when it should.  I think Annahda has to back to the opposition to reflect in this experience and form a strong bench of leaders able to really govern  a country.  As for the Salafis, we should first reestablish the Rule of Law in the country, and  then we can deal with them peacefully and by persuasion.  Today, we should not tolerate anybody who attacks the police or the public institutions.  This is against Islam, and can only lead to chaos and destruction for everybody.  I don't think these Salafis really understand the real Islam which prophet Mahammed PBUH was teaching.   For instance, I am still looking for any proof from the Kuran or the Sunna, explaining their reaction to the movie or the cartoons.  On the other hand, please read Verse 140 from Surat Annissa, to get the response advocated by Allah in this case...

Tounsi
Tounsi

Never mind what amalhope has just said, cause the people have chosen freely in the last elections. The People of Tunisia made its choice. So it has to be respected.

Unfortunately we see in Tunisia that many of the people which were benefiting from the dictator's regime for the last 56 years, are now painting a very dark picture of Tunisia so that maybe the west would believe them and help them back to power, and help them re-establish the same secular dictatorship which has nourished all that enmity between the muslim majority and the west in the last decades. If the west is to do one thing right this time, it is by supporting the free choice of the People of Tunisia, supporting the People, not supporting the minority corrupt elite which was in bed with ben ali and his corrupt mafia which are still trying very hard to discredit the revolution and everything that resulted from it. Ther are even discrediting the two secular parties of the ruling coalition.

In principle, just the fact that these guys oppose also the secular parties in the coalition should be a sufficient  proof of their goals : their goals are not protect Tunisia from "islamists", but it is to conduct a counter revolution against anything the revolution has produced, and sabotage the post-revolution government so that they might keep those benefits they have amassed from the ben ali era and might evade revolutionary justice.

Tounsi
Tounsi

I think if moderate islam fails in Tunisia, then all of what has been done for the last years to improve American-Muslim relations will simply go in vain. We wish it will not happen and wish you feel the same way too.

amalhope
amalhope

religions have never been tolerant, especially Islam ..... there is no moderate Islam, and another extremist .. This is why the religious should not be able to access the power .. .. Democracy is a bridge  that allows them to seize power for life ... this is what happens in Tunie, a country that was an example of moderation and pacifism .. some American officials and journalists continue to talk about Ghannouci, the leader of the religious party in power, as a moderate .. I wonder what planet they live? here we are living a nightmare ....

amalhope
amalhope

religions have never been tolerant, especially Islam ..... there is no moderate Islam, and another extremist .. This is why the religious should not be able to access the power .. .. Democracy is a bridge  that allows them to seize power for life ... this is what happens in Tunie, a country that was an example of moderation and pacifism .. some American officials and journalists continue to talk about Ghannouci, the leader of the religious party in power, as a moderate .. I wonder what planet they live? here we are living a nightmare ....