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.”