Tunisia’s revolution ousted a dictator but it also did away with a staunchly secular regime. Now the country’s Salafists are back on the streets, trying to impose their ultra-conservative brand of Islam.
But observers say Tunisia’s minority Salafists, who advocate a literalist interpretation of the Koran and are inspired by the lives of the first Muslims, are simply being opportunistic.
“They are not so much acting as reacting. This is why they’re popping out of the woodwork during a pre-electoral period,” said Alaya Allami, an expert on Islamism in the Maghreb.
On October 23, Tunisia will hold its first elections since president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali –who had ruled with an iron fist for 23 years – was ousted by a popular uprising, tipping the first domino of the so-called Arab Spring.
“They are taking advantage of the freedom brought about by the revolution to try and impose their ideas on society,” historian Faycal Cherif told AFP.
Visible again on the streets of Tunis and other major cities, the Salafists’ new assertiveness has led to a number of more or less violent clashes.
In the eastern city of Sousse earlier this month, some 200 Islamists stormed the university campus after a female student wearing a full face-veil (niqab) was not allowed to sign up.
The latest incident came on October 9 in Tunis when a mob of Salafists tried to attack the offices of private Nessma TV station that aired “Persepolis,” a French-Iranian animation film in which God is represented as an old bearded man.
Cherif argued that the two incidents were of a different nature.
“In Sousse, they were flexing their muscles, it was typical of Salafi activism. However the Nessma case affected every Muslim because representing God is prohibited in Islam,” he said.
Salafism as an organized political movement emerged in Tunisia in the late 1980s, said Allami.
“They were implicated in various violent events, including the attack against the synagogue in Djerba in 2002 and the Soliman shooting in 2007” in a Tunis suburb, which killed 21 and 14 people respectively, he said.
He argued that the Salafists remain a small and fractious minority.
“More than 1,500 of them have been arrested and sentenced since 2007. Today it is estimated that there are no more than 200 active Salafists with a following of 5,000 to 7,000,” Allami said.
He identified two main currents in the Salafist movement: one non-violent group represented by Hizb at-Tahrir (Liberation Party) and an even smaller fringe group advocating jihad.
In neighboring Algeria, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) emerged around 15 years ago and carried out deadly suicide attacks as well as kidnappings of foreigners.
It has since morphed into AQIM, the regional franchise of al-Qaeda.
Hizb at-Tahrir is the only movement in Tunisia calling for the establishment of a caliphate and was denied official registration as a legal political party after the democratic revolution in January.
“The Hizb was not legalized because it doesn’t play by democratic rules, unlike Ennahda,” Cherif explained, referring to the Islamist party close to the Muslim Brotherhood which is tipped to win the October 23 vote.
Tunisian observers predict that the surge in Salafi activism will flop.
“The vast majority of Tunisians practice a form of moderate Sunni Islam,” Allami said.
“Very early on, Tunisia stood out from the rest: in 1803, Tunisian ulemas (scholars) rejected wahhabism when Saudi Arabia demanded the Bey of Tunis' support," he said.
Amel Grami, a specialist of Islam, believes that Tunisia's Salafists need to make a lot of noise because they are not significant players on the political scheme at this stage.
“They are taking advantage of the interim government, of the youth’s impatience and of the lack of courage displayed by the bigger parties who are failing to take a clear stance on religious freedom,” she said.
Allami said the odd “opportunistic convergence” between local Salafists and Qaeda members could not be ruled out but predicted that a successful electoral process next week would “marginalize violent jihadi currents.”