Tunisian Salafists: Who Are They?
"The Islamic party, Ennahda, aspires to show how it is able to manage political affairs with moderation and without radicalism, with the aim not to cause the concern of Western governments. At the same time, it is compelled to adopt Salafist positions to avoid being overtaken by the Salafists. The people who voted for Ennahda are expecting this party [to give answers] on social and economic issues. If the economy will not get better, Ennahda's Islamists will face a loss of their political credibility."
In the following interview, Samir Amghar, a specialist of Islamist movements, states that the ruling Tunisian Islamist party Ennahda and the Tunisian Salafists groups are complementary, with "a sort of implicit division of the political work, between the two movements."
The following are excerpts of an interview published in the Tunisian media outlet Kapitalis by Tunisian researcher Samir Bouzidi.
Samir Bouzidi : For Tunisians it is hard to understand the rapid rise of the Salafist movement in their country thus […]. Were Tunisian Salafists already organized under the regime of Ben Ali? In Egypt or in Libya, Salafists were on the forefront during the uprising. How do you explain Tunisia Salafists' cautiousness during the Tunisian revolution?
Samir Amghar: The Salafist movement already existed under Ben Ali's regime. Many of their members are Tunisian graduates who went to Saudi Arabia to study in Islamic universities. Salafists have undergone an important growth in the country, due also to the success of Salafist satellite TV channels [….] The Salafist movement was tolerated by the Salafi regime, because its discourse was […] very critical regarding the Ennahda. Salafists, however, were really relieved when Ben Ali left. During the uprising, though, they remained very cautious: they were not at all organized and were afraid of a possible failure of the revolution and of the subsequent repression by the regime. […]
After the Tunisian Revolution, the fast and steady growth of Salafism resulted in a movement with considerable means. What do you know about the way the Salafi movement is functioning (leaders, associations, places for gathering etc.) […]? In particular, is Saudi Arabia, which publicly financed Salafi networks in Europe during the 1990s, supporting Tunisian Salafists? Is it conceivable that they are financed by counter-revolutionary forces, which are interested in creating chaos?
In Tunisia, Salafists are not organized as a political party, but as religious and charitable associations. They control a certain number of mosques […]. They enjoy the support of certain Saudi theologians […]. [However] there is no proof of Saudi money financing Tunisian Salafists. These networks are not transparent, so it is difficult to collect information. […] Saudi Arabia's goal is not to slow down the process of democratization, but rather to have some pro-Saudi intermediaries in Tunisia that could defend the strategic interests of the Saudi kingdom in the region. We should not forget that Saudi Arabia aspires to become a regional political power, particularly considering that a cold war is under way between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
In your book "Le salafisme d'aujourd'hui" ["Salafism Today"], you identified three main streams within the Salafist movement: the quietists (passive), the political and the Jihadists. To which group do you think Tunisian Salafists belong to?
It looks as though quietist Salafists have been totally overwhelmed by the other two trends (political and jihadist) because quietists are opposed to all sorts of politicization of Islam and to all opposition to the regime. In Tunisia, some intend to organize the Salafi movement into a political party similarly to the Al-Nour party in Egypt, especially considering that […] the Salafi success in the elections has inspired many Salafists in Tunisia. […]
[…] Are Tunisian Salafists well represented in the Salafi networks in Europe? […]
Many Salafi preachers presently operating in Tunisia were previously living in France. […] Some of them were instead part of the jihadi circles […] in Great Britain, while others have lived for a long time in the Arabian Peninsula and have entertained good relations with some of the theologians in the Middle East.
[…] In Tunisia, Salafi violence has increased […] and the general attitude of the government has been one of clemency, if not of impunity. Is the hypothesis of a partitioning of tasks with Ennahda plausible: the work on the ground for Salafists and the political action for Ennahda? […]
Ennahda and the Salafists are not rivals. They move on different grounds. In this perspective, they are complementary. In my opinion, there is an implicit division of work between Ennahda and the Salafists. These latter ones assume positions that Ennahda cannot afford to have. […]
[…] How can Ennahda, as a ruling party, be able to bring together Tunisian civil society, with its secular majority, and consolidate Ennahda's very conservative electoral base?
For Ennahda, the situation is very delicate. The Islamic party aspires to show to how it is able to manage political affairs with moderation and without radicalism, with the aim not to cause the concern of Western governments. […] [However,] at the same time, Ennahda is being pressured from the Salafi camp to take positions on religious matters. Thus, Ennahda is compelled to adopt Salafist positions to avoid to be overtaken by Salafists on this subject.
What type of strategy should the civil society adopt to counter the threat of religious extremism?
[…] We should not forget that the Tunisian revolution originated from economic and social demands. In my opinion, Tunisia's destiny will be played on this ground and not on the ground of identity and religion. The people who voted for Ennahda are expecting this party [to give answers] on economic and social issues. And if the country's economy will not get better, [Ennahda's] Islamists are facing the loss of their political credibility,. […]
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