The French-based North African media outlet, Le Courrier de l'Atlas, recently published an article on Salafists in Tunisia, describing who is who in the jihadist Tunisian scene.
Although the Salafists are a small minority group there, they are extremely active and threatening the country's individual freedoms. In a clash between Tunisian security forces and armed jihadists in early February, several officers were injured and two of the attackers were killed; a third was captured and many arrests have followed.
Salafism is now a new political subject in the Tunisian scene and is competing for power with Muslim Brotherhood-oriented parties, such as the Tunisian ruling party Ennahda. Salafists consider Ennahda, which won the elections last October, a movement that is too moderate; they would like to enforce throughout the country their vision of Islam, which is more extremist than the Muslim Brotherhood's vision.
Following are excerpts from the article published by le Courrier de l'Atlas.
What is Salafism?
[…] Salafists quote a hadith [acts and sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed] that reads, "the best among you are those of my century and, after them, those who will follow them and then those who will follow the latter ones." In other words, the first three centuries of Islam have produced the best possible men.
[…] Present day Salafist leaders, in all their writings and sermons, quote the Quran, the hadiths and the theologians of the first three centuries. For them, these are the only admissible sources. Contemporary theologians are taken into consideration only if they quote these three sources as their sole point of reference.
[…] In general terms, Salafists deem that the norms decreed between twelve and fifteen centuries ago, in particular circumstances and in a particular place, are valid for all times and for all places and that they should be enforced. This is what they call Shariah ["The Path;" official Islamic law], which, according to them, includes corporal punishments, polygamy, inequality between men and women… and that recognizes only one type of human kind: the true Muslim.
One of their worst enemies is innovation. They consider as innovation […] even democracy. Music (with the exception of religious chants), cinema, dance, plastic arts, sculpture are equally considered illegal. […] They wear an Afghan kameez (convinced that the Prophet used to dress that way), don an unkempt beard, that they never shave, and trim their moustaches.
[…] Their convictions place them at the antipodes of human rights as we understand them today and, in fact, they totally reject this concept. Their community is characterized by the strict reclusion of women (who can go out only wearing a niqab [total headcovering]), and their way of life is very rigorous and at the same very generous and altruistic towards "true" Muslims. They help each other at any moment [of their lives]. It is therefore a very united and supportive community.
Who are they and how many are they in Tunisia?
There are no recent studies on this subject. Some years ago, it was estimated that they were a few hundred, 1,200 as a maximum, according to researchers.
Today, it is difficult to make an evaluation [about their number], but they have become numerous and visible. They have many pages in Facebook; this allows a rough estimation of their troops.
For instance, Bechir Ben Hassan, one of the most important Tunisian Salafist leaders, hosts almost 60,000 fans on his page. The page of Khatib Idrissi [another known Tunisian Salafist] hosts 13,000 fans, whereas [other Salafists' pages] host more than 5,000 fans. There are many, several dozen, of such pages.
On this basis, we can estimate that the number of activists and sympathizers put together is over 100.000 individuals, as it is logical to assume that many among them do not frequent the Internet.
Salafists have two strongholds: mosques that are under their control and Quranic schools.
Most of Tunisian Salafists are dedicated to preaching in the mosques; officially they are against violence and want to re-Islamize society, starting from the re-Islamization of individuals. Those who officially praise violence and take part in jihadist movements are not very numerous, but are, however, very active. […]. Some of the Tunisian Salafist leaders, in the past, have been sentenced to prison for violating anti-terrorism laws. They do not hesitate to praise violence on their Facebook pages and to spread hatred.
What are their plans for the future?
They have an open road in front of them: the regional and international context is in their favor, and many Salafist satellite TV stations are preparing the ground for them:
- They are going to continue to accuse [the ruling Islamist party] Ennahda of compromising, in other terms of apostasy, in order to attract the most [extremist] factions among those who militate in this party. [Salafist groups accuse Ennahda of not being a "real" Islamist party, as they consider Ennahda to hold only moderate Islamic views]
- They are going to continue the offensive towards mosques which, consequently, will become more and more under their Salafist control.
- They will launch several TV stations dedicated to preaching Tunisian Salafism, thus out-powering completely Ennahda on the religious flank.
- Some of them will be tempted to create a political party as did the [Salafist] group in Alexandria, Egypt, which created the Nour ["Light"] party, thereby obtaining a quarter of the seats in the Egyptian Assembly.
In the end, Salafism represents a new [political] subject, unexpected and which will remain a long time in the Tunisian landscape. Its objective is not to set up a democratic model and a modern state, but [to impose] social norms which are from twelve to fifteen centuries old.
Ennahda has little room for maneuver [to counter the Salafists]; this explains its great prudence in dealing with Salafists, and the preference for dialogue […].The new Tunisian minister of religious affairs will have a hard time trying to restructure the religious apparatus.