Thousands of hardcore Muslims chant against Jews. Youths rampage through cities at night in protest of “blasphemous” art. A sit-in by religious students degenerates into fist fights and the desecration of Tunisia’s flag.
In the birthplace of the Arab Spring, the transition from dictatorship to democracy has been mostly smoother than in neighboring countries, with no power-hungry military or armed militias to stifle the process. But as a moderate Islamist party rules with the help of secular forces, an unexpected threat has emerged: the increasing boldness of ultraconservative Muslims known loosely as Salafis, who want to turn this North African country of 10 million into a strict Islamic state.
Tunisia’s hardcore Salafis are estimated to number only in the tens of thousands. But their organized and frequent protests against perceived insults to Islam, especially by artists, have rocked the country and succeeded in mobilizing disaffected and angry youth much more effectively than secular opposition parties.
Experts warn that an economic downturn could turn these spasms of religious-tinged rage into the new language of the opposition. Tunisia’s economy shrank by 2 percent last year and unemployment stands at 18 percent — even higher among young people.
“There’s no question that unemployment aggravates the situation,” said William Lawrence, the North Africa representative for the International Crisis Group think tank. “They go to Salafism because they have nowhere better to go socially, politically and spiritually.”
As Salafis thrive in the new atmosphere of freedom of expression, they are aggressively attacking the free expression of those they see as insulting Islam. Their main target: artists who themselves have used democratic upheaval to raise sharp, often provocative, questions about the relationship between religion and society.
Tensions that were bottled during the regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali are bubbling to the surface.
A film called “Neither Allah nor Master” about secularism by an atheist director, an animated film portraying God as an old man that was broadcast on TV, and most recently an art exhibit dabbling in religious themes have all provoked the wrath of the Salafis.
The Spring of the Arts exhibit in the wealthy Tunis suburb of La Marsa triggered June riots that left one dead and 100 injured. Many of the paintings questioned religion’s role in society, including some clearly skewering Salafis. There were images of veiled women hanging from punching bags in a boxing ring, veiled women buried in stones, and paintings of demonic bearded faces.
The Islamist-led government has tread carefully around Salafi demonstrations, conscious that they themselves were once victims of government oppression and fearful of further radicalizing the Salafis.
That has exposed the government to accusations by the liberal and leftist opposition that they are unable to preserve stability, or even worse — complicity in the extremist violence.
For Tunisian authorities, grappling with the Salafis is made all the harder by the fact that they have not coalesced into an articulate, united movement but are rather comprised of different groups, some which may even be under manipulation of secular remnants of the old regime. That contrasts with Egypt, where Salafis have formed political parties and participate in politics.
Salafis did not pop out of nowhere in Tunisia after the revolution. The movement grew quietly underBen Ali, who vigorously repressed the moderate Islamists of the now dominant Ennahda Party, heirs to Tunisia’s own indigenous tradition of reformist Islam.
Under Ben Ali, imams were appointed by the state and religious schools closed. Many of those alienated by the official secular culture of the French-speaking elite turned to the strict Salafi Islam of the Arabian peninsula.
“They were influenced by the Salafi discourse coming out of the Gulf countries and diffused by the Salafi satellite channels all through the 1990s,” explained Slaheddine Jourchi, a Tunisian writer and human rights activist who has closely studied Islamist movements. “They saw the Salafi discourse as the most pure in Islam.”
With the fall of the dictatorship, Salafis are now free to spread their message to the rest of the country.
One of the biggest flashpoints was Manouba University near the capital where conservative students and their allies staged a months-long sit-in protesting restrictions on the Islamic veil and lack of prayer halls on campus. They fought with secular students and in one case tore down the national flag and replaced it with a black one bearing the Islamic profession of faith.
“Our movement benefits from the new climate of freedom to get out its message and preach to people,” said Bilal Chaouachi, a bearded theology student who describes himself as a follower of Salafi Islam and gives religion classes in his local mosque.
Redha Belhaj, head of the recently legalized Hizb al-Tahrir, or Liberation Party, which calls for the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, said that Ennahda betrayed the country when it declined to enshrine Islamic law as the basis of all legislation in the new constitution.
Speaking from his modest offices at the edge of Tunis’ medina, Belhaj claimed that Tunisians long for an Islamic state.
“People want Islam as a solution, they want Shariah as a system and a regime,” he said. “Ennahda deceived public opinion.”
Belhaj does distance himself from the riots, such those in June, emphasizing that his party rejects violence of any kind. “They are all young and without education and lack understanding,” he said of the rioters, hinting that these youths were being manipulated into violence to make Islamists look bad.
For Tunisia’s secular-minded elite, the Salafis represent everything they fear with the fall of the dictatorship and the rise of Islamist politics.
A rally in May by the group Ansar al-Shariah, or the followers of Islamic law, led by a veteran of the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, alarmed many Tunisians. Some 4,000 Salafis gathered outside the revered main mosque in the city of Kairouan to voice calls for an Islamic state, chanting about conquering the Jews and cheering speeches calling for an Islamic state.
Especially popular were four masked men performing martial arts moves known as Zamaqtel, a kind of Islamic kung fu. The discipline’s founder, Mohammed Moncef Ouerghi, developed the martial art during 16 years in Ben Ali’s prisons. While happy to be out of prison and enjoying the new freedoms, he was dismissive of Tunisia’s embrace of democracy: “Democracy was conceived of by humans, not Muslims, before the time of the Prophet Muhammad — if democracy is important, why is it not in the Quran?”
In many cases, people joining Salafi demonstrations may have been motivated less by piety than by a chance to loot or express dissatisfaction over a lack of jobs for young people. Some of the June rioters broke into shops and attacked courthouses and police stations.
The Interior Ministry has also alleged that some of the rioters were being paid by wealthy businessmen loyal to the old regime.
The La Marsa art exhibit violence appears to have been provoked by a former member of Ben Ali’s political party who had a grudge against the gallery unrelated to the exhibit. He snapped pictures of some of the more provocative paintings and showed them at a nearby mosque. He also uploaded them onto a Facebook page — along with some paintings that weren’t even in the exhibit — with captions condemning them as blasphemous.
Sami Brahim, an expert on Islamist movements in Tunisia who runs a cultural center right near the art gallery in La Marsa, expects the whole Salafi movement to subside with time because it is a cultural import funded by the Gulf states.
Since the movement was nurtured under the oppression of Ben Ali, he said, it should eventually wither in the face of greater freedom of expression and debate.
“Salafism doesn’t yet have the courage to take part in politics since from the beginning it hasn’t been an organized movement and it doesn’t have a very well elaborated discourse,” said Brahim. “It would just need a healthy atmosphere, real freedoms and a relatively successful economy for the Tunisian Salafi movement to be marginalized.”