A burned out police station, closed shops, vandalized bars and empty buildings. This is the picture we witnessed one day after a group of hundreds of ultraconservative Muslims or salafists clashed with the police in Jendouba↑ , a town in northwestern Tunisia known for its economic and political marginalisation. The incident, leading to the arrest of about fifteen↑ , is the latest of a series of violent events carried out by a branch of Tunisian salafists, who have drawn attention for physically and morally harassing journalists, artisans and scholars throughout the country.
Thousands of salafists rally in Kairouan last month, leaving many Tunisians anxious about the increasing influence of ultraconservative Muslims in Tunisia. Photograph: Reuters
While indeed alarming, such religiously-motivated incidents have led many people inside and outside of Tunisia to believe that salafism and violence are intrinsically interlinked. This perception – reinforced by the increasing number of ultraconservative Muslims throughout the country – is, however, both misleading and unconstructive. It overlooks not only the fact that salafism is a very heterogeneous and largely peaceful movement, but also disregards that not everybody claiming to belong to the ultraconservatives is actually a salafist.
A minority within an otherwise peaceful movement, one branch only of Tunisia's ultra-religious conservatives, the salafist-jihadists, hold indeed that “violence is sometimes necessary and required”, as explained to us a member of the movement↑ who wished to remain anonymous. This is because “only violence can lead to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate“ – the ultimate goal of all salafist movements. But such an approach is rejected by the wide majority of ultraconservative Muslims, also referred to as “scientific salafists”, who emphasize the importance of Islamic scholarship and reject the use of violence. “We are against any kind of physical and verbal violence and want to stop it” explained Seif Eddine al-Rais, a salafist based in Kairouan↑ , Tunisia's holiest city. In contrast to the salafist-jihadists, he asserts that law and order can only be established by convincing people of the peaceful message of salafism, which aims to apply Islamic law and emulate the way of life followed by the Prophet Muhammad.
A similar reasoning is employed by Hizb ut-Tahrir↑ – another group of ultraconservative Muslims who distinguish themselves from the salafist movement, for example by giving men and women more freedom in clothing. Moncef Manai, one representative of the movement in Jendouba, denounced recent attacks in the town affirming that “we are not authorised to use violence”. Hizb ut-Tahrir, having been rejected as a political party↑ due to its inherently anti-democratic message, aims at spreading its message through reasoning and persuasion, asserting that “at the end, the best argument will win”.
Adding to this complex picture are those people who pretend to be affiliated with the religiously ultraconservatives but are actually no salafists. Only last week we witnessed by coincidence the ransacking of a building by a group of five young people. When being told that the incident was attributed to “salafists”, we were puzzled given that the ransackers did not wear the traditional clothes characteristic of the ultraconservative movement. The simple explanation: regular criminals are increasingly cloaking their misdeeds in the name of “salafism”, while more and more Tunisians use the term “salafism” to denounce all sorts of people and deeds they disagree with.
In the end, the picture is complex but the salafist message should not be caricatured and mistaken. Salafists may be ultraconservative, they may reject democracy and emphasize the significant role they wish Islam to play in public life, but only a minority advocates political violence to achieve such goals. While this fraction should indeed be watched and taken seriously, demonizing an entire movement is both a misleading and dangerous game: beyond deforming the reality of a largely peaceful movement, it will only play into the hands of its most radical offshoots.
This article is part of Arab Awakening's This week's window into the Middle East.