New Tunisian Salafist Party: a threat to democratic transition?

Jabhat al-Islah denounces violence and might have the potential to embed Tunisia's Salafist movement in the political process

Anne Wolf
14 August 2012

The recent licensing of the Salafist party Jabhat al-Islah in Tunisia is raising concerns inside and outside the country that such official representation of the religiously ultraconservative might incite further activity in the already vocal – and increasingly violent – Salafist movement, hence jeopardizing Tunisia's fragile democracy.

While such reasoning is understandable in the light of recent Salafist unrest inside the country, hasty condemnations of Jabhat al-Islah are misleading, as the party denounces violence and might have the potential to embed Tunisia's Salafist movement in the political process, thereby helping to de-radicalize its supporters.

Reaching Tunisia's ultraconservative youth is particularly crucial given that an increasing number of young people join Tunisia's religiously ultraconservative movement; a Salafist, it seems, being on average 27 years old. Parts of Tunisia's youth – one of the country's most volatile socioeconomic groups – seem to retreat to religion to find answers to their political disillusionment and economic distress.

This, however, does not mean that Jabhat al-Islah's ideology is inherently democratic. Its leaders have on several occasions made it clear that they support democracy only to the extent it is constrained by religion.

“In Europe, democracy gives sovereignty to the people, but in Muslim countries, we prefer to emphasize the sovereignty of Islamic legislation” Mohammed Khouja, the head of the Salafist party, told me, adding that, for him, “the job of the lawmaker is to distinguish the 'haram' (illicit) from what is 'halal' (licit) according to Islamic law.” 

Such ultraconservative vision implies that on issues such as women's rights the party is clearly in conflict with internationally recognized democratic standards. Questioned about Jabhat al-Islah's position on polygamy, Mohammed Khouja, for example, maintained that men should be allowed to have up to four wives.

While radical in the eyes of many liberals, the Salafist party is unlikely to incite further religiously motivated unrest inside Tunisia: “We reject all sorts of violence – be it motivated by religion or not”, Mohammed Khouja told me in reference to a recent Salafist attack on an arts exhibition in Tunis.

The party's willingness to participate in Tunisia's political process also indicates that Jabhat al-Islah reflects one of the Salafists' more moderate streams – most religiously conservative people reject any engagement with politics. Already during last year’s Constituent Assembly elections, members of Jabhat al-Islah participated as independents, but they did not manage to obtain any seats. 

Today, the support base of the new party is still small, bringing together no more than a few hundred members. With around 10,000 affiliates throughout the country, Salafism constitutes a minority movement in Tunisia, even if more people are flocking to join the movement. Unlike religiously ultraconservative parties in other countries such as Egypt, the impact of the new Salafist party is therefore likely to remain limited, at least in the near future.

Some Salafists are also skeptical towards the party due to its perceived proximity to Ennahda, Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamic party, suggesting that through its very engagement in politics Jabhat al-Islah will mellow its convictions. Other more radical Salafists, especially the jihadists, fiercely oppose the new party, depicting it as disconnected from the religiously ultraconservative movement. As Abu Sanat, a Salafist-jihadist living in Tunis, told me: “Jabhat al-Islah does not mean anything to us, it does not have a potential to mobilize and it does not have a social base”. 

The new Salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to ‘tame’ the most violent and radical Salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually mobilise some of Tunisia's religiously ultraconservative populace, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country's new democracy.

But before rejecting Jabhat al-Islah in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind what the Salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially more violent movements spreading throughout the country...

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