North Africa, West Asia

Tunisia: the Islamic associative system as a social counter-power

An Islamic bloc is indeed emerging, but more than an occulted project of Islamization, it is a process of activation of the material and moral resources of a conservative middle class summarily excluded until the 2011 revolution. 

Evie Soli Fabio Merone
22 October 2013

In the aftermath of the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, a process of political and social liberalization has characterized the democratic transition. The first consequence of this was the spread of signs of Islam throughout the public space. The way many people showed off their religious identity – through a particular way of dressing or different kinds of social behaviour – gave many people in the secular part of society a feeling ‘that Tunisia was not the same country’ as they once knew. Beyond the newly gained freedom of individuals to show their religious commitment, what was also emerging was a social phenomenon activating a moral value system in a way that prompted people to organize their commitment. In a very short space of time, a number of associations emerged on the wave of this post-revolutionary enthusiasm. Religious groups became visible as never before, engaged in classical religious studies or charitable associations. 

The Libyan refugee crisis at the Tunisian-Libyan border in the provinces of Tataouine and Medenine was the starting point of a gargantuan humanitarian system that was set up in a state of emergency, before the international aid organizations arrived. From that point onwards, local networking was built up to coordinate with the international efforts providing financial and technical aid (in term of expertise)[1]. The opening of this social space was the chance for many new actors to come onto the Tunisian scene. Tunisian classical social entrepreneurs, mostly secular and western-oriented, discovered that a large and highly motivated new group of actors were now occupying a space in society, provoking widespread suspicion regarding these developments.


Refugees from Libya on the Tunisian border. Demotix/Chris Parker. All rights reserved. 

This new scenario of associations started a debate on the nature of influence coming from outside Tunisia. Concerns were raised as to whether the new associations were really contributing to the formation of a new civil society, or if they were the instruments of a project of Islamization under cover of humanitarian aid and development projects. Should the country really accept funding from other countries such as Qatar - hardly known for respecting human rights or transparent criteria of funding - or would it be far better to refuse them and confine one’s contacts to development actors who are operating within a discourse of human rights and democracy?

In this article we want to argue that the answer to these questions has more links to an internal struggle than to geopolitical issues. The Islamic bloc is indeed emerging, but more than an occulted project of Islamization, it is a process of activation of the material and moral resources of a conservative middle class that had been summarily excluded until the 2011 revolution.

The rise of a new civil society

The mobilization of Islamic charitable associations in Tunisia has a symbolic starting point: the Libyan refugee influx at the frontier of the country in the provinces of Medenine and Tataouine[2]. Abdelmonem Daymi, today’s director of Tunisia Charity, was one of its coordinators during the first emergency intervention. He told the authors how he and others from Tataouine were part of the first spontaneous gathering of local support, and that Tunisia Charity was born as one of the first nucleus associations. The spontaneous intervention of individuals became a structured network that organized itself to deliver humanitarian aid.  A large number of people participated actively in distributing food and other necessities; others offered their homes for refugees, in exchange for a guaranteed monthly financial contribution[3].

The participation of so many people, the complex organization of the aid machine and the coordination between different actors, needed funding and expertise. A new social actor came onto the scene for the first time: one that was perceived as oriented towards ‘Islamic morality’. We choose to deploy this term ’Islamic’ to describe motivation by Islamic social values and a religiously oriented approach[4]. However, it is important to note what Dr. Daymi emphasized in an interview with the authors: “Tunisia Charity is not Islamic. We are not ideological, nor are we political. Our aim is to carry out charity without any discrimination according to religious belief.”

People who had first become engaged in this experience during the Libyan humanitarian crisis, began to develop a structured system of humanitarian aid. From this first venture onwards, a new world of associations emerged powerfully to participate in building a new civil society in Tunisia. This kind of emergence of charitable Islamic associations is certainly not unknown. Egypt and Jordan, where Islamic social activism is an important aspect of the Muslim Brotherhood’s position in the Egyptian and Jordanian political landscapes, offer better studied cases (Harrigan, El-Said, 2009). The Turkish case may be also taken into consideration, especially because it was considered a model for the Ennahdha party. The AKP, in fact arose as a political power because of the strength of a social bloc, mainly coming from the eastern regions, that became active as a social and economical entrepreneur (Akdogan, 2006).

The emergence of this new Tunisian social activism was developed in a dual process of internal and external networking that furnished the immediate resource-base required to support these new social entrepreneurs. 

Internal and external systems of networking 

Launching this particular associative system mainly depends on the strength of particular individuals who distribute social or financial resources. There are two types of instigators.

The first provides social relations. The networking system is mainly based on a common social activation of personal connections. This process was nothing new in the case of Egypt, for example, but in Tunisia it was only possible to make such connections productive after the revolution, because the dominant cultural ethics of the regime rejected any sort of affiliation based on the Islamic value system. Despite the existence of a religious conservative middle class with real financial clout, its members were excluded from the circuits of institutional and social power.

The second type of actor is the businessman himself, often a local entrepreneur who is influential in his own domain and who is encouraged to contribute towards aid campaigns or structured development projects.

The three most important new associations, Tunisia Charity, Marhama and Attaawn[5], that together initiated the process of civil society building, have close links with the internal and external resources of their founders.

Daymi (Tunisia Charity), Mohsen Jandoubi (Marhama) and Mohamed Nejib Karoui (Attaawun) are three influential social entrepreneurs who have activated a powerful system of relations, linking the external world to the internal natural process of emergence of a new social activism. Daymi is an experienced, much-travelled campaigner and global activist. When the Libyan emergency occurred, he was nominated the temporary representative of Islamic Relief (Ibidem). Mohsen Jemdoubi founded Marhama in 1999 in Germany, where he was a member of Al-Nahdha in exile. Since the revolution, he has resigned from the party in order to completely dedicate his activism to the association. Marhama has been structuring itself in the last two years as a powerful umbrella organization that coordinates local organizations. It has proven very efficient in detecting local social needs and linking these to the financial international Islamic associations.

The international donors involved in this process are some of the main powers behind  the Islamic social system that has developed in the last decades. Islamic Relief and Qatar Charity are two large actors, but there are also some powerful Kuwaiti organizations such as the Sheikh Abdullah al-Nouri charitable society and the International Islamic Charity Organization, considered by the Forbes business magazine as the most transparent in a list of large Islamic organizations.

The constitution of this international network is a reality not to be confused with a rational process of occupation of geopolitical spaces. While it is a fact that most of the funding is coming from the Gulf countries, the Islamic international network is also to be found crossing the Anglophone world (Manchester being the headquarters of at least two of the most powerful charitable Islamic associations) as well as countries like Germany and Turkey, including the emergence of a strong charitable pole in Australia[6].  

This world of connections - internal and external - has been used to give the necessary instruments and expertise to a new emergent social group: it is, in other words, part of the restructuring process of a power system in the wake of the Arab uprisings. Entrepreneurs and strong men linked to these power-connections existed in the past, but they had a different ideology and financial resources. A new social class is now trying to take its place, engaged in a struggle with the old one. The emergence of these new Islamic associations reflects - on a different level - the same political struggle as is currently taking place between secularists and Islamists in the political arena.  

A social and political counter-power

During a field work visit in Msaken by one of the authors in spring 2012, the state of art of this ongoing social conflict was easily observable. Msaken is located in the Soussa urban area, already known for its patronage system during the time of Ben Ali. The association infrastructure invented by the old regime was based on a core system of charitable associations (managed by a patronage system) that worked locally in selecting the main recipients of this social intervention. It was a real tool of social/political power, not only because political obedience was the main criteria for selection for aid, but also because local entrepreneurs were obliged to participate in the financing of ‘good actions’. Money was collected periodically, and a specific bank - “Solidarity Bank” - created for the purpose. The system was a compromise between a modern system of solidarity (where contributions are demanded of all citizens and implemented through the laying aside of part of their wages) and a patronage system of power. Local big entrepreneurs were forced to participate in this ongoing process of collection, in exchange for certain privileges in the economic field which favoured their cause in their power networks. According to Mr Tayyed, a member of Ihsan’s association which specialized in direct donations for poor people in Msaken, the city could be divided between two types of entrepreneurial families, the ones ‘who help us and the others that stay away for political reasons’.

These new charitable networks are Islamic because they are based on the activation of Islamic values, such as the zakat and religious piety. They represent a social bloc that it is trying to counter the strength (culturally, economic and political) of the traditional social bloc linked to the Bourghibian/nationalist project which was weakened after the revolution, but that is still in place, with its own social and financial resources. The Islamic social counter-power born after the revolution saw the chance to become a new political power after the landslide win of the 2011 election. Though it is morally oriented in a way that is quite evident, it has the characteristics of any power-system. The bloc in power, mainly composed by the Nahdha-Cpr coalition[7], has in fact tried to reproduce the same mechanisms as those of the old regime, by creating a social and economic space as the basis of its own power system. Locally (and this is especially true of the urban coastal cities), the social field is split into two different camps, both because of the resilience of the old social system, and as a direct result of a social class struggle currently taking place between an old and a new middle class who view each other as enemies, and who, thus far at least, have not learned how to reach a compromise.

The political situation nationally and the evolution of the transitional process will necessarily impact on the way this new middle class will be included in Tunisia’s national social framework.

The Islamic powers: a threat or an opportunity?

It is necessary to keep in mind this factor of Islamic networking as a potential power system, in order to understand the polemics that started up over the issue of international Islamic partners’ intervention.

Tunisian actors today have more chance and more opportunities to choose their partners than in the past, opportunities determined as much by social attitudes towards these prospective partners as the political parties. In particular: does the partnership with Gulf countries risk changing the profile of Tunisian society as argued by its critics, or is it just another way to obtain funding, with no grave political consequences? Zohra Hammami, director of Mahrama argued in a meeting with the authors that when the association receives finances from Islamic funders, this has nothing to do with ideology, it is simply because these are the resources easiest to access. According to Hammami, Merhama would also like to receive funds from European and American donors, and hopes to establish such cooperation in the near future. When we asked Hammami why she thought so many Tunisians were dubious about funding from Qatar, she responded: “Instead of looking at where the money comes from, they should try instead to see what it goes towards.”

Funding from the Gulf countries is controversial in Tunisia, and has caused strong antipathy. It is true that transactions from individual sheikhs to associations or specific social recipients is not necessarily transparent: furthermore, charitable’ actions such as the distribtuion of the Quran and other religious material could be viewed with suspicion, especially if it is funded from the Gulf. In the context of the current political division in Tunisia, this is all too easily perceived as the export of a social model based on a specific wahhabi vision of Islam.

However, we need to keep in mind that there are several parties involved in these charity/development projects, and that the ideological effect of all such social funding might be affected by any of the people involved; coordinators, volunteers, businessmen, local authorities and the recipients themselves. There is reason to believe that even Tunisian associations defined as Islamic operate in quite different ways, where some can even be described as going through a discernible secularization process.

Political implications are not a given, and too much focus and concern with the use of religious symbols might lead us to neglect the fact that some of these social actors are playing an important role with regards to social services and immediate material support, in the absence of a state that is able to provide for all its citizens. We should also not exclude the possibility that funding can be granted without conditions; just as one American NGO might define the criteria for their local partners transparently in any upcoming elections, others set as their criteria the objective that poor families should get a decent Eid.  There are a great number of new associations, NGOs and foreign donors operating in Tunisia, and it is worth studying how these differ and what they have in common, as well as how they relate to each other. For example, it would be interesting to know more about whether the new anglophone actors, Americans as well as those from the Gulf-countries, are perceived by French and other European actors as a threat to their influence in Tunisia.

There is also good reason to debate more widely whether international donors have a responsibility to avoid contributing to divisions along religious/secular lines when they choose their local partners. Supporting sustainable projects in the poorest areas is necessary, and could benefit from local knowledge, networks and voluntary contributions in combination with anthropological research as part of the development practice. There is an urgent need to try to overcome the process of the construction of enemy images or ‘othering’, and rather look to the common ground that might enable a range of actors to benefit from each others’ experiences and knowledge.


What we have chosen to call ‘Islamic charitable associations’ in Tunisia cannot be reduced to being viewed as an imported phenomenon from the Gulf, nor should they be viewed collectively as part of an ideological project, consequently labelled as ‘fundamentalist’ or seen as part of some vague and obscure ‘Islamization process’.

A noteworthy effect of the charitable activity in Tunisia is the emergence of a new Islamic middle class, which now has the opportunity to organize themselves after the revolution. Their references are Islamic, as are their funders, and their work is carried out in the political context of an Islamist government. They harvest unique local resources in terms of networks and knowledge about the areas in which they operate. Various social actors are involved in their activities; businessmen, coordinators  and local volunteers, all of whom are concerned with providing support for people in marginalized areas. While paying attention to where donations come from and where they go is part of the issue, it is also interesting to see what is happening in between. In other words what it really means in terms of social and political impact that a new Islamic middle class is strengthening itself through networking.


See this article in Italian, here.

[1] Both internal and external networks were different from those of the past. Civil society was organized in the ancient regime under the monopoly of the power-system; a small space for limited action was left to independent organizations, especially since the beginning of 2000 when a relative liberalization was attempted. These were generally left-wing oriented and their outside references were western organizations such as EU- or UN-affiliated partners.

[2] It is worth mentioning that these two regions are the two most conservative ones in the country, in which the Islamic references play a significant role. It can also be argued that those are the two strongholds of the Al-Nahdha party, the Islamic party which today holds governmental power.

[3] Alternatively, refugees were given food vouchers for use in one on the many distribution points organized around the country, as witnessed by the authors

[4] Not all the actors on the scene are Islamic in the same way: there are associations that focus their charitable action on social needs, based on raising donations, or more articulated development projects. Others, however, mix the dawa (preaching) – such as the distribution of Korans or religious lessons - with charitable activities.

[5] Known in French as « Association tunisienne de cooperation et de communication social ».

[6] Human Appeal - an organization accused by the American Administration of belonging to al-Qaeda because Guantanamo prisoners had been members of it.

[7] It is a three party coalition. Besides Nahdha and CPR, there is the socialist oriented party Ettakatol. The latter doesn’t seem as dominant on the social scene as the two former members.

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