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Rough times in Tunisia: weak leaders vs. empowered fundamentalists

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Tunisian leaders must quickly and boldly address the problem of fundamentalism through building more robust democratic institutions, debate forums and a national dialogue.

Meriem Dhaouadi
23 September 2012

The Tunisian ordeal with hard-line salafis has become painfully visible especially after the bloody attack on the US embassy in Tunis last Friday, and the failure of the government in protecting Tunisian lives and preventing the vandalism of the American Cooperative School.

Under the rule of the Troika government led by the ‘moderate’ Ennahda party, Tunisia has made hardly any progress in the issues of security that accompanied the fall of the Ben Ali dictatorship. The vulnerability of the security system in Tunisia has led to the proliferation of radical and extremist acts of violence against journalists, artists, politicians, teachers, as well as hotel owners for selling alcohol and the list goes on. The government has shown ambivalence towards containing the threat of these extremist groups. Torn between denial and a realization that it is time to take a firm stance against this poisonous ideology, the Tunisian leaders in power have failed to address the underlying issues that motivate them.

The strong tradition of moderate Islam values in Tunisia has begun to fade away in the last few years with the introduction of the Wahhabi ideology via satellite TV and the internet. The long suppression of the Islamists and even the moderate teachings of Islam under Ben Ali had further nurtured extremism, the strict interpretation of Sharia and the resort to force to impose their will on Tunisian society. Today, the group who oppose democracy, free elections and the power of the people are more empowered but more underestimated by the Tunisian officials.  

What has gone wrong? It all started with the emergence of a ‘Takfir movement’ - the making of accusations of apostasy - following the airing of the controversial movie Persepolis in October 2011, a phenomenon that risked endangering the cohesive and inclusive nature of the Tunisian society. The deteriorating socio-economic situation in Tunisia laid the foundation for the thriving of the Salafi movement, which has attracted more and more young people disillusioned and frustrated over the slow rate of change in their country. They seem to feel betrayed. Struggling to voice their visions in the absence of a strong political leadership, they find refuge in an alternative community, that of a ‘pure Islam’ dominated by the Salafis.

The Salafist message in Tunisia is wideranging, for one faction of the group advocates moderate rhetoric. Abu Iyad, for instance, a Salafist jihadist leader said in a sermon last Monday in El Fateh mosque in Tunis, “Tunisia is not a land of jihad”. On the other hand, some violent groups claiming to adhere to the Salafi movement have been aggressive, starting with the violent clashes in the University of Manouba over the ban of the niqab on campus, and including calls for murder from mosque platforms. The infidels should, “be killed and their blood spilled”, said one Sheikh Houcine Labidi, the imam of the famous mosque in the capital Tunis. There has since been widespread damage done to shops selling alcohol in Jendouba, in northwestern Tunisia; the disruption of cultural events deemed ‘inappropriate’ and not halal enough to be performed (like the piece by renowned Tunisian actor Lotfi Abdelli; attacks on art galleries. Everything of this nature that has happened is exacerbated by the laxity of the Tunisian authorities.

Tunisia has even imported some radical “friends of Syria” to help fight Bashar Al Assad‘s unholy regime. They were financed for their trouble by some wealthy Gulf states who set up recruitment centres for Mujahedeen in Tunisia to fight alongside the Islamist  revolutionary forces in Syria, aiming to topple the secular regime and establish a more religious state.

Tunisian leaders must quickly and boldly address the problem of fundamentalism through building more robust democratic institutions, debate forums and a national dialogue to bring together those Tunisians manipulated by Wahhabi outside forces and the rest of Tunisians. The aim must be to build post-revolutionary Tunisia hand in hand as a home for diverse ways of thinking but for people who can coexist in peace and harmony.

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