Salafism in Tunisia has no future: Interview

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Wednesday 12 Nov 2014

Ahram Online sits down with political expert Sami Ibrahim to gain a sense for past and future of Salafism in Tunisia

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Tunisian Political Expert Sami ‎Brahem Nov. 10, 2014 (Photo: Ahram online)

Last week, and incidence of jihadi Salafist terrorism took the lives of five military soldiers and injured ten after an attack on a military vehicle.

In an interview with Ahram Online, Sami Ibrahim spoke to the history of jihadi Salafism. Ibrahim is an expert in political Islam and the head of the Salafism unit at the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies to the Presidency. He is also the writer of "Religion and Politics: between the secularists rush and the Islamists failure"

Ahram Online (AO): What is the history of Salafism in Tunisia?

Ibrahim: In Tunisia, Salafism comes from Saudi Arabia and Mohamed Abdel Wahab, who sent a message to Tunisia's people in 1861 calling on them to believe in Wahabism as the righteous religious doctrine.

Afterwards, Tunisia witnessed what is referred to as reformist movements, which were based on the Ash'ari doctrine, aimed to counter what they believed were superstitions. This is the first wave of Salafism that appeared in Tunisia with the influence of the heritage of Ibn Taymiyyah, then the second wave rose with the writing of Muhammed Abdo, Al Afghani and Rasheed Reda. However, the third wave of Salafism came through the Muslim Brotherhood though with Rashid al-Ghannushi returning from Syria in the early 80s. In this manner, the political role of contemporary Salafism emerged.

AO: How did the Salafist movement, in a manner distinct from Ghannushi's Ennahda movement, emerge?

Ibrahim: Contemporary Salafism emerged at the end of the Cold War, there was some impact of the incidents in Afghanistan at the time. However, the first time a modern Salafist movement appeared in Tunisia was in the 90s. While Ben Ali's regime repressed and persecuted the Ennahda Muslim Brotherhood movement, it encouraged contemporary moderate Salafists to fill the void. 

This movement asserts that revolting against the leader is equivalent to an infidelity. Maybe Ben Ali's regime did not create this phenomenon but he certainly supported it.

Before the revolution, the Salafists did not have associations but had a remarkable cultural presence. Salafist books were sold in the market for cheap prices with Saudi support.

The year 2000 was the first time a movement called for confronting the regime and fighting it. By 2007, some groups appeared to be training and collecting weapons inside Tunisia and then the Soliman operation took place. As a result, Ben Ali's regime started persecuting and arresting thousands of jihadists.

AO: Did the Salafists have any role in overthrowing Ben Ali?

The supporters of moderate Salafism were against the revolution as it contradicts with their doctrine of not revolting against the leader. However, their allegiance quickly shifted to the Ennahda regime.

Some of the supporters of this movement changed from selling cake and owning small business to establishing and managing huge rich associations as "Gam'iyat Al Hadith" and "Gam'iyat Rabetat Al Aal'ma'.

Moreover, after the revolution, three Salafist parties were founded, which are Al-Asalah party, Justice and Development party and Istiqlal party. The latter parties ran in the last parliamentary elections in 2014 on the electoral lists of "the people want” but turned out not to be very popular.

AO: What are the real origins of these parties and is there any commentary that questions their affiliations?

Some believe that these parties did not emerge from the Salafist movement; in fact they include Ennahda and former members and salafists all together.

This might be true to an extent as neither the jihadists nor moderate Salafists believe in democracy, a republic and the legal frameworks that follow.

In addition, Salafism is originally against the law as it controls and regulates it.

AO: What about the jihadist Salafist stance from the 14th of January 2011 revolution?

They did not participate as their leaders and members were jailed at the time. But afterwards, when they were released, they participated in the sit-in of al-Kasbah 2 that overthrew Ghannushi’s government. Maybe this participation made up for missing the actual revolution.

AO: How did the jihadist Salafists appear in Tunisia?

Part of those people had participated in the jihad in Afghanistan and Chechen, and returned to Tunisia with different ideologies. Another part is prisoners during Ben Ali's era. There were also those people who came from foreign countries like France, US and Britain, and those have been trained by jihadists as Abu Qatada, and Hani al-Sebaai. Meanwhile, youths inside Tunisia have been attracted to join the Salafism through Social media networks.

Jihadist Salafism is not a unified entity, this makes it susceptible to penetration from security and other forces.

O: After Ansar Al-Shari'a organisation declared its responsibility for most terrorism attacks. What is its position on the other Salafists jihadists groups in Tunisia?

At the beginning of Ennahda’s time in power, Ansar al-Shari'a group had a number of Daawa offices nationwide, but after Ennahda clashed with the group when they stormed the American embassy in 2012. Ennahda identified them as a terrorist group.

AO: What is the relation between Ennahda and Salafists in Tunisia?

There is a connection and dialogue between Ennahda and the Scripturalist Salafism. But for the jihadist Salafism it is different, because as previously said it is not restructured, and some of them call Ennahda a secular force, and what’s more is that groups of jihadist Salafists say that Ennahda failed to establish the "Islamic Country," which led Ennahda to declare them as terrorist groups.

AO: Does Ennahda use jihadist Salafism as a scarecrow for their political rivals?

No evidence proves that, actually, jihadist Salafism accused Ennahda's government as not representing Islam. On the other side, Tunisia's seculars also accused Ennahda for its being hesitant in responding to jihadist Salafism. But Ennahda used its refusal to Salafism for its own interest to represent itself as a modern movement compared to Salafist extremism.

AO: How far have Salafists roots spread among the Tunisian public classes?

Salafism in Tunisia is not only an educational, religious current, but also it includes social contents, such as their speeches on poverty, development and marginalisation. In the poor areas where other political parties are not playing a major role, Salafists are more active, meanwhile, foreign funds are sent to Salafists for their activities in these areas.

AO: What are the Salafists current's chances in Tunisia's political future?

According to the education percentage in Tunisia and the country's agreement on women rights, the Salafists and especially the jihadists have no chances in the future as Tunisia is not a conservative community.

AO: Do you see any relation between the terrorists attacks in Egypt and Tunisia?

The international jihadist current is applying the same strategy in both Egypt and Tunisia. Proof for that has been mentioned in "The Strategic Memorandum" of jihadist, Abdullah Ibn Mohammed, as Egypt and Tunisia were mentioned as strategic targets for jihadists attacks. The book was published in 2011 and it also mentioned Sinai as a target.

AO: Is there any relation between jihadist Salafism groups in Tunisia and Egypt?

They are all under one strategy. Although there is no evidence on organising relations, but maybe there is connection between the fighting groups in Syria and Iraq.

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