The rise of Salafism in Tunisia

Those thirsty for spiritual fulfillment are increasingly turning to the Saudi brand of Islam.

In his small shop in Kairouan, Waseem offered me a cup of sweet mint tea. Like most Salafis, he sported the signature look: long beard and trousers rolled up above his ankles. The merchant was different from the rest; he didn’t exchange jovial insults, he lowered his gaze whenever a woman passed by and his hospitality verged on the absurd. I couldn’t help asking why Salafis like him were vilified in the Tunisian media. Waseem didn’t smash up bars or threaten to lop off hands in remote villages like they claimed. The truth is, for a post-revolution Tunisia thirsty for unadulterated freedom, Waseem represented the very antithesis of revolution: an austere and uncompromising brand of Islam imported from Saudi Arabia that sought to snuff out its ideals (whatever they were).

While Waseem causes consternation amongst Tunisian liberals, to Western policy makers he is a potential nightmare. The sort of person who resents any form of intervention of the non-believing kind, who given the right conditions, could transform into a mythological arch enemy of the bin Laden variety. Of course, many want to blame Saudi petro-dollars for brainwashing Tunisian youth but the truth is, if anyone’s to blame it’s the previous regime.

In 1956, the Tunisian president, Habib Bourguiba, set his newly-independent country on a course to catch up with the West. That meant industrialisation, curtailing the influence of religion and, like he had done himself, embracing French political values. Yet careful not to offend religious sensibilities, he refrained from attacking religion directly. Instead he started to undermine religious institutions like Zeitouna and Kairouan colleges that had played an important role in North African Islam for centuries. Bourguiba appropriated the trusts and charities set up for their upkeep. He subdued Islamic jurisprudence and religious courts so that they followed a French model. Preceding France by fifty years, he declared war on that ‘odious rag’, the veil, and introduced the Personal Status Code that guaranteed the legal status of women. Although the code was essentially a reiteration of Islamic law, its French veneer made the religious institutions appear out of touch. Moreover, with a modern education system taught in French and Arabic, the future rested on secular foundations. It alienated many, as Rashid Ghannoushi, Zeitouna alumni and founder of the Ennahda party says: “We were strangers in our own country; we had been educated as Muslims and Arabs, whilst the country was molded in the French cultural identity”. However, Bourguiba’s popularity was such that the religious classes could not muster enough support to oppose him.

Bourguiba’s covert policy of undermining religion paid dividends. In 1960, during the fast of Ramadan, he declared that Tunisian workers were exempt from their religious obligation. In Bourguiba’s mind servicing the economy constituted a jihad and in such situations the obligation was lifted. Of course, the Mufti of Tunis did not see it that way, and refused to ratify his claim; Bourguiba responded by liquidating the repositories of Islamic learning. By 1961 Zeitouna University had been incorporated into the newly-founded University of Tunis, and its precious collection of books on astronomy and mathematics had allegedly found their way into the private collections of the Ben Ali clan.

That left spiritually hungry Tunisians turning to whatever was available. With the government eliminating real opposition parties and indigenous religious institutions, the young found the sound bites, pamphlets, and banned books closer to the truth. As Izzedine, a book seller in the old city of Tunis says: “The banned books of Salafi scholars became highly sought after during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali era”. The famed Tunisian moderateness or wasatiya weakened because of the brutal repression of Tunisian Islamists in the 80s and the 90s. It left the way open for a de-contextualized Salafism.

Waseem’s story is a classic example; thirsty for spiritual fulfillment, he had joined Tabligh Jamaat, one of the world’s largest non-political organizations that proselytised Islam. He soon became profoundly disappointed with the organisation because they discouraged him from studying Islam and politically engaging with the system. Having no indigenous institution to turn to, he took for truth whatever was available as long as it was anti-government and soon embraced the Saudi brand of Islam. However, the election victory by Algerian Islamists in the 90s meant that the regime cracked down on people like him. Before the age of 20 he had been arrested and tortured for attending the congregational dawn prayer.

In a strange quirk of fate he escaped and found refuge in Gaddafi's Libya only to return once Ben Ali had fallen. Ironically, it seems that the rise of Salafism in Tunisia was not because of Saudi petro-dollars but because of a secular dictatorship trying to impose its own values on its people.

Graffiti in La Marsa reading 'God is great,' left by rioters. Photograph: Getty Images

Tam Hussein is an award winning writer and journalist specialising in the Middle East. He spent several years in the Middle East and North Africa working as a translator and consultant. Tam also writes for the Huffington Post.

All photos: India Bourke
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“They cut, we bleed”: activists Sisters Uncut protest closures of women's services

 “Our blood should not pay for our rape.”

Over 500 domestic violence survivors and support workers processed through central London this weekend. The protest, staged by the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut, mourned the women’s services that are losing out as a result of the government's austerity drive.

Since November 2014 the group has occupied streets, burned copies of the Daily Mail, and hijacked the Suffragette film premiere. But on Saturday the mood was somber. In Soho Square the group staged a symbolic funeral service. Attendees stood in a protective circle, fists raised, while members took turns to read out the names of the scores of women who’ve been killed by men in the past year:  “Anne Dunkley, 67; Nadia Khan, 24; Lisa Anthony, 47…”. The youngest was just 14 years old.

The service culminated in a promise “to never forget” the dead, and also to protect the living: “We must love and support one another; we have nothing to lose but our chains".

As the protestors passed St Martins in the Fields Church, dressed in black veils and funeral attire, the crowd of passers-by broke into spontaneous applause. “It gave me goosebumps”, Caroline, an activist and former victim of abuse told me. “You expect people on the march to be supportive but not the people on the street. I’ve been on other marches and people normally complain about you being selfish and blocking up the streets but this response makes you feel like people do  care.”

The show of public support is especially welcome in the aftermath of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. Cuts to local authority budgets have already led to the closure of over 30 domestic violence services since 2010, including Eaves, a charity that provided services for single, low-income and vulnerable women.

Further erosions to local council budgets will only put more services and lives at risk, activists say. Also of concern is Osborne’s decision to devolve responsibility for raising a social care tax (of up to 2 per cent on council tax) to local authorities. This tips hostility to tax increases away from central government to local authorities, and could place greater pressure on women’s services to compete for funding.

The Chancellor offered a supposed silver lining to the cuts with the promise that VAT money raised from the EU’s compulsory tax on sanitary products will be ringfenced for women’s charities, such as the Eve Appeal and Women’s Aid.

The implication, however, that only women are to pay for helping the victims of domestic violence was met with derision from Sisters Uncut. As the marchers approached their final destination in Trafalgar Square, red dye turned the square’s famous fountains the colour of blood. “This blood won’t wash the blood from Osborne’s hands,” read one tampon-draped banner; “Our blood should not pay for our rape”, read another.

For those on the march, the cuts are an affront on many levels. All those I spoke to worked in some form of public service; everything from housing to foster care. But some have had to move out of the women’s services sector for the lack of funding.

Louisa used to work for a domestic violence service in London until it was forced to close last month. “I’m here because I’ve witnessed first hand what the cuts are doing to women and how much the organisations are having to squeeze what they can provide.”

All public services have legitimate claims to support - from the 14-strong police team that escorted the marchers, to the sweepers who were left to dredge the protesters’ roses out of the fountains and brush away the tampons that had fallen from their banners.

The danger, however, according to Caroline, is that the needs of domestic violence victims are all too easy to sideline: “This is by its nature something that goes on behind closed doors,” she says. As funding tightens, these voices musn’t be squeezed out.

Sisters Uncut is an intersectional group open to all who identify as women. The national domestic violence helpline offers help and support on 0808 2000 247. Members of the LGBT communities can also access tailored support from Broken Rainbow on 0800 9995428.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.