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The rise of Salafism in Tunisia

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

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

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.