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.

Show Hide image

How did I, obsessed with non-places, not know about the Trafford Centre?

My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. 

Last year I bought a copy of J G Ballard’s last novel, Kingdom Come, a dystopic tale of the near future in which bored suburbanites descend into anomic violence as they retreat inside a giant shopping mall. Predictably, I bought my copy at the Bluewater shopping mall in north Kent, on the outskirts of London. Bluewater held the title of Britain’s biggest shopping mall for a number of years and it is surpassing large: a huge circular corridor that has become a destination. I asked a police officer where the Waterstones was and discovered she was a good old-fashioned bobby-on-the-beat – her beat having been, for seven years, to walk slowly around and around . . . Bluewater.

But I wasn’t fettered by Bluewater’s surly gravity, any more than I was galvanised by rampant consumerism. Novel purchased, I took a cab over the soaring Queen Elizabeth II Bridge to Essex, where I alighted at Bluewater’s twin establishment: the Lakeside shopping mall in West Thurrock. I headed for the Lakeside branch of Waterstones, where I . . . well, you guessed it: I returned my copy of Kingdom Come. This surreal little exercise was undertaken for the BBC Radio 4 documentary Malled: Sixty Years of Undercover Shopping, and I’ve detailed it here purely in order to illustrate this point: I have more than a passing interest in shopping malls.

This is why the events of a fortnight ago, when Family Self went up to Manchester for what is termed, I believe, a “city break”, seemed quite so bizarre. My wife had booked us all in to a showing of the latest Bond film at the IMAX Cinema at the Trafford Centre. “Why the Trafford Centre?” I taxed her. “It’s in Trafford, which is five miles from the city centre.” She looked at me as if I were a complete ass, but refused to enlighten me. My revelation came later, when we were wandering the rococo halls of the Trafford Centre, marvelling at the lashings of gold leaf applied to the serried columns as our soles slapped on the Italian marble flooring. My wife couldn’t believe that one such as I, obsessed by what the French philosopher Marc Augé has named “non-places”, didn’t know about the Trafford Centre.

But I didn’t – it was a 207,000-square-metre hole in my map of the world. I knew nothing of the bitter and protracted wrangling that attended its inception, as successive planning applications were rejected by ever higher authorities, until our Noble Lords had to step in to ensure future generations will be able to buy their schmutter at TK Maxx and then sip their lattes at Starbucks without having to brave the harsh Lancashire elements. Did I feel small as my savvier spouse led me through these storied halls? You bet your waddling, wobbling, standing-still-on-the-travelator bum I did. How could I not have known about the great central dome of the Trafford mall, which is bigger – and statelier – than that of St Paul’s? How could I have been unaware of the Orient, Europe’s largest food court, with its seating for 1,800 diners, served by a plethora of exciting outlets including Harry Ramsden’s, Carluccio’s and those piquant bun-pushers, McDonald’s?

Actually, the Orient completely bowled me over. The Trafford Centre’s imagineers point to the nearby Manchester Ship Canal as influencing this wholly novel and utterly weird space, which is formed by a sort of Möbius strip of 1930s ocean-liner design, being at once superstructure – railings, funnels, tables arranged to simulate the deckchairs on a sun deck – and interior. However, nothing like this ever cruised by Runcorn. Not that I object to this, any more than I objected to the cluttered corridor full of orientalism – noodle bars, sushi joints, all-you-can-eat Chinese barbecues – that debouched from it and led us back into the weirdly glistering main retail areas, with their ornamental griffins and neoclassical columns bodged up out of medium-density fibreboard.

The Trafford Centre’s imagineers also make great play of design features – such as the aforementioned griffins – that are meant to tie the humongous mall to its hinterland (these are the heraldic symbols of the de Traffords, who used to own hereabouts), and to the north-east’s proud industrial heritage. But this is all ornamental balls; the truth is that the Trafford Centre’s ambience is so sumptuously wacky, it could quite reasonably be twinned with Las Vegas.

While the rest of the family went in search of retail opportunities, I watched the Mancunians process. It occurred to me that if there were any influences at work here – besides the Baudrillardian ones of hyperreality and simulation that underpin so much of the contemporary built environment – it was the presence of a large British Asian community. The only people who didn’t look out of both place and time, wandering about among all the gilded pomp and crystalline circumstance, were women wearing saris, shalwar kameez and burqas. Tracksuit bottoms and hoodies just didn’t cut it – although, I concede, come the breakdown in civil society anticipated in Kingdom Come, this pseudo-sportswear will come into its own as the perfect pillaging outfit.

Next week: Lives of Others

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State