TSG IntelBrief: Tunisia: Tensions With Salafi Institutions
April 24, 2014

TUNISIA: TENSIONS WITH SALAFI INSTITUTIONS 

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Bottom Line Up Front

• Salafi-controlled mosques, and the influence on civil society associations and parts of the educational system, present concerns to the Tunisian government despite its recent efforts to counter this dynamic

• The ideological rivalry between the Ennahda Movement political party, with its ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish Islamists, and the Salafis, which represent Saudi Arabia-style ultraconservative Islam, is intensifying

• The significant percentage of Tunisian fighters in Syria—and their eventual return home—also presents a concern for Tunis.

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Tunisia has seen by far the most successful transition from Arab Awakening towards a stable new order of government. In that respect, it provides an example of what can happen in Arab States as a result of peaceful protest. But there are still forces that could upset progress.

The Tunisian Ministry of Religious Affairs reported last month that approximately 150 mosques are controlled by radical Salafis. Most of them are located in the capital or the Sahel region, a tourist destination, which raises key security concerns of potential violence. Previous studies estimated the number of mosques that are outside of government control is even higher.

After Tunisia’s 2011 uprising, or Jasmine Revolution, Salafis took over these mosques, often by force, and replaced imams whom they accused of collaboration with the regime of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. It is unclear how many of them remain under the control of actual extremists, as opposed to the peaceful Salafis “Scriptualists” Salafis who still compose the majority in the country. However, that the majority of the mosques were taken over by force—an act rejected by the non violent Salafis—signals that they are likely to contain at least some violent jihadi elements.

A key problem is that through associations and activities in mosques, Tunisian Salafi-jihadis are recruiting fighters for Syria, where they often operate next to the extremist group Jabhat al-Nusra. Tunisians are now among the most numerous foreign fighters in Syria, despite the country’s relatively small population. This poses a security concern, particularly once these fighters return home. The moderate Islamist Ennahda Movement party and the country’s many secular voices oppose violent jihad against the Assad regime, but they have failed to take control of the powerful Salafi networks facilitating the fighters’ travel to Syria.

The foreign fighter problem also illustrates that the goals of Salafi networks in Tunisia are increasingly in direct competition with the more moderate Islam preached by the Ennahda Movement. During the 2011 elections, a significant number of Salafis voted for Ennahda. As it has become clear, however, that Ennahda has prioritized democracy over a reference to Sharia in the constitution, many Salafis have cut ties to the moderate Islamists.

Mehdi Jomaa’s caretaker government, which took power in January 2014, has intensified efforts to regain control over religious institutions. In April, a new law was passed that prohibits the opening of mosques during periods other than prayer times. It thereby tries to prevent mosques from becoming central locations where extremist Salafis meet. Since Ansar al-Sharia was declared a terrorist organization, radical Salafis operate more underground, and their activities within mosques have increased. However, the new law will most certainly not be applied in mosques that already act autonomously from the state.

In a further attempt to regain control of the mosques, the new government has fined imams who do not possess an official license to lead prayers. It has also temporarily prohibited from preaching some licensed imams who have incited violence. However, most of these imams still continue to lead prayers as they do not recognize the government’s authority to give such orders in the first place.

This reflects the government’s incapability to take control of mosques by relying solely on relatively soft measures. Harsher steps to crackdown on violent preachers are, however, difficult to implement because of limited resources. They would require a round-the-clock control of over hundreds of places of worship, often in remote areas. At the same time, the government has until now refrained from employing such measures so as to not alienate many conservative Muslims who would interpret this as a return to the repressive practices of the former Ben Ali government.

For now the imam of the Great Zeitouna mosque in Tunis remains in office although he has in the past called for death to artists whose work he considered blasphemous. Other imams who are notorious for preaching violence, such as Adel Almi and Khamis Mejri, are also still active within mosques. They are now recognized by some ultraconservative Muslims, although a minority, as the new Salafi leaders.

These imams also have close ties to newly-established Salafi civil society associations. Daroussalam, for example, which has over 10,000 followers on Facebook, regularly posts videos of Khamis Mejri. These associations advertise primarily through their charitable activities such as support for orphans and the sick. Beyond that, however, they have close links to other Salafi networks in the region and regularly invite radical imams from Saudi Arabia and other countries. This also reflects a local atmospheric that external forces seek to influence the power balance in Tunisia towards ultra conservatism, though many religious leaders’ convictions are specific to Tunisia. A legal loophole, Decree 88 of 2011, established that associations only need to be declared and do not require prior authorization—as was the case under Ben Ali—and thus makes it possible for these associations to operate almost completely autonomously, although the government could in the past prevent some particularly extremist imams from entering Tunisia.

Each ideological orientation is now struggling for relevance. As the vast majority of Salafis reject politics, the ideological battle between members of the Salafi movement and Ennahda is taking place primarily at the grass-roots level and in the socio-cultural sphere, though its scope has escaped international attention. Though the few Salafi parties that exist enjoy little support, the impact of some radical imams and local leaders of Salafi associations is increasing.

The outcome of this ideological competition is still far from certain, especially in the long-term. In this respect a worrying trend for Tunis and civil society is the recent establishment of Islamic kindergartens and preschools throughout the country. These institutions, estimated at several hundred, use educational material often downloaded directly from Saudi Arabia websites that teach a strict Wahhabi-inspired curriculum. Again, current laws and the government’s concern of backlash preclude a more intrusive approach to educational establishments that aim to promote a new Salafi ethos.

With natural tension in the socio-cultural sphere between Salafis—some with ties to extremist-jihadis—and mainstream Islam, Tunisia’s near term future remains uncertain. Regional dynamics, such as the war in Syria and competition between Muslim Brotherhood and Turkish-style Islamism on the one hand and Saudi Arabia on the other, also increase tensions amongst Tunisia’s conservative Muslims.

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