The Brownshirts of the Arab Spring: Tunisia’s Salafists (Part 2)

Street sign in old Jewish neighborhood in the Tunis medina.

Street sign in old Jewish neighborhood in the Tunis medina.

Cross-posted from the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

Read part 1.

Ennahda’s Non-response to the Salafist Offensive

How has the transition Tunisian government responded to this wave of attacks? Virtually not at all. While calling for ‘dialogue’ between Salafists and more moderate Islamic elements and secularists, Ennahda, the key political force in the ruling coalition, has let the Salafists run amok, attacking cultural events, political rallies calling for democracy and protection of women’s rights. To make matters worse, despite the fact that religious-based political parties are illegal by Tunisian law, a Salafist party has been certified.

On March 29 of this year, an openly Salafist political party was granted legal status by the Ministry of Interior. ‘Insah’ — as it is called in Arabic, ‘The Reform Front’ openly pushes for the establishment of an Islamic state, the imposition of sharia law and a return to the ‘purified’ Islam of the time of the prophet Mohammed (630 A.D).

Salafists did not play any role in the mass movement that overthrew Zine Ben Ali’s government in January, 2011; a Salafist ran in Tunisia’s October 2011 elections for a constituent assembly as an independent list but came up empty, not winning any seats — an indication of how isolated and irrelevant Salafist themes are to the Tunisian body politic. That election did result in the Ennahda Party — an openly Islamic based political party — pulling down some 42% of the vote. Insah will be eligible to field candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled to take place next year. The legalization of Insah would not have been possible without the firm support of Ennahda and particularly its leadership, Rachid Ghannouchi and Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali.

In public statements Insah spokesman and founder Mohamed Khouja was careful to emphasize that “the party’s platform does not impose anything, such as dress or other personal conduct concerning Tunisian daily life.” Khouja insists that Insah is committed to “the civil values of the State” and that it respects the particulars of the democratic experiment in a peaceful framework removed from all forms of violence and hatred across the political spectrum”1 At the same time, as if his movement represents the whole of Islam, rather than a minor splinter group, Khouja pompously comments: “We will not accept any assault on our religious sacraments and we will seek to express the demands of the Muslim people.” But then who is this representative of a splinter group to be speaking for ‘the Muslim people’?

Islamophobia at Home, Alliances With Islamic Fundamentalists Abroad

While a wave of Islamophobia poisons the political atmosphere here in the United States, in the Middle East, the Obama Administration finds itself lining up with and making alliances with, to one degree or another, the same forces it criticizes so vociferously at home. It has been going on for more than a century. Funny thing that the ‘enemy at home’ turns out to be an ally abroad and a consistent and tried and true one at that! On the surface it certainly appears that different U.S. administrations oppose Islamic fundamentalism — isn’t that what the war on terrorism is all about? Opposing — nay — wiping out Al Qaeda and like groups? No question that anti-Islamic hysteria — Islamophobia — has been whipped up since 9/11 (and even before).

But appearances can be deceptive. First the British and later the U.S. have had longstanding histories of cooperation with Islamic fundamentalist elements whom they use as a foil against more secular Arab nationalism. These continue and remain important today. Bizarre as it might seem to American audiences, Salafists are playing key roles in support of U.S. Middle East policy.

1. They represent nothing short of the counter-revolution on the ground — meant to defuse the democratic upsurge and turn back the Arab Spring from resulting any new political developments that might challenge U.S. economic priorities (neo-liberal access to the region) or strategic concerns.

2. Their actions in Tunisia and Egypt accomplish something else, rarely discussed these days: in tandem with Israel’s campaign against Iran — takes the focus off of the Israeli occupation. Thus they will be tolerated and encouraged — albeit from a distance and through Saudi and Qatari proxies.

While claiming to oppose Salafist brownshirt tactics, once again, the U.S. is playing what appears to be Salafist card and not just in Tunisia. Supporting Salafists throughout the region are two key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who work in tandem with the United States to secure U.S. strategic interests and neoliberal economic policies throughout the region, policies more and more being closely coordinated with NATO. Arms shipments from Qatar and Saudi Arabia to Salafist elements in the Syrian opposition have been intercepted in Lebanon recently. There are reports of Iraqi jihadists also working with the Syrian opposition, their activities coordinated by the Saudis and Qataris, in some form of coordination with the U.S. as was done in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Several weeks ago, reinforcing Syrian government claims, a Tunisian human rights group exposed the open recruiting of Tunisian Salafist elements to also fight in Syria, calling for an investigation, suggesting that the Tunisian Ennahda-led government is coordinating its Middle East policies rather closely with Saudi and Qatari religious conservatives.

U.S. Playing the Salafist Card Throughout the Middle East

The British and the U.S. prefer the more placid and ‘west-oriented’ face of ‘moderate Islamic parties’ like Tunisia’s Ennahda which claims to respect democratic processes. But when necessary, London and Washington have not hesitated to cooperate with more fanatical elements — be they Saudi Wahhabists or now Syrian jihadists. Besides the anti-Arab secular nationalist bond that unites U.S. foreign policy with Islamists, there is a bond of another kind: they see eye to eye economically. The Moslem Brotherhoods in Egypt, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Salafists throughout the region are all comfortable with and support the kind of neoliberal economic policies the United States and Europe pursue. They have opposed trade union rights, strong state-directed economic policies. When it comes to neoliberal economics, openness to foreign corporate and financial penetration, the Islamists and U.S. policymakers are in complete harmony.

As Ennahda in Tunisia cozies up to its Salafist brethren to neutralize the Tunisian Arab Spring from turning into anything that might substantially shift the country’s neoliberal economy policies and its strategic alliance with the United States, Washington calmly looks on with virtually no critical comments from the State Department, no sense of criticism — to say outrage — from the country’s media as the Islamic fundamentalist wave takes hold in the country. Most of the dirty work, the political support and financial flows are in the hands of the Saudis and Qataris, neither of which can even go to the bathroom without U.S. approval. The idea that the Obama Administration is not aware of the Tunisian developments is not credible.