Tunisia’s Culture War: Salafists Run Amok

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Suburban sprawl, Tunis-style.

Note: This series, of which Part One is below, is dedicated to the memory and contribution of Alexander Cockburn who just passed away.

1.

October of last year, Tunisia held national elections for a ‘constituent assembly’ – a legislative body mandated to re-write the Tunisian constitution for the post-Ben Ali era. The Ennahda (Renaissance) Party, an Islamic Party cruelly and unfairly repressed for decades under the Ben Ali regime, gained 41% of the vote, the largest percentage of any political party participating.

While it claims to be in a coalition with two more secular parties – a fact which is technically accurate but politically empty – despite appearances to the contrary, Ennahda wields the power behind the scenes in the country, in a manner which is virtually undisputed. If the recent Ennahda congress, which drew 30,000 attendees, is an accurate measure, all indications are that, despite opposition, it will tighten its grip in the period ahead.

The other two political parties involved in the ruling coalition exist more on paper than in fact; unlike Ennahda that has a nationwide organization and its eyes and ears everywhere, the other two are essentially Tunis- (and a few other metropolitan areas) based. There is organized opposition to some of Ennahda’s policies, especially its economic policies by the trade union federation, but apart from that and a few disparate elements, the opposition is weak, disorganized and with little influence. Ennahda runs the show.

In certain ways, this fact has already reaped a disturbing political and social harvest.

Despite rhetoric to the contrary and fine words about the Tunisia’s Arab Spring, since October, the political atmosphere in the country has shifted markedly to the right as a new and hitherto marginal element in Tunisian society has raised what I can only describe as its ugly head: radical Islamic fundamentalism, or as it is also known, Salafism. Salafism’s base in Tunisian society in the past has been narrow to naught. That it should emerge with such force and unchecked violence is the result of a number of factors: the sufferings of Islamicists in Ben Ali’s prisons whose anger has been easily manipulated; some Tunisians trained by fundamentalist militants in Afghanistan and Iraq; some spill over from Libya; U.S. acquiescence.

More importantly though, Tunisian Salafism has been fueled by Saudi and Qatari funding and Ennahda tolerance for and defense of their actions. A great deal of money has been pouring into Tunisia, both formally (loans to the government) and informally through the mosques. Aid, it seems, is never really ‘free’ and comes with a heavy price tag. If originating from the IMF, the strings entail opening weak economies so that international capital can swallow what is left of domestic economies – be it in Russia or Tunisia. The strings attached to Saudi and Qatari aid include opening up Tunisia’s political space to Salafist elements to grow if not thrive uninhibited by any legal niceties.

And as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close and strategic allies to the United States, one can surmise that at the very least, the Obama Administration is aware of the Saudi-Qatari role and has either turned a blind eye to it, or more likely, has encouraged these developments. The notion that Saudi Arabia functions outside the perimeters of U.S. Middle East policy, is, to use the more polite British term, ‘poppycock’.

Odd as it might seem, given the degree to which the people of the United States have been pickled in anti-Islamic images and media at home, abroad, the U.S. – going back sixty years – has been quite comfortable in making alliances with Islamic movements both moderate and radical – and has done so repeatedly. It appears as long as the current Tunisian government adheres to U.S. neo-liberal economic guidelines – which it does – and generally supports regional security interests, which it has proven faithful to concerning current U.S. policy towards Libya and Syria, it is more than likely that the Obama Administration and any that might follow – minus a few weak protests – will turn a blind eye from the current Tunisian Islamacist religious offensive. This has been U.S. policy up until now.

Habib Bourguiba was Tunisia’s first president and the leader of its anti-colonial struggle against France. A supporter of secular education, the separation of church (or mosque) and state and women’s rights, it is doubtful he would have permitted this Salafist drift in the Tunisian body politic to go so far. In fact, the policies of the current government, while careful not to attack Bourguiba frontally, are doing what they can to deconstruct ‘the house that Bourguiba built’. Ennahda argues that it is countering Ben Ali’s secularism, but all indications suggest they want to go much further and are using the Salafists to reshape – or try to – the Tunisian body politic.

Ennahda, which fashions itself internationally as ‘a moderate Islamic party’ bares much responsibility for this current Salafist surge. They have failed to rein them in, something which would have been easy to do earlier on. Nor do they seem to want to. Their defense of Salafism is hollow and disingenuous, empty as an Egyptian Salafist imam’s advice on satellite television. Ennahda speaks of defending Salafist free speech rights and thus says nothing about the repeated anti-Jewish slander (that has included calls of killing, removing Jews from the country). It claims be caught in the middle between Salafist excesses and ‘secular fundamentalism’.

No doubt, by focusing on cultural questions – what makes or doesn’t make a good Muslim – rather than what makes or doesn’t make a good citizen, Ennahda has shifted the national discussion away from Tunisia’s economic crisis which has only worsened since Ben Ali departed the country so unceremoniously. Low wages, high unemployment levels, especially among the country’s educated youth, combined with a regime with a reputation for rampant corruption, were among the key factors triggering the Tunisian Revolt and the Arab Spring in general. How ironic that since last October, the national discussion has devoted so little attention to this key area.

Although Salafists now claim that the Arab Spring was a call to institute Shari’a, nowhere in the Arab World, certainly not in Tunisia, were these elements out on the streets, risking life and limb to overthrow the Ben Alis, Mubareks of the Arab World. But in the aftermath of the historic events, with a little help from their Saudi and Qatari friends, Salafists have become quite active. There seems to be a division of labor between Ennahda and the Tunisian Salafists. Ennahda controls the levers of political power. The Salafists have targeted the mosques, the media and the educational system for their special attention. If Ennahdha formally renounces basing the new Tunisian constitution on Shari’a law, the Salafists informally and actively work with such a goal in mind, and they are not shy about admitting it. Far from it.

In Tunisia, Salafist rallies regularly include attacks against secularists, Islamic moderates and Jews; calls for shari’a law; and, where possible, hoisting of the black banner of Salafist Islam to replace the Tunisian national flag. They have also desecrated Christian churches in Tunis. Their actions have long ago surpassed simply violent and bigoted speech. It has included trashing media outlets, threatening journalists and cultural people, trying to ‘take over’ universities, attacking trade union offices, threatening women who refuse to be pressured to dress as the Salafists demand, burning down bars and liquor stores. It is not only an attack on diversity, on the place for the more secular elements within Tunisian society, it is also an offensive against the more moderate forms of Islam that have existed in the country for centuries.

None of this has been prosecuted by the Ennahda-dominated Tunisian government. The list goes on. Tunisia’s Salafists have become nothing short of the brown shirts of the Tunisian Arab Spring, and their actions and strategies parallel similar Salafist campaigns in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Their role is clear: reshape the country’s tolerate cultural map with an increasingly narrow vision of an Islamic society; to freeze the Arab Spring social revolution dead in its tracks, to reverse the progress demanded by millions throughout the Arab world for social and economic justice.

2.

Habib Bourguiba's legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government's social policies.

Habib Bourguiba’s legacy casts a shadow over the current Tunisian government’s social policies.

The most recent, but by no means the only, Salafist disruption took place in La Marsa, a suburban resort-beach town north of Tunis at the end of the Tunis-Carthage-La Marsa suburban train line. There, in early June, an art exhibit, ‘Le Printemps des Art s‘ Fair, was vandalized by as Salafist mob on its final day.

It appears little else than a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular and moderate Islamic community. A small group of Salafists, upset with some of the pictures, demanded that the paintings be taken down and for the exhibit to close. They were provoked by photos of some of the pictures from the exhibit shown on line, although a number of these placed on the internet were not on display! That still wasn’t the end of it.

Failing in their private efforts at artistic censorship, the self-appointed thought police mounted a second and more expanded effort to shut down the exhibit. Several hundred Salafist supporters – who just happened to be in the neighborhood, of course – joined their morally outraged colleagues and crashed the exhibit, slashing and destroying a number of paintings they found not to their liking, and by their narrow terms, blasphemous.

“According to Tunisia Live! “At least two paintings were slashed amongst which was Lamia Guemara’s Bleu De Prusse and a photograph as well as a sculpture were thrown on top of the roof of the building while a major installation in the courtyard, Punching Ball by Faten Gaddes, was taken out of the palace and burned outside.”

The Tunisia Live! article went on:

“A video circulating on social media sites shows a number of artworks deemed to be offensive. The video starts with a phrase saying – as if the Salafists represented anything more than a fringe group within Tunisian Islam, “Tomorrow all followers of Islam should rise in anger to defend Islam.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, other images show the faces of people who produced or supported the works including intellectual Aissam Chabbi, lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida, and politician Najib Chabbi. At the end, the video presents the names of artists involved in the fair indicating their indignation to provoke Salafist and Muslims in general.”

Then as they have done in Kairouan, Sid Bou Zid and elsewhere, the Salafists, with no fear of government reprisals, threatened to burn down the place. What followed was a physical confrontation between the two groups, which only subsided when the police were called in to break up the melee. Angered that the police had broken up their little version of artistic Kristalnacht, the Salafists, some of them, in the spirit of seventh century Islam, brandishing swords, turned on the modest contingent of police trying to keep the peace.

But rather than arresting and indicting the Salafist culprits, as should have happened if Tunisian law was invoked, Ennahda issued a curious statement condemning both sides of the confrontation but with an eye on implementing policies that would punish the artists rather than the Salafists! It called a law that would criminalize “the violation of the sacred” and promised to “work to include in the constitution a law against interference with the sacred.” This from a political party that promised to maintain the separation of church and state! While condemning the looting, the statement continues to define the main problem with the incident, not as radical Islamic fundamentalism, but as ‘secular extremism’.

The statement goes on, basically suggesting a witch hunt, but all too typically and hypocritically, to call on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”, i.e., the victims become legal, political targets and the perpetrators get a mild slap on the hand, but nothing more. Ennahda calls this being even-handed. The Obama administration remains silent suggesting that the Tunisian Arab Spring is going along as smoothly as ever.

In Part Two: The Salafists Go to College….The Habib Kazdaghli Story