Tunisia's revolution and the Salafi effect

Decades of repression may only have delayed the day when Tunisia must confront the innate conservatism of its people. Alice Fordham reports from Tunis.

Tunisian athlete and Olympic silver medalist Habiba Ghribi stretches while training at a stadium in downtown Tunis. At the London Olympics, some religious groups criticised her online for wearing clothes they considered too revealing.

TUNIS // Amid the hustle of trams, traffic and dirty streets outside the Fath mosque, young men with long beards and robes cut off above the ankle greet each other before Friday prayers, gathering among stalls selling prayer books and incense.

The men, who adopt the clothing they believe the Prophet Mohammed and his followers wore, do not draw a second glance: the faithful coming to pray, and the hurrying shoppers, are used to the sight of Salafis 19 months after the fall of a president who strongly discouraged such overt piety. In a country changed for ever by revolution, they have become part of the scenery on the street and in the political arena.

But the more permissive atmosphere has also fuelled a surge in hardline and sometimes violent Islamist groups that deeply unsettles many Tunisians.

A series of incidents has escalated these fears. In the town of Sidi Bouzid last week, where the uprising that toppled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began in 2010, a group of bearded men raided a hotel selling alcohol, smashing bottles. Over the summer's economically crucial season of festivals and tourism, protests by ultraconservative Islamists halted planned shows including a comedy performance and an event featuring traditional Sufi Muslim chanting by a group of Iranians.

When the athlete Habiba Ghribi won a silver medal in the 3,000m steeplechase at the Olympics, some religious groups criticised her online for wearing clothes they considered too revealing. Ghribi was largely unperturbed by the insults, and says she cannot walk down a street in Tunis without being cheered, but nonetheless she has concerns echoed by many Tunisian women.

"Tunisian women have always had a place in society," she said. "But at this time it's difficult to prove ourselves … there is some fear for the future." She worries about the possible impact on women's rights from extreme groups and from the government, which is dominated by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party.

Here in the country where last year's regional revolts began, such concerns are part of a wider fear that extremist groups, whose members were often jailed or exiled under Ben Ali and some of which espouse violence or have strong connections with Al Qaeda, are gaining a foothold.

Some, including Human Rights Watch, have criticised the interim government for their failure to crack down on them.

"There is an unwillingness or an inability to arrest individuals," said Amna Guellali, the watchdog's researcher on Tunisia. "People have been attacked by people they identify as Salafis; they file a complaint to the judicial police, and in many cases the guy is never arrested." An attack on a playwright by bearded men in the city of Kef in May went unpunished, she said, although he knew who his attackers were.

However, some analysts - and Salafis - have urged those worried about the growing movement to take a closer look at its roots in Tunisia, and to distinguish between people who adopt a lifestyle and appearance according to Salafist ethics, and those who attack and destroy.

In an interview with the French newspaper Le Figaro published yesterday, the Tunisian president, Moncef Marzouki, said the vast majority of Tunisian people and politicians were committed to a tolerant and pluralist society, and he was "overwhelmed, shocked, hurt, outraged" by the prominence given in the French media to Salafist disorder.

Those attacking people and buildings "are so far from being Muslim", said Meher Khashnawi, 25, a Salafi who volunteers at the Fath mosque. "Maybe they are Salafis in their minds, but we are hating them and against them." He wants a change in ethics, and a society where people love each other. He tried to be a good Muslim even under Ben Ali, he says, when those suspected of being Islamists were often jailed.

It is to this history of compulsory secularism under Ben Ali and his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, to which people worried about Islamist groups should look today, said Fabio Merone, who is researching Tunisian Salafism with the German Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Bourguiba, who led the country to independence from France in 1956 and ruled for 30 years, espoused a fervent secularism, criticised the headscarf, implemented the Personal Status Code governing the rights of women and families and frequently cracked down on Islamist opposition. After Ben Ali took power, antiterror legislation allowed the detention of many more who belonged to religious groups.

The extremist groups nonetheless took root, often in prisons, with leaders such as the militant known as Abu Ayyad Al Tunisi, who fought with jihadi groups in Afghanistan in the 1990s. He was in prison in Tunisia from 2003 until he was released along with hundreds of other Islamist prisoners after the uprising last year, and now leads the prominent Ansar Al Sharia group.

Mr Merone argues that most Tunisians are more conservative than their former leaders allowed them to be. "Tunisia is not this very secular country - the Salafism is not something coming from the moon," he said. Salafist groups are dangerous primarily because they are usually anti-democracy, he argued, rather than because of any serious violence or damage, and in this context the recent granting of legal political party status to the radical Jabhat Al Islah group could be positive, drawing Salafis into the political process.

"Their supporters," he said, "are sociologically the same people who made the revolution." Young people from poor neighbourhoods are "lost, confused, they don't have a cultural reference.

"Modernity hasn't got to these places … they have a psychological crisis and they are very attracted to the sheikhs who come out of prison, and of course they accept simple signs of religion." Although less visible and prone to aggression than men, many women also adopt the tenets. To marginalise such people further would be a mistake, he said.

Some Tunisians hope that the movement's fervour will fade with time. "People going to Salafism is like a reaction to the repression of Ben Ali. After a while it will degrade a little bit," said Abdelfattah Sellami, 50, on his way to Friday prayers. "We don't see this as dangerous, because it will all fade away, Tunisians are not really into politics or religion."

In the chaotic, post-autocratic country, said Ms Guellali, the Human Rights Watch researcher, the confrontation between the religious, the secular and the in-between could be positive. "Political Islam began in Egypt in the 1930s," she said. "What dictatorship was doing was delaying the moment of confrontation.

"It's not good for a society just to hide its worst aspects. The moment of confrontation is the moment of truth. You find out if the society is entrenched and then you can build on it - you can't build on false truths."