Losing Tunisia to Salafis

The Mediterranean state is traditionally tolerant and stable. That might be changing.

With a scribble of black ink on bare skin, 19-year-old feminist known only as “Amina” threw a match into Tunisia’s powder keg. Scrawling “My body is my own and not the source of anyone’s honor” and “F**k your morals” across her chest, the young activist sparked a firestorm of support and condemnation—with feminists worldwide calling for a “Topless Jihad Day,” and local Islamists calling for just plain jihad.

As Tunisia’s interior minister prepares to establish what he dubbed “crisis cells” to combat “the rise of the radical Salafist movement”—threats against Amina’s life and calls by Al Qaeda-linked groups to fight the government suggest counter-jihadist measures are a day late and a dinar short.

The death threats against Amina are not the first, nor likely the last, with perceived heretics in Tunisia increasingly targeted in violent assaults. Two months ago, opposition leader Chokri Belaid was gunned down days after giving a passionate appeal over this threat, when he suggested that the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party gave a “green light” to jihadist violence.

Political violence has slowly flourished in this poster child of the Arab Spring, threatening to upturn a fragile Islamist-secularist balance in a country long known for religious tolerance.

Salafist extremists are largely implicated in this violence, with several organizations emerging in this post-revolutionary state, leading to (perhaps sensationalist) fears of a nascent Taliban-like society.

First, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) became a household name after a deadly 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. Created two years ago by Abu Iyyadh al-Tunisi, the group’s ties to militancy remain hazy, with rumors of AST’s hand in suspected jihadist violence. In December 2012, National Guard forces dismantled a cell billed “The Militia of Uqba Ibn Nafaa in Tunisia,” which actively supported AST. Most recently, Abu Iyyadh threatened the government, calling upon Ennahda to purge its leadership, “or we will direct our war against them until their downfall and their meeting with the dustbin of history.” Despite reportedly subscribing to al-Qaeda’s worldviews, sources describe AST as mainly a preaching group, focusing on recruitment and charitable work, donning trademark orange vests emblazoned with the AST brand.

Second in fame but equal in alleged violence falls the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR). Suspected of involvement in Belaid’s assassination, the league has not shied from violence. On October 18, 2012, an opposition Nidaa Tounes Party coordinator in Tataouine, Lotfi Naguedh, died of a heart attack after being beaten during clashes with LPR members, who threw Molotov cocktails and rocks at Naguedh’s office. LPR has reportedly targeted not only politicians, but also journalists, unions, and NGOs, pledging in a statement days before Naguedh’s death that “we will make the [revolution’s enemies] regret the day that they did not take their own lives.”

On a smaller but no less threatening scale are Tunisia’s morality police, a mainstay in Saudi Arabia. Previously known as the infamous “Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice,” the organization’s rebilling as the benign “Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform” has scarcely tempered extremist rhetoric regarding Sharia Law. The Interior Ministry approved the group, headed by Adel Almi, in 2012. Recently, Almi publicly called for the infamous topless feminist Amina to be whipped one hundred times, later deciding that stoning would be more appropriate.

Still, the majority of reports on religious extremists fall under the vague banner of “Salafi jihadism,” with suspects merely described as Salafists rather than as members of particular groups. Salafist extremists are suspected of attacks on Sufi and religious-minority shrines, perceived heretical establishments and security-forces headquarters, while daily reports surface of discoveries of weapons caches in “Salafist strongholds,” neighborhoods known for dominant extremist presence.

Tunisia’s secular opposition has grown wise to this government attempt to paint security threats with a wide Salafist brush. The arrest of an alleged Salafist jihadist in Belaid’s murder investigation was criticized rather than heralded by Belaid’s Popular Front bloc, which had called upon the Ennahda-led government to curb vigilantism. Their criticism, and widespread doubt over the arrests, suggests that the public is catching on to attempts to create a Salafist scapegoat.

The Ennahda-led administration is thus able to distract attention from its alleged connections to such groups, as well as its inability, or unwillingness, to dismantle rogue organizations. LPR’s members are suspected of ties with Ennahda, which is accused of turning a blind eye to their alleged attacks. Meanwhile, AST’s spokesperson revealed that the party requested that the group act as “custodian of public and private property” during Belaid’s funeral. The Interior Ministry’s approval of Almi’s morality police places a final nail in the coffin, granting a de facto mandate on efforts to Islamize Tunisian society.

At first glance, the newly-approved Tunisian cabinet appears to be on the right track toward confronting violent jihadism, with the establishment of the aforementioned crisis cells. However, opposition groups and so-called blasphemous establishments continue to be threatened, recently in mid-March when a Sidi Bouzid theater was attacked by—you guessed it—Salafists.

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