Alaya Allani, a historian and researcher on Islamism in the Maghreb at Manouba University in Tunis, sheds light on the Islamist equation in Tunisia, in an interview given to the Algerian daily El-Watan on August 31, 2012. It has been translated from the French by the Maghreb Center and published with permission.
Artwork has been destroyed, artists assaulted, attacks committed against cultural festivals, and other similar actions, and, yet, up to recently, neither the Ennahda party nor the Islamist-led government in Tunisia has unaffectedly condemned the increase in violence by Salafists. The same perennial question can be raised: Do religious radicalism and democracy mix?
Q: Clashes involving radical Islamists in Tunisia seemed anecdotal. Recently, however, there has been an increase in acts of violence against civil society. Could this escalate further?
A: Since the January 2011 revolution in Tunisia, the Islamist Ennahda party has always affirmed the compatibility of Islam with democracy. During the campaign for the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) election of October 23, 2011, Ennahda presented a program that differed little or nothing from the one of secular parties (no mentioning of Sharia law, full support for the Code of Personal Status, etc.). But, after the elections, which gave Ennahda 41.9 percent of the vote, it started developing another discourse, expressing the will to Islamize legislation, and requested that Sharia be considered its source in the new Constitution. But, faced with resolute opposition from large segments of society, this demand was dropped. On the other hand, Ennahda sought to criminalize offending religious values, and unexpectedly moved closer to the Salafists, under the pretext of integrating them into the political landscape of the country, considering that they would eventually make the transition to peaceful politics. Tunisian authorities under the control of Ennahda have already legalized three Salafi parties (Hizb Al Islah, Hizb Al Aman, and Hizb Arrahma), as well as a more radical Islamist party, Hizb Attahrir, which continues to state that it is against democracy and the republican system as such. The strategy to neutralize Salafists adopted by Ennahda didn’t put an end to their attacks against Tunisian citizens, cultural events, bars, restaurants, government buildings, and so on.
Q: They began by assaulting artists and cultural events, and the government didn’t seem to worry. Appeasing statements by the Ennahda party and government officials didn’t stop the violence.
A: The attacks by Salafists against artists and cultural festivals sparked a reaction of indignation on the part of the Tunisian elite, but also various segments of the public at large. The government, which feels embarrassed by these attacks, reacts timidly, through statements denouncing these acts. Sometimes, Salafists are arrested but are released after only a few days. The non-Islamist Tunisian political class takes a dim view of recent statements by Rached Ghannouchi, the head of the Ennahda party, and Hamadi Jebali, the prime minister, which are very lenient towards the Salafists, with their call for continued dialogue with these groups and for their integration into the country’s political landscape, to avoid pushing them to resort to clandestine activities. In fact, nobody refuses dialogue with the Salafists, but what is unacceptable is their recourse to violence, which endangers the country’s social stability.
The government does not take the necessary measures to prevent a worsening of the situation. A statement by the Interior Ministry revealed that it did not foresee the consequences of the Bizerte Festival incidents. After Islamists disrupted a performance there, the audience responded in kind to Salafists’ violence. The Ennahda party prefers to maintain a certain ambiguity in terms of its relations with its allies, whether the Salafists or the secular parties of the troika [the government coalition], because it is redrawing the map of alliances in preparation for the presidential elections of 2013. Ennahda is preparing for a difficult face-to-face with the secular centrist coalition led by former Prime Minister Beji Caid Essebsi, called Nida Tounes (Call of Tunisia). This is why the Islamists are trying to gather around them as many political movements and parties as possible. Moreover, Ennahda leadership was quite embarrassed when President Marzouki compared the Islamist party policies to those of the RCD [Ben Ali’s former ruling party], on August 25 at the opening of the second national convention of his party, the Congress for the Republic (CPR). Marzouki denounced the hegemonic behavior of the ruling Islamist party, seeking to monopolize power by appointing its supporters to key government positions. This, incidentally, seems to be the strategy adopted by most Islamist parties in the Arab world.
Q:The media talk about three distinmct Islamist groups in Tunisia: the ultraconservatives, the conservatives and the progressives. Can you identify them, and tell us what brings them together and what differentiates them?
A: There are no progressives among the attackers. They are all conservatives who belong either to the Salafi reformist trend (Salafiyya Ilmyya) led by Bashir Belhassan, or the Salafi jihadist movement of Seifallah Ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyadh. There are also among the attackers some fake Salafis. These are individuals working closely with RCD officials, the now-dissolved former ruling party of Ben Ali.
Q: Ennahda sways between two positions. Why does Ennahda remain ambiguous, and doesn’t state clearly what its actual convictions are?
A: Ennahda cannot decide on the Salafist question. It favors an ambiguous discourse that oscillates between political liberalism and religious conservatism. Ennahda dares not openly express its own convictions because Salafi thought largely inspires the theoretical underpinnings of this party. Moreover, its relations with some Gulf countries, from which it gets support in various forms, contribute to consolidating its conservative tendencies. In fact, the Salafists are Ennahda’s allies, in spite of some rivalries.
Q: Tunisians have long fought for their democratic rights, how do they respond to the rise of Islamism?
A: Tunisians have been committed for a long time to their social gains (women’s rights, modernity, co-education, etc.). That is to say a model of a society that is liberal, open, and tolerant. I do not think that Tunisians will give up easily on all these achievements. Tunisian civil society is vigilant, and capable of defending what it thinks of as the achievements of modernity.
Q: Do you think that in the long run literalist Wahhabism, which opposes any kind of free and independent thinking, will gain ground in the Maghreb?
A: Wahhabism has no future in the new Tunisia as well as in other Maghreb countries, despite recent attempts by some Saudi preachers to spread the Wahhabi doctrine in Tunisia. Indeed, this was done recently through training courses targeting young people with very limited education. Abdelfattah Mourou, a founder of Ennahda, said that they also receive a premium from the organizers during the training period. Analysts have denounced the passivity of Ennahda and the government in the face of such initiatives.
We should be reminded that Algeria has also suffered considerably from the impact of Wahhabi propaganda in the early 1990s; and Libya is still recovering from the demolition on August 25 of the sixteenth century mausoleum dedicated to saint Al Asmar Abdessalem of Tripoli, by Wahhabbi-inspired radical Islamists.
Q: Can we say, ultimately, that democracy in our countries is incompatible with the dogmas of the Islamists?
A: It is a bit early to declare that Islamism is incompatible with democracy. However, a preliminary assessment of Islamism in power, despite the short duration, is not at all positive: the Islamists’ double discourse persists, and their hostility towards artists, intellectuals, and others continues. I think the liberal wing of Ennahda, which represents 40 percent of its base according to the latest statistics from the party’s 9th Congress in mid-July 2012, is unable to control the party. This is the case since Rached Ghannouchi continues to enjoy full powers under the party’s current Rules of Procedure. In fact, during the 9th Congress, liberal wing motions were rejected, such as those in favor of the election of the party leader by a National Council (majliss Shura) and not by the Congress, and the election of the Executive Board instead of its appointment by the head of the movement, and the separation between the political and religious activities of the party.
Q: For some, the Islamists are, in some ways, an invention designed to divert the attention of the people from real issues related to the establishment of a genuine democracy, as evidenced by the experience of Algeria.
A: This is a thesis shared by some analysts who believe that Ennahda’s strategy is to divert attention from the real socioeconomic problems existing in Tunisia. But there are also others who believe that the Islamists give much importance to the continuity of their alliance with secular parties.
Q: On regional issues, what is happening in northern Mali? It seems that the Sahel region is becoming an ideal setting for Al Qaeda, Ansar Eddine and Mujao. What do they want, what to expect?
A: Malian Islamists belong in their majority to the pro-Wahhabi jihadist Salafist movement. Their influence in the north of the country is due to the absence of a central authority to enforce law and order. The demolition of holy shrines in Timbuktu, and the prohibition of western songs and music played on the local radio have only fueled the anger of most of the Malian people. But I do not think that a military intervention by NATO or other neighboring countries could put an end to the activities of this jihadist movement. Only the Malian people and its elites can reduce its influence.
Q: Al Qaeda, Ansar Eddine, Mujao, Boko Haram … Do you think the “democratization” of Islamic groups on the continent requires a foreign intervention?
A: The democratization of some Islamist groups in the region may indeed require a foreign intervention. It may be true for some countries, but for Tunisia, I think that the rationalization of the Islamist phenomenon is more likely to be realized if Ennahda renounces its alliance with the Salafists, and if its members stop exploiting religion for political purposes. This is a difficult challenge, but it is possible to meet. In that regard, the Turkish model rejected by Islamist movements in the Arab world still seduces the liberal wing of the Ennahda party.
* Professor of Contemporary History at the Faculty of Letters, Arts and Humanities at Manouba Univerity in Tunis, Tunisia. Dr. Allani specializes in Islamist movements in the countries of the Maghreb, and is the author of several books and articles on political Islam in the Arab world, focusing on Tunisia and the Maghreb.