Secular legacy of Bourguiba fuels Salafi anger in Tunisia
If one were to take a casual glance at some of the reporting about Tunisia of late, one would think that the country is on the verge of a takeover by radical Muslim fundamentalists.
The question of the future role - in politics and society - of Salafis (a catch-all term that ranges from violent jihadists to more scholarly forms of religiosity) appears to be dominant, despite the fact that the Salafis still have no formal role in politics other than as a protest movement and will not have direct influence on important matters such as the contents of the constitution currently being drafted.
Why, then, their oversized role in the country's public debate?
To understand the centrality of the Salafi question in Tunisian politics, one has to understand the Islamist - Salafi and non-Salafi - perception of the legacy of Habib Bourguiba, the ultra-secularist founder of modern Tunisia.
Since last summer, when they attacked the headquarters of a television station that had aired Marjane Satrapi's film about Iran, Persepolis - in which God makes a brief appearance as a character - Tunisia's Salafis have never left the headlines. They've continued to dominate them since the attack on the US embassy and American school in Tunis last September, which were part of the global wave of fundamentalist protests against a YouTube clip insulting Prophet Mohammed.
On Saturday, Mohammed Bakhti, a member of the Salafist movement detained in connection to the US embassy attack, died after a hunger strike waged in protest of his arrest.
Last month, many Tunisians were shocked by a leaked video showing Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the dominant Ennahda party who has built himself a reputation as an Islamist reformist, speaking to a group of young Salafis encouragingly and urging them to bide their time. The message he seemed to be giving - although he claims the clip was edited to falsely give this impression - is that the Islamist movement is at the cusp of a historic opportunity, and they will soon get their way.
The manner in which Salafi protests and, on occasion, criminal acts (like attacks on liquor stores and other forms of physical aggression) have been tackled has also raised suspicion: in many cases, the authorities have failed to enforce the law, showing suspicious tolerance and a reluctance to confront Salafis engaged in clearly illegal actions.
All this suggests that Ennahda, while maintaining a "moderate" public profile, is worried about securing the loyalty of an electoral base that includes many ultraconservatives, including Salafis.
Given this, why are the Salafis to visible, so active and so apparently angry? It is true that in other countries that have gone through an uprising, such as Egypt, Salafis have emerged as new political forces and occasionally tried to impose their fire-and-brimstone view of religion on others. But Egypt is already an overwhelmingly religious and conservative country, whereas Tunisia had a state-imposed tradition of vibrant secularism.
In conversations with Tunisian Islamists over the last two years, I came to understand their view of the history of their country. Their problem was not just with the former Ben Ali regime, but with the legacy of Bourguiba: not just the repression, torture and prohibition from political life, but a disdain for religion in public life.
For Bourguiba, this went beyond bans of veiled women on state television and other measures to curtail visible appearances of religiosity. It was also state intimidation of religious people, the domestication of traditional religious authorities, and sometimes gratuitous insults on religious sentiment. Bourguiba, for instance, was in the habit of appearing on state television during Ramadan drinking during daytime, and urged others to do the same.
The capital crime of the Bourguiba regime in the Islamists' eyes was to estrange people from their religion, drive them away from their traditions and usurp their identity for something borrowed from Europe.
Today, the Islamists' core grievance, in a sense, is about alienation: Bourguiba's secular experiment, they argue, induced a false consciousness by marginalising Islam's role in Tunisians' life. Their project is now in effect to restore the state of society to what they believe is its natural, authentic, embrace of Islam.
There are Islamists, such as many among Ennahda's leadership, who simply want more respect for religion by the state, and the freedom to introduce religious questions into political debate. The more radical, including the Salafis but also some of Ennahda's base, want to forcibly impose their view of the Islamically-correct life on their fellow citizens.
More than anywhere else in the Maghreb, Islamists in Tunisia face a political and social current that is intent on standing up to them on its own terms. Politically, the latest manifestation of this is Nida Tounes, the new party led by Beji Caid Essebsi, the former prime minister credited for getting Tunisia through its rocky transition in 2011.
Mr Essebsi is a Bourguibist, and is surrounded by personalities who believe in unambiguous secularism. This new party, denounced by Islamists and others as a resurrection of the old regime, could very well eclipse the more centrist secular parties currently sharing power with Ennahda and which were more critical of Bourguiba's legacy, notably his authoritarianism.
To have unrepentant Bourguibists and hard-line Islamists dominate political discourse in the new Tunisia would be a great loss. Luckily, the country is not there yet, despite the media hysteria inside and outside the country. The Ennahda-led government needs to be held to account for its lenience in criminal cases involving Salafis, and the negative legacy of Bourguiba deserves greater scrutiny.
Tunisia's religious conservatives have serious grievances - but this should not give them licence to become bullies or flout the law.
Issandr El Amrani is an independent journalist based in Cairo who blogs at www.arabist.net
On Twitter: @arabist
Updated: November 19, 2012 04:00 AM