Tunisian Muslim Leader Warns of Dangers of Violent Fundamentalism

As the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior announced that no demonstrations would be permitted on Friday, the Muslim leader Rached Ghanoushi warned of the dangers of violent fundamentalism. The Tunisian government invoked emergency powers on learning of plans for violent disruptions on Friday, in response to anti-Islam caricatures published in the French magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Ghanoushi, the leader of the ruling al-Nahda Party and a long-time proponent of political Islam in Tunisia, has come out strongly against the small but violent “Salafi Jihadi” movement in an interview with Agence France Presse. He said that these violent extremists posed a threat both to his own al-Nahda Party and also to general liberties in the country, and said that such disruptive groups need to be dealt with decisively.


The Salafis, or hard line ultra-fundamentalists, in Tunisia, unlike those in Egypt, did not gain seats in parliament, and they are mainly known for a series of small but provocative public acts of violence and disruption, including throwing stones outside movie theaters, rioting outside art exhibits, harassing unveiled women, attacking tourist hotels for selling alcohol, and, last Saturday, attacking the American school and setting a fire on the grounds of the US Embassy in Tunis. The hard core of activists sometimes gets support in a few working class districts of the capital and some small rural towns, but it is far out of the mainstream of the country.

Many Tunisians are secularists, and there is a strong tradition of moderate Sunni Muslim reformism. Ghanouchi himself told me in an interview in May that his al-Nahda had unreservedly embraced democracy and the principle of popular sovereignty.

Other Tunisians when I was there viewed al-Nahda with suspicion and felt as though it was using the Salafis or at least not interfering with them, as a way of shifting the country toward the religious Right. Educated women often expressed fear of the Salafis taking away their rights.

The al-Nahda government is being criticized for not having arrested Salafi extremist Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, known as Abu Iyadh.

Ghanoushi has in the past condemned actions of the Salafis but at the same time complained of ‘provocations’ by secularists. In this interview, he appears to have made no excuses for them and to have condemned them roundly (though the Arabic version of the AFP interview condemns ‘Salafi Jihadis,’ not all Salafis).

I take it he has begun to worry, as I suggested last weekend, that al-Nahda itself may become associated in the public mind with the extremism and violence of the Salafis, and so could suffer in the parliamentary elections now scheduled for late spring, 2013. The proponents of political Islam in both Tunisia and Egypt face the problem that if they crack down on the extremist Salafis, they look like lackeys of imperialism defending attacks on the Prophet Muhammad. They could thus injure their standing with their own base. On the other hand, if they don’t dissociate themselves from and prove the can curb the disruptions of the Salafis, they could lose the general public in a future election.

Secular-minded Tunisians will be watching al-Nahda carefully to see if it follows through on its commitment to public order and to curbing the Salafi Jihadis.

The US State Department took revenge on the al-Nahda government for its failure to prevent Saturday’s attack on the American embassy by issuing a travel warning for Tunisia, discouraging Americans from going there. This step was a blow to Tunisian tourism and prospects of attracting foreign investment. Ghanoushi told me that the al-Nahda government had good relations with the US and was pleased with the support in Washington for Tunisian democracy. He couldn’t say so publicly, but some of his forthrightness in his AFP interview may have been an attempt to reassure Western powers about the new Tunisia.

20 Responses

  1. It is inevitable that one day the time will come for these new Arab democracies to start passing some serious legislation in order to stabilise their countries. Of course they are worried that a ‘crack down’ on extremism – be it Islamic or otherwise – may damage their reputation but then again, such worries are intrinsic to a democratic system.

    To allow these waves of anger, violence and extremism to continually disrupt Tunisian society is counter-productive and genuinely damaging to international perceptions of the stability of the state. This has negative flow on effects for the economy with tourism, FDI and foreign aid being the immediate issues which will be quickly followed by general economic stagnation.

    After all wasn’t this revolution mainly inspired by a desire for real and honest economic development?

    • “they are worried that a ‘crack down’ on extremism – be it Islamic or otherwise – may damage their reputation but then again, such worries are intrinsic to a democratic system.”

      That statement reminds me of Mitt Romney trying to please the Tea Party. Can’t crack down on gun violence or Christian extremists–>The problems that make us less than what we could be.

  2. “The US State Department took revenge on the al-Nahda government for its failure to prevent Saturday’s attack on the American embassy by issuing a travel warning for Tunisia, discouraging Americans from going there.”

    The US State Department did not “take revenge” on the al-Nahda government by issuing a travel warning. The State Department has an obligation to warn US citizens of potential danger if the situation warrants such a warning, which the attack on the American School and Embassy surely did.

    • Speaking of how the State Department disinterestedly takes on the task of warning US citizens about potential danger, with the conditional clause “if the situation warrants such a warning” which certainly leaves a discretionary hole as big as all outdoors for “policy-driven” trucks to drive through

      Here’s a kind of fun take on “travel warnings” from, of all places, Ha’aretz: “Visit Israel at your own risk, warn many Western countries” link to haaretz.com

      Can anyone remember a time when the State Department maybe did not quite feel, or meet, an “obligation” to issue one of them “travel warnings?”

      Here’s an interesting tidbit comment from an article in the Express Tribune today:

      Well, it is not just the U.S. but the entire world which is warning its citizens not to go to Pakistan. How does that translate for Pakistan? Zero tourism, zero investors, zero business visits, etc. But certainly still more jihadi tourists from other countries, who want to come to protest in Pakistan because they are “incensed” by the insults in the world’s free press which finds itself tickled because Pakistanis are “sooooooo touchy” about their religion (although they themselves do all the things in contravention of the principles of that religion). Talking to a World Bank economist three days back in London, we were told as visiting economists that Pakistan is on the verge of total isolation globally (businesses are avoiding Pakistan because they see everything dark and gloomy, and do not want to throw their money into the fire pit). What happens to the economy of a country with a population of roughly 190 million? No wealth-creating economic activities, no productivity, no growth. It also means more dependence on alms from the rich donor countries who are simply fed up with the deviousness and manipulations of Pakistanis. I feel sorry for the Pakistani businesspeople who have to sit on their goods and services, waiting for customers to order by phone and other means (forget their coming to Pakistan). Some of these businesspeople, who attend international trade shows, find it extremely difficult to even get visas to attend trade shows in Europe and the USA because of Pakistan’s “reputation”. No man — or country — is an island. And this is all the more pronounced as globalization takes steam.

      No, I did not write that — credit to one indira fernandes.

      And of course our rulers’ policies are, huh, maybe by design? doing a great job of spreading enthusiasm for the “Jihadi” brand among people who are repressed, oppressed, suppressed and just plain pressed by a Made-In-USA kind of Coca-Colonialism and securiderivatizorentierfinancialism that if you believe the Libertarians, is not even properly called “capitalism.” But is on the way to owning everything it does not simply spoil…

      • Your quote from the article in the Express Tribune provides further evidence (if any were needed) of just how much the militants’ activities in Pakistan are hurting the Pakistani economy by driving away foreign investment, business, and travel. It illustrates the necessity for the Pakistani government to rein in the militants, if Pakistan expects to be engaged as a normal player in the international system.

    • You are almost certainly right, Bill.

      But still, I’m sure they’re not shedding any tears over the possibility that the advisory could be interpreted that way – any more than Barack Obama thinks his statement about the Egyptian alliance was a gaffe.

    • Except that it didn’t. You wouldn’t have said such a travel advisory would have been justified if issued by Israel in response to a white supremacist shooting up a Jewish school in California, as happened a few years ago.

      • “Except that it didn’t.”

        Except that it most assuredly did. Big difference between one white supremacist shooting up a Jewish school in California (despicable act that it was) and mobs attacking US Embassies and other facilities, including schools, throughout the Near East and North Africa, including Tunisia. Particularly when the host government is unable or unwilling to fulfill its responsibility to protect them.

  3. The advent of Islamic Democratic Parliamentary parties in the countries of the Arab spring has the potential to forever change the face of political Islam as well as the perceived image of Islam as being incompatible with democracy in general and parliamentary democracy in particular

    link to tripolipost.com

      • Hmmmm, BHA and RBTL: And if our leaders are going to continue to have some Enemies to flap about, to scare the rest of us into supporting or at least moping along with a Forever War, well, like Forever, they had better get busy doing everything in their waning power in the way of making sure, by hook or by crook, that the Islamic Democratic Parliamentary parties are nobbled and hamstrung as quickly and completely as possible. I mean, they been doing it since those early successes in places like Italy and Souoth Korea and Notagainistan and Iran(oops).

        I mean, if what appear to be the actual “national interests” they represent, and bust their (and mostly our) humps to “Forward,” are to be kept consistent with what they actually “Believe In [regarding] America…” and want the rest of us putzes to just go along with and pay for the Grand Interoperable Networked Hegemonic Battlespace and all its plug-ins, they need to keep the Great Game Board from being reprinted with a different face, and keep the pieces in play from any change in their values and potentials. To ensure that the plutokleptoligocrats continue to have nice comfortable retirements, in the best of places and circumstances.

        And, of course, to be sure that no ugly aspects of parliamentary democracy ever dare raise their wishful dangerous little heads above the trench tops or paddy dikes, here in the land of “Freedom tm c pat.pend.”

        • I mean, they been doing it since those early successes in places like Italy and Souoth Korea and Notagainistan and Iran(oops).

          …right up until they stopped doing so in 2011, and allowed Hosni Mubarak to be deposed.

          There is absolutely no way the U.S. government would have ever allowed that to happen during the Cold War. Something dramatic changed in American foreign policy in 2011. It’s time to come out of the Cold War mindset.

        • So, Joe, in your estimation, the US, as of 2011, stopped the CIA in its underground tracks, in your tellingly active-voice phrase “allowed Mubarak to be deposed,” and also stopped whatever other “agency” activity has been ongoing and according to a lot of observers of places like Central America and now Africa and as the “pivot” to Asia moves ahead, there too, is still ongoing? We’ve removed all the station chiefs from Managua and San Jose and all those other capitals where “US interests” are supposedly in play, and all their staffs, acknowledged and not? We’ve stopped employing Jackals, stopped sending “what look a lot like Marine Forward Bases,” according to the Marine Corps’ head on some news program on FOX recently, “but that is not what we are calling them,” to places like Costa Rica and South Africa? Nobody planning to paralyze any “hostile country,” like say maybe Iran, try to force “regime change” via cyberwar or eventually weapons from space? All of a sudden “We” have ended “our” friendship with the Sauds? And determined to let Israelis determine their own fate without involvement of US arms and wealth and power?

          Seems to me that what happened and apparently is happening now in Tunisia and Egypt and Libya (yes, “We” did some apparently useful shooting there, exceptions often prove the rule) has little to nothing to do with any sea change in US “policy” toward Friendly Despots.

          Gaddaffyduk had poked Uncle Sam and John Bull in the eye too many times, and was too crazy and greedy even for his own people. Mubarak was an old man who had worn out the last vestiges of his legitimacy, and even our sneaky petes know when to stop backing a loser, fade out for a bit, and quitely keep nudging things in whatever direction they are motivated to do. I bet they are still pretty close to the “back in their barracks” military, that still owns a huge chunk of the economy and all the big guns and a bunch of political clout. And are the kind of people that our “people” prefer to deal with, since way back when. More “reliable” than a bunch of changeable, squishy democrats…

          On the other hand, I dearly hope you are right about all this and I am totally wrong. Don’t think so. Doesn’t matter what we think, of course. Events will eventuate.

    • Absolutely.

      I don’t like religious conservatives, in this country or elsewhere. I think it’s a dangerous way of approaching politics.

      But as Lyndon Johnson said about J. Edgar Hoover: “It’s probably better to have him inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in.”

      Welcome to electoral democracy, political Islam.

  4. The al-Nahda government is being criticized for not having arrested Salafi extremist Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, known as Abu Iyadh

    If the U.S. government doesn’t ban the showing of a movie, people think that means we support it.

    If the Tunisian government doesn’t arrest a Salafi extremist, people think that means they sympathize with him.

    You know what liberals need? Missionaries.

  5. The entire concept of Islamic extremism flourishing in Tunisia is antithetical to historical precedent in that nation since Habib Bourguiba ruled there as head of state.

    Tunisia under Bourguiba was noted international for its Western-style reforms, including emanipation of women, education for youth and a democratic form of government.

    It was Bourguiba’s successor who was the first Arab leader who was a casualty of the Arab Spring movement.

  6. while condemning the violence of radical salafi, they might also want to demand that the west and the petro-monarchies stop supporting these radical salafis…….

    • That’s funny – I thought the west supported the radical salafis’ targets, like Mubarak.

      To the American observer, it is alternately amusing and irritating the way all of the different factions in the Middle East accuse their opponents of secretly being CIA pawns.

      You Salafis are just being used by the CIA! No, we’re not! You liberals are the cat’s paws! No, actually, you both are; we moderate Islamists are the only ones who aren’t secret agents of Washington. And on and on and on…

    • “…they might also want to demand that the west and the petro-monarchies stop supporting these radical salafis…….”

      The West is supporting radical Salafis??? Please provide some evidence that the West supports radical Salafis, and advise, in your opinion, what the West has to gain by supporting the radical Salafis.

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