In this guest post, my colleague Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle East Studies at CFR, writes about our discussion with Salafists in Tunisia during our visit there this week.
I am no stranger to Islam’s most dangerous, destructive strain of thought: Salafism, or Wahhabism. Yet encountering Tunisia’s Salafists left an indelible impression of fear and foreboding in me.
My colleague Isobel Coleman and I are in Tunisia on a research visit. In our meetings with secular liberals and democratic Islamists alike, a constant theme raised by our Tunisian friends was concern about the increasing appeal of hardline Salafism among some of the country’s youth. Arriving in the aftermath of a mob torching parts of the American embassy in Tunis, we had our own cause for interest in Salafists too.
When we asked Tunisian Islamists from the Ennahda party about whom we should meet from Salafist leaders, they told us Salafists are not an organized force in Tunisia. They have no leaders or institutions which we could contact. That kind of talk struck me as odd, not least because Salafists in Tunisia have organized public events of “martial arts,” attacks on hotels serving alcohol, and most worryingly, a march from downtown Tunis to the U.S. embassy, complete with Molotov cocktails and ladders to scale the walls. (Some actually traveled by bus.) This requires leadership, coordination, and planning.
With no address or phone number for Salafists, we headed to a major mosque in Tunis that a friend recommended as a popular meeting place for Salafists. It was time for the last prayer of the day, ‘Isha, and we did not encounter difficulties in spotting young Salafist men as they came out of the mosque with their long beards and short robes. We politely stopped one of them and asked about who was a leader or important cleric in Tunisia of the “da’wah salafiyyah,” or “Salafi call” – their preferred way of referring to themselves as callers to a Salafi or early form of Islam.
Our conversation was in Arabic, and therefore perhaps easier for them to be more expressive in familiar idioms of their honest thoughts.
Within moments there were several youth, and all repeatedly stressed that they did not have a political party, leader, or even an imam or cleric in Tunisia. The “real and true” clerics were in Saudi Arabia, and they emulated them. Names included the late Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Shaikh bin Baz, and the popular, but also deceased, Shaikh Uthaymeen.
No huge problem so far – many in Saudi Arabia look to these men for religious guidance. Socially regressive, yes, but not a security threat. But who from among the living Salafist clerics guided these men?
The problems began. Well, the fact that they refused to make eye contact with Isobel or address her directly, rather than talk through me, was already a problem of sexism and disrespect in my mind. But then it got worse.
To our Tunisian Salafists, Shaikh Salman (despite his 2 million followers on Twitter and millions of viewers of his television shows) was not a credible Muslim scholar. Why? Because he had recently endorsed Tunisia’s Ennahda and other Islamist political parties. “In Islam,” said one of our speakers, “there are no political parties. The Prophet did not create political parties. We are Muslims, and follow the first Muslims, the Salaf. It is haram (forbidden) to be members of political parties, and divide Muslims into rival parties.”
Shaikh Salman, therefore, was not worthy of their following. And then another Salafist from our crowd spoke out.
“Political parties are for democracy. Democracy is kufr (a violation of Islam). As Muslims, we cannot believe in democracy. It is not our sunnah (way), but a sunnah of the West. Salman al-Audah has left our way.”
“Democracy is rule of the people, for the people, by the people,” one said without perhaps knowing he was quoting Abraham Lincoln. “As Muslims, we believe in rule only by God.” He then quoted a verse of the Koran and wanted literal application of “God’s law” in Tunisia.
It was deeply distressing for me to listen to these young men, abusing newly-gained democratic freedoms to reject democracy, and aspiring to create God’s government where no political parties existed. Their political illiteracy, extremism, and ignorance were also saddening. But it still got worse.
We bid them farewell after they gave us names of Salafist scholars such as Madkhali and al-Albani as “real scholars” and denouncing Saudi Arabia’s reformist names.
All the while, another Salafist man was listening to this conversation from afar. He had kept his distance from the small gathering, but was listening intently. Not satisfied that we should leave with the conclusion of discussion with other Salafists, he stopped us.
“Are you Muslim?” He asked me.
“And the lady?”
“No,” I said.
“Does she like Islam and Muslims?”
I knew that there was only one safe answer to that question. To provide any other answer was to invite more intense proselytizing, attacks on other faiths, or worse.
“Yes,” I said. He smiled. “You should convert her. You’ll get rewarded in the next life.”
And then came the killer line.
“Our scholars are not in Saudi Arabia. The other guys were wrong in what they told you. We in Tunisia follow Shaikh al-Maqdisi in Jordan and Abu Qatadah al-Filistini.”
I repeated the names. He confirmed. Maqdisi and Qatadah, leading jihadist theoreticians and fatwa-providers for violence, languishing in prison in Jordan and England respectively under terrorism laws, were being praised openly in downtown Tunis.
Two years ago, nobody foresaw the presence of Salafists and jihadists in Tunisia torching the U.S. embassy, intimidating Tunisian hoteliers, or attacking cinemas. Today, they are allegedly disorganized, but they have a strident and growing presence in mosques, universities, and social media in Tunisia. Their social backwardness, black and white mindset, and claim of pure Islam in the midst of Tunisia’s political uncertainty will likely draw greater numbers in coming months. Tunisian political leaders are busy bickering over their constitution and whether to have a presidential or parliamentary democracy. Meanwhile, a whole strata of youth is heading toward radical Salafism, or jihadism. This needs urgent attention before it becomes too late.