News / Middle East

Tunisia Moves to Rein in Islamic Hardliners

The radical Ansar al-Sharia group threatens to defy Tunisian government efforts to control its activities. Its spokesman, Saif Eddine Errais, speaks at a rally May 16, 2013.
The radical Ansar al-Sharia group threatens to defy Tunisian government efforts to control its activities. Its spokesman, Saif Eddine Errais, speaks at a rally May 16, 2013.
Ultraconservative Muslim leaders in Tunisia are warning the more moderate Islamist government they will resist any new efforts to rein them in and will defy a measure requiring organizers to get government permission for gatherings and protests.
 
The warnings come as Tunisia's government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party, is working with neighboring Algeria to hunt down militants linked to al-Qaida in the Mount Chambi border region in the west of the country. Government security forces recently uncovered nearly two dozen caches of weapons and explosives in the area.

The government’s harder line on ultraconservative Muslim groups was evident a week ago when police arrested members of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, a fundamentalist Salafi group, who were delivering public lectures or distributing literature on the streets.  Those arrests prompted rock-throwing protests.

Salafi leaders say the government is risking a jihad if the crackdown continues.

“You are making a foolish mistake because faith cannot be defeated by any force in the world,” Seifallah Ben Hassine, leader of Ansar al-Sharia, warned in an online statement. "I remind you that our youth that proved its heroism in the defense of Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and Syria will not hesitate to make sacrifices for the faith."

Risking jihad?

In 2000, Hassine, who uses the name Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi, co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group and fought in Afghanistan. He has been in hiding since his group was implicated in an attack last September on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and an assault on a nearby American school.

This weekend, Ansar al-Sharia is to hold its annual conference, which attracted more than 40,000 adherents last year. It was unclear if the government would grant formal permission for the conference, and there were conflicting signals from government whether the conference scheduled for May 19 in Kairouan would be banned.

“We haven’t decided yet regarding the meeting of Ansar al-Sharia,” said Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddour.

The group’s spokesman, Seifeddine Rais, said in a radio interview that regardless of what the government decides, the annual conference would go ahead. "We will not march backwards," he said.

“If it is banned, one cannot predict the reaction of the participants who are already frustrated with the way things have been going,” Rais said. “If it is banned, what revolution and what freedom are you talking about? … Preaching to God does not require an authorization from the government everywhere in the world.”

Pro-government supporters rally beside Salafist groups in Tunis April 9, 2013 to mark Martyr's Day.Pro-government supporters rally beside Salafist groups in Tunis April 9, 2013 to mark Martyr's Day.
x
Pro-government supporters rally beside Salafist groups in Tunis April 9, 2013 to mark Martyr's Day.
Pro-government supporters rally beside Salafist groups in Tunis April 9, 2013 to mark Martyr's Day.
That prompted the Interior Ministry spokesman, Mohammed Ali Aroui, to warn that, "We will confront with the law, or if necessary by force, all people who attack the security forces or the institutions of the state."

Ultraconservative Muslim groups have risen to prominence in Tunisia since the Arab spring overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali's secular government. In the past, alarmed secular parties and activists have accused the Islamist Ennahda Party of being in league with Salafi groups and of fanning religious flames.  Secular critics also claimed that the goal of the Salafists and Ennahda was the same – an Islamic state – and only their tactics and timing differed.

Ruling party anxious since assassination

But Ennahda leaders have become anxious about fundamentalist groups since the February assassination of popular leftwing politician, Chokri Belaid. Police say Muslim militants were behind the assassination, which triggered the biggest street protests in Tunisia since 2011.

Ansar al-Sharia is one of the most powerful of the Salafi fundamentalist groups in Tunisia. The government now accuses some members of the group of having links with al-Qaida in the Maghreb.  

In Tunisia, Ansar al-Sharia has modeled itself on the Palestinian Hamas movement, devoting itself in part to social welfare initiatives and Islamic education. Some security experts caution that the crackdown on the group should be focused more on the vigilantism of Ansar supporters and other Salafists seeking to enforce Islamic dress codes or targeting art exhibitions and restaurants that serve alcohol.

A confrontation with the government over protests and gatherings could trigger renewed trouble, regional experts fear.

They worry the government’s actions might radicalize Salafists or push them into reacting more violently.

Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy argues that the crackdown could force Hassine to call for greater defiance so his authority would not be questioned by even more hardline Ansar members.

“This is why his recent statement about youths rising up to defend Islam is so alarming -- it shows that the tipping point may be near,” Zelin said.

You May Like

French Refugee Drama Wins Cannes Top Prize

Dheepan is about a group of Sri Lankan refugees who pretend to be a family in order to flee their war-torn country for a housing project in France More

Photogallery Crisis in Macedonia Requires Meaningful and Swift Measures

The international community has called on Macedonian leadership to take concrete measures in support of democracy in order to exit the crisis More

Activists: IS Executes 217 Civilians, Soldiers Near Palmyra

British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights on Sunday said the victims include nurses, women, children and Syrian government fighters More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthroughi
X
May 22, 2015 10:23 AM
Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Turkey's Main Opposition Party Hopes for Election Breakthrough

Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party has sought an image change ahead of the June 7 general election. The move comes after suffering successive defeats at the hands of the Islamist-rooted AK Party, which has portrayed it as hostile to religion. Dorian Jones reports from the western city of Izmir.
Video

Video Europe Follows US Lead in Tackling ‘Conflict Minerals’

Metals mined from conflict zones in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo are often sold by warlords to buy weapons. This week European lawmakers voted to force manufacturers to prove that their supply chains are not inadvertently fueling conflicts and human rights abuses. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Class Tackles Questions of Race, Discrimination

Unrest in some U.S. cities is more than just a trending news item at Ladue Middle School in St. Louis, Missouri. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, it’s a focus of a multicultural studies class engaging students in wide-ranging discussions about racial tensions and police aggression.
Video

Video Mind-Controlled Prosthetics Are Getting Closer

Scientists and engineers are making substantial advances towards the ultimate goal in prosthetics – creation of limbs that can be controlled by the wearer’s mind. Thanks to sophisticated sensors capable of picking up the brain’s signals, an amputee in Iceland is literally bringing us one step closer to that goal. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Afghan Economy Sinks As Foreign Troops Depart

As international troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, and many foreign aid groups follow, Afghans are grappling with how the exodus will affect the country's fragile economy. Ayesha Tanzeem reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul.
Video

Video Poverty, Ignorance Force Underage Girls Into Marriage

The recent marriage of a 17-year old Chechen girl to a local police chief who was 30 years older and already had a wife caused an outcry in Russia and beyond. The bride was reportedly forced to marry and her parents were intimidated into giving their consent. The union spotlighted yet again the plight of many underage girls in developing countries. Zlatica Hoke reports poverty, ignorance and fear are behind the practice, especially in Asia and Africa.
Video

Video South Korea Marks Gwangju Uprising Anniversary

South Korea this week marked the 35th anniversary of a protest that turned deadly. The Gwangju Uprising is credited with starting the country’s democratic revolution after it was violently quelled by South Korea’s former military rulers. But as Jason Strother reports, some observers worry that democracy has recently been eroded.
Video

Video California’s Water System Not Created To Handle Current Drought

The drought in California is moving into its fourth year. While the state's governor is mandating a reduction in urban water use, most of the water used in California is for agriculture. But both city dwellers and farmers are feeling the impact of the drought. Some experts say the state’s water system was not created to handle long periods of drought. Elizabeth Lee reports from Ventura County, an agricultural region just northwest of Los Angeles.
Video

Video How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction

An international team of scientists has sequenced the complete genome of the woolly mammoth. Led by the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, the work opens the door to recreate the huge herbivore, which last roamed the Earth 4,000 years ago. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble considers the science of de-extinction and its place on the planet
Video

Video Blind Boy Defines His Life with Music

Cole Moran was born blind. He also has cognitive delays and other birth defects. He has to learn everything by ear. Nevertheless, the 12-year-old has had an insatiable love for music since he was born. VOA’s June Soh introduces us to the young phenomenal harmonica player.

VOA Blogs