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

Turbulent Transition Imperils Tunisia’s Arab Spring Gains

Critics say new anti-terrorism laws worsen Tunisia's situation while others put faith in country’s vibrant civil organizations, women’s movement More

Burundi’s Political Crisis May Become Humanitarian One

United Nations aid agencies issue warning as deadly violence sends tens of thousands fleeing More

Yemenis Adjust to Life Under Houthi Rule

Locals want warring parties to strike deal to stop bloodletting before deciding how country is governed More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threati
X
Greg Flakus
May 29, 2015 11:24 PM
Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video Texas Town Residents Told to 'Just Leave' Ahead of Flood Threat

Water from heavy rain in eastern and central Texas is now swelling rivers that flow into the Gulf of Mexico, threatening towns along their banks. VOA’s Greg Flakus visited the town of Wharton, southwest of Houston, where the Colorado River is close to cresting.
Video

Video New York's One World Trade Center Observatory Opens to Public

From New Jersey to Long Island, from Northern suburbs to the Atlantic Ocean, with all of New York City in-between.  That view became available to the public Friday as the One World Trade Center Observatory opened in New York -- atop the replacement for the buildings destroyed in the September 11, 2001, attacks.  VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports.
Video

Video Seoul Sponsors Korean Unification Fair

With inter-Korean relations deteriorating over the North’s nuclear program, past military provocations and human rights abuses, many Koreans still hold out hope for eventual peaceful re-unification. VOA’s Brian Padden visited a “unification fair” held this week in Seoul, where border communities promoted the benefits of increased cooperation.
Video

Video Purple Door Coffeeshop: Changing Lives One Cup at a Time

For a quarter of his life, Kevin Persons lived on the street. Today, he is working behind the counter of an espresso bar, serving coffee and working to transition off the streets and into a home. Paul Vargas reports for VOA.
Video

Video Modular Robot Getting Closer to Reality

A robot being developed at Carnegie Mellon University has evolved into a multi-legged modular mechanical snake, able to move over rugged surfaces and explore the surroundings. Scientists say such machines could someday help in search and rescue operations. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Shanghai Hosts Big Consumer Electronics Show

Electronic gadgets are a huge success in China, judging by the first Asian Consumer Electronics Show, held this week in Shanghai. Over the course of two days, more than 20,000 visitors watched, tested and played with useful and some less-useful electronic devices exhibited by about 200 manufacturers. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Forced to Return Home, Afghan Refugees Face Increased Hardship

Undocumented refugees returning to Afghanistan from Pakistan have no jobs, no support system, and no home return to, and international aid agencies say they and the government are overwhelmed and under-resourced. Ayesha Tanzeem has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Britain Makes Controversial Move to Crack Down on Extremism

Britain is moving to tighten controls on extremist rhetoric, even when it does not incite violence or hatred -- a move that some are concerned might unduly restrict basic freedoms. It is an issue many countries are grappling with as extremist groups gain power in the Middle East, fueled in part by donations and fighters from the West. VOA’s Al Pessin reports from London.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Al-Shabab Recruitment Drive Still on In Kenya

The al-Shabab militants that have long battled for control of Somalia also have recruited thousands of young people in Kenya, leaving many families disconsolate. Mohammed Yusuf recently visited the Kenyan town of Isiolo, and met with relatives of those recruited, as well as a many who have helped with the recruiting.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.

VOA Blogs