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

Jihadist Assassin says Goal of Tunisia Murders Was Chaos

Abu Muqatil at-Tunusi’s remarks in a propaganda interview also cast light on attack on Bardo Museum More

Russia Denies License to Tatar-Language TV Station in Crimea

OSCE official says denial shows 'politically selective censorship of free and independent voices in Crimea is continuing' More

Kenyan Startups Tackle Expensive Remittances Through Bitcoin

Some think services could give Western Union a run for its money, though others say it’s still got a long way to go More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leadersi
X
Aru Pande
April 01, 2015 9:09 PM
The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video For Obama, It's More Business Than Friendships With World Leaders

The rift between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put a spotlight on the importance of the American leader’s personal relationships with other world leaders and what role such friendships play in foreign policy. VOA's Aru Pande reports.
Video

Video Buhari: Nigeria Has ‘Embraced Democracy’

Nigeria woke up to a new president-elect Wednesday, Muhammadu Buhari. But people say democracy is the real winner as the country embarks on its first peaceful handover of power since the end of military rule in 1999. VOA’s Anne Look reports from Abuja.
Video

Video Tiny Camera Sees Inside Blood Vessels

Ahead of any surgical procedure, doctors try to learn as much as possible about the state of the organs they plan to operate on. A new camera developed in the Netherlands can now make that easier - giving surgeons an incredibly detailed look inside blood vessels, all the way to the patient’s heart. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Latin American Groups Seek Fans at Texas Music Festival

Latin American music groups played all over Austin, Texas, during the recent South by Southwest festival, and some made fans out of locals as well as people from around the world who had come to hear music. Such exposure can boost such groups' image back home. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Stockton Community, Police, Work to Improve Relations

Relations are tense between minority communities and police departments around the United States following police shootings that have generated widely-publicized protests. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports from Stockton, California, where police and community groups are working toward solutions, with backing from Washington.
Video

Video Indiana Controversy Highlights Divergent Meanings of Religious Freedom

Indiana’s state government has triggered a nationwide controversy by approving a law that critics say is aimed at allowing discrimination against gays and lesbians. The controversy stems from divergent notions of religious freedom in America. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Report: State of Black America a 'Tale of Two Nations'

The National Urban League has described this year's "State of Black America" report as a "tale of two nations." The group's annual report, released earlier this month (March), found that under an equality index African Americans had only 72% parity compared to whites in areas such as education, economics, health, social justice and civic engagement. It’s a gap that educators and students at Brooklyn’s Medgar Evers College are looking to close. VOA's Daniela Schrier reports from the school.
Video

Video Film Tells Story of Musicians in Mali Threatened by Jihadists

At this year's annual South by Southwest film and music festival in Austin, Texas, some musicians from Mali were on hand to promote a film about how their lives were upturned by jihadists who destroyed ancient treasures in the city of Timbuktu and prohibited anyone from playing music under threat of death. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Austin, some are afraid to return to their hometowns even though the jihadists are no longer in control there.
Video

Video Ebola Vaccine Trials Underway in West Africa

Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 10,000 people in West Africa. Since last summer, researchers have rushed to get anti-Ebola vaccines into clinical trials. While it's too early to say that any of the potential vaccines work, some scientists say they are seeing strong results from some of the studies. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
Video

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in the Philippines. Close to five million foreign visitors traveled there last year, perhaps lured by the country’s tropical beaches. But Jason Strother reports from Manila that the country hopes to entice more travelers to stay indoors and spend money inside new casinos.
Video

Video Civilian Casualties Push Men to Join Rebels in Ukraine

The continued fighting in eastern Ukraine and the shelling of civilian neighborhoods seem to be pushing more men to join the separatist fighters. Many of the new recruits are residents of Ukraine made bitter by new grievances, as well as old. VOA's Patrick Wells reports.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.

VOA Blogs

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More