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

Philippines, Muslim Rebels Try to Salvage Peace Pact

Peace process faces major setback after botched military operation to find terrorists results in bloody gunbattle between government forces, Moro Islamic Liberation Front fighters More

Republicans Expect Long, Expensive Presidential Battle

Political strategist says eventual winner will be one who can put together strongest coalition of various conservative groups that make up Republican Party More

Video New Wheelchair Is Easier to Use, Increases Mobility

Engineers have come up with a lever-operated design that makes use of easily accessible bicycle technology More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
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.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

All About America

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