News / Africa

    Tunisians Fear Growing Threat of Radical Islamists

    Supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia clash with riot police at Hai al-Tadamon in Tunis, May 19, 2013.
    Supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia clash with riot police at Hai al-Tadamon in Tunis, May 19, 2013.
    Lisa Bryant
    Police in Tunisia fired tear gas to disperse stone-throwing Islamists in two cities after the government banned the hardline Ansar al-Shariah group from staging its annual congress Sunday.  The events underscore the growing clout of Muslim extremists in the once staunchly secular North African country. 

    The assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid in February sparked Tunisia's biggest popular demonstration since its 2011 revolution.  Police blame a Salafist Muslim for his death, underscoring fears Tunisia is entering a new and dangerous chapter in its history.

    More recent events have reinforced these concerns. 

    Earlier this month, roadside bombs wounded 16 Tunisian soldiers as they tried to hunt down militants in the country's mountainous border with Algeria.  Some Islamists have joined jihadists in Syria and Algeria.  And the country faces growing defiance from Salafists, who have attacked artists and other targets, including the United States embassy last year, as they try to impose their brand of hardline Islam.

    Such events were unimaginable in this small nation just a few years ago.  Under authoritarian ex-president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia ranked among the most secular countries in the Arab world and a favorite holiday spot for European tourists.

    A former minister during the Ben Ali period, Hatem Ben Salem, is alarmed at what is happening to his country.  Like many critics, he blames the ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party for failing to crack down on the Salafists.

    "The whole country fears that we will engage in a civil war.  And that is why I think the government is now taking things quite seriously... although I think they are responsible for the situation, because they have let these people do what they want... and threaten the country like they do," said Ben Salem.

    In the past, Ennahda has argued Tunisia's fledgling democracy must allow for free expression from all parts of society.  The party suffered under Ben Ali.  Many of its members were jailed or went into exile - including Ennahda's spiritual leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.

    But in recent weeks, the party has adopted a tougher stance against militant Islam.  Police have clashed with Salafists and authorities banned radical hardline group Ansar al-Shariah from staging its annual meeting in the central city of Kairouan.

    In a recent interview on France 24 TV, Ennahda's Ghannouchi condemned all forms of extremism.  But he appeared to downplay the scope of the threat, for example describing a small group of mercenaries as being behind Belaid's assassination.

    Concerns of Islamist extremism are not limited to Tunisia. Neighboring Algeria fought a horrific civil war against Islamists in the 1990s.  In January, Algiers crushed an Islamist attack on its In Amenas gas plant; 11 Tunisians figured among the militants.

    Concerns are also growing that Islamists routed from Mali are fueling a growing insurgency in Tunisia's other neighbor, Libya.

    Former Tunisian minister Ben Salem worries that militant Islam is fast becoming a regional threat in North Africa - and for the international community as a whole.

    "They have started in many places, specifically in the south of Algeria and north of Mali.  And now they are in Tunisia and Libya.  They will certainly be on the borders with Egypt.  And it starts like that.  So now we need to react and have a common position," he said.

    But economist and opposition politician Mahmoud Ben Romthane does not believe terrorism will take root in Tunisia.

    Ben Romthane points to Tunisia's tradition as a moderate nation.  He says Tunisians also know that peace is fundamental to their existence as a nation.  The answer, he says, lies in going forward politically, including ensuring elections scheduled for the end of the year are free and transparent.

    Ben Salem believes Tunisia now needs a unity government, joined in the common cause of eradicating Islamist extremism.

    You May Like

    Pentagon: Afghan Hospital Bombing Not a War Crime

    US Central Command's Joseph Votel says probe found tragedy was result of 'extraordinarily intense situation' that included multiple equipment failures

    US Minorities Link Guns with Other Social Ills

    New study finds reduction in gun violence could help lower America’s incarceration rate – the world’s highest - and improve relationships between police, citizens in minority communities

    US Millennials Beat Baby Boomers as Largest Living Generation

    America's young people are about to take over and here's what we can expect from them

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensionsi
    X
    April 29, 2016 12:28 AM
    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Turkish Kurd Islamist Rally Stokes Tensions

    In a sign of the rising power of Islamists in Turkey, more than 100,000 people recently gathered in Diyarbakir, the main city in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish southeast, to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. The gathering highlighted tensions with the pro-secular Kurdish nationalist movement. Dorian Jones reports from Diyarbakir.
    Video

    Video Pakistani School Helps Slum Kids

    Master Mohammad Ayub runs a makeshift school in a public park in Islamabad. Thousands of poor children have benefited from his services over the years, but, as VOA's Ayesha Tanzeem reports, roughly 25 million school-age youths don't get an education in Pakistan.
    Video

    Video Florida’s Weeki Wachee ‘Mermaids’ Make a Splash

    Since 1947, ‘mermaids’ have fascinated tourists at central Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park with their fluid movements and synchronized ballet. Performing underwater has its challenges, including cold temperatures and a steady current, as VOA’s Lin Yang and Joseph Mok report.
    Video

    Video Somali, African Union Forces Face Resurgent Al-Shabab

    The Islamic State terror group claimed its first attack in Somalia earlier this week, though the claim has not been verified by forces on the ground. Meanwhile, al-Shabab militants have stepped up their attacks as Somalia prepares for elections later this year. Henry Ridgwell reports there are growing frustrations among Somalia’s Western backers over the country’s slow progress in forming its own armed forces to establish security after 25 years of chaos.
    Video

    Video Bangladesh Targeted Killings Spark Wave of Fear

    People in Bangladesh’s capital are expressing deep concern over the brutal attacks that have killed secular blogger, and most recently a gay rights activist and an employee of the U.S. embassy. Xulhaz Mannan, an embassy protocol officer and the editor of the country’s only gay and transgender magazine Roopban; and his friend Mehboob Rabbi Tanoy, a gay rights activist, were hacked to death by five attackers in Mannan’s Dhaka home earlier this month.
    Video

    Video Documentary Tells Tale of Chernobyl Returnees

    Ukraine this week is marking the 30th anniversary of the world's worst nuclear accident, at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. Soviet officials at first said little about the accident, but later evacuated a 2,600-square-kilometer "exclusion zone." Some people, though, came back. American directors Holly Morris and Anne Bogart created a documentary about this faithful and brave community. VOA's Tetiana Kharchenko reports from New York on "The Babushkas of Chernobyl." Carol Pearson narrates.
    Video

    Video Nigerians Feel Bite of Buhari Economic Policy

    Despite the global drop in the price of oil, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has refused to allow the country's currency to devalue, leading to a shortage of foreign exchange. Chris Stein reports from Lagos businessmen and consumers are feeling the impact as the country deals with a severe fuel shortage.
    Video

    Video  Return to the Wild

    There’s a growing trend in the United States to let old or underused golf courses revert back to nature. But as Erika Celeste reports from one parcel in Grafton, Ohio, converting 39 hectares of land back to green space is a lot more complicated than just not mowing the fairway.
    Video

    Video West Urges Unity in Libya as Migrant Numbers Soar

    The Italian government says a NATO-led mission aimed at stemming the flow of migrants from Libya to Europe could be up and running by July. There are concerns that the number of migrants could soar as the route through Greece and the Balkans remains blocked. Western powers say the political chaos in Libya is being exploited by people smugglers — and they are pressuring rival groups to come together under the new unity government. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
    Video

    Video Russia’s TV Rain Swims Against Tide in Sea of Kremlin Propaganda

    Russia’s media freedoms have been gradually eroded under President Vladimir Putin as his government has increased state ownership, influence, and restrictions on critical reporting. Television, where most Russians get their news, has been the main target and is now almost completely state controlled. But in the Russian capital, TV Rain stands out as an island in a sea of Kremlin propaganda.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora