Tunisia’s Salafi flavor

TUNIS — The appearance of Mohamed Khouja, the leader of Tunisia’s first licensed Salafi political party, does not overtly show his ideological outlook or conform to preconceived images of hardline Islamists.

As he picks up the phone, the 62-year-old nutritionist murmurs the standard French greeting, saying, “Allo, oui.” His face is lightly covered with a well-shaved gray beard, and he wears a typical Western outfit. Moreover, the French-educated PhD holder does not mind looking at a female journalist in the eyes.

However, a quick read of his party’s platform and a brief conversation with him would immediately reveal his ultraorthodox views.

In a small office situated in the heart of the capital, Khouja sits at his desk in front of a poster that bears a cover page of the Quran, reading, “The best among you is he who learns the Quran and teaches it.”

The former member of an underground jihadist organization says the revolution encouraged him and his peers to tap into the world of competitive politics.

“We said that we should engage in open political activities because conditions have changed, and now we have freedom of expression. We said we should found a political party, and we named it the Reform Front,” Khouja tells Egypt Independent.

In the mid-1980s, Khouja was a member of a secret militant group called the Tunisian Islamic Front. This group had adopted violence as a means to bring down the oppressive ruling regime.

However, the organization could not last for long. In 1990, toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s security apparatus crippled it by arresting its leaders and followers. In the same year, Khouja was sentenced to 10 months and lost his job as a university professor on grounds of belonging to an illegal association.

Many of the association’s members fled to the West and settled in France, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, Khouja says. In 2008, Ben Ali’s police intercepted attempts to revive the group, and launched a new wave of arrests.

“After the revolution, those who were jailed were released and those who were living in the diaspora came back,” Khouja says.

Early in the transitional period, Khouja’s group sought official status as a political party. However, two consecutive requests were turned down by the government of Beji Caid Essebsi, a former head of Tunisia’s parliament under Ben Ali and a interior minister under late President Habib Bourguiba. Essebsi had headed the government until the National Constituent Assembly was elected in the fall of 2011.

“The first time, the party was rejected under the pretext that it was similar to other existing parties, but they were not named to us. The second time, it was rejected for the same reason, but they listed four parties and actually there was no similarity,” says Khouja, who deems such arguments mere pretexts for barring the group from official recognition.

“The real reason was political rather than administrative or legal,” Khouja adds. “The interior ministry knew who the founders were and their ideological leanings. They knew that we were fundamentalist Islamist.”

In May, the Islamist Ennahda-led government finally granted official status to the Reform Front.

“Ennahda has a strategy to besiege Salafis gradually, moderate them and drag them into playing politics,” says Mohamed Kerrou, an expert on Tunisia’s Islamists.

Islamizing the state

For Khouja, post-independence Tunisia faced staunch secularizing attempts that sought to “distract the society away from the spirit of Islam” and reduce religion to a personal matter.

“We say ‘no’ to all that. Islam is a comprehensive religion that is concerned with all people’s matters,” says Khouja, whose party seeks to “establish an Islamic state that implements the Sharia in all aspects of life.”

The party has already protested several times for the addition of a clause to the post-Ben Ali constitution stipulating that Sharia be “the sole source of legislation.”

“We are a Muslim society and Sharia should be respected,” Khouja says. 

However, the moderate Ennahda — Tunisia’s oldest Islamic organization — has declined so far to comply with this demand, and prefers a less controversial article that only recognizes Islam as the country’s religion.

The Reform Front is part of a growing Salafi phenomenon in Tunisia. Since Ben Ali’s fall, two strands of Salafism have come to the fore: political and jihadist.

While the former engaged in peaceful politics, the latter is blamed for several violent acts. In mid-August, Salafi groups armed with swords descended on a cultural festival in northern Tunisia, condemning it for violating Islamic principles during the month of Ramadan. The incident follows a series of similar attacks by hardline Salafi groups.

Khouja’s party denounces the use of violence but accuses secularists of deliberately provoking Islamists by mocking their sacred beliefs.

“In Tunisia, there is a strict secularism that seeks to bring down the Islamist project, take society backward and imitate the West. It is secularists who make these provocations,” says Khouja, who holds that a law criminalizing the demonization of sacred values should be passed.

A hardline take on democracy

According to an abridged form of the party’s platform, the group believes in political pluralism that ensures a peaceful alternation of power without jeopardizing “the country’s identity.” It also recognizes the people’s right to choose their government and hold it to account, the separation between the three branches of government, and the independence of the judiciary within the boundaries of Sharia.

Although most of these principles constitute the pillars of democratic rule, the party’s platform includes no single mention of the word “democracy.” For the party’s leader, the concept is a Western invention that he deems inapplicable to a Muslim context.

“We do not take ready-made solutions offered by the West,” Khouja says. “The philosophy of democracy is that the people make their own laws according to their own whims. We object to that because Sharia holds the upper hand."

“We cannot accept a law made by the people that contradicts Islamic Sharia,” he adds. 

The Reform Front is not the only Salafi party in Tunisia. Last month, the Ennahda-led government also approved the establishment of the Tahrir Party, which calls for the revival of the Islamic Caliphate.

For many secularists, the authorization of such parties threatens prospects of democratization and constitutes a major setback to the country’s modern and secular nature.

“How would you license a party that says it is against democracy?” wonders Khadijah Sharif, a sociologist and veteran feminist.

For Sharif, a democracy that does not contradict Sharia “is not a real democracy.”

“Do they allow Nazi parties to operate in democratic countries? This does not happen,” she adds, implying a comparison of Salafi parties to far-right European groups.

Twenty people founded the Reform Front, says Khouja, who adds that it is still too early to have an exact record of its membership size. However, he affirms that the party has followers in all provinces. Some of the Reform Front backers are former members of the Tunisian Islamic Front who had sought jihad or martyrdom in Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq.

A radical rank and file

Right outside Khouja’s office, Abu Abdallah, a 35-year-old party member, sits at his computer in the hallway. The young man’s background is not very different from his leader’s; he holds a similar belief in jihad. But he has had the chance to express this belief outside of Tunisian territories.

Abu Abdallah studied Islamic sciences in Mecca and Syria, and was one of many Arab Salafi youths who traveled to Iraq to fight American troops alongside Iraqi jihadists. For two years, he says, he provided logistical support to jihadi fighters in Iraq.

“We tried to defend Muslim territories, money and dignity as much as we could,” says Abu Abdullah, who only provides a pseudonym.

While the party’s leadership adopts a soft tone on Ennahda and hails it as an Islamist party that shares the same objective but differs on the tools, Abu Abdallah dismisses the actual Islamist rulers of Tunisia as sellouts.

“Ennahda is not an Islamist party,” he says. “Ennahda has violated Sharia and said that it would not implement it, and that [Islamic law] is not fit for our time and place.”

He says Ennahda fears the US rather than God.

“The segments that call for the implementation of God’s law are quite big in society. These segments have taken to the streets and demanded that Sharia be implemented. But the ruling party did not want to heed the demand of the street,” Abu Abdallah adds.

He contends that Ennahda would eventually face the same fate as Ben Ali for its alleged submission to the West and compromise of Islamic principles.

“The same thing that happened to their predecessor may happen to them, but the revolution this time will be stronger,” says Abu Abdallah, who was jailed for three years under Ben Ali on grounds of perpetrating terrorism.

The demise of Ennahda would correspond with the ascent of Islamists who hold “correct” ideas, says Abu Abdallah.

“Victory is coming. Islamists will win,” he says. “This is not my vision, but it is God’s and his Prophet’s words.”

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