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Tunisia: Culture Wars – 1: Salafists Run Amok – The La Marsa Art Exhibit Disruption

July 23, 2012

2011 - 12 - 13 - Tunis 2Note: This series, of which Part One is below, is dedicated to the memory and contribution of Alexander Cockburn who just passed away.

This piece also appeared in Foreign Policy In Focus

Part Two of the series



October of last year, Tunisia held national elections for a `constituent assembly’ – a legislative body mandated to re-write the Tunisian constitution for the post Ben Ali era. The Ennahdha (Renaissance) Party, an Islamic Party cruelly and unfairly repressed for decades under the Ben Ali regime gained 41% of the vote, the largest percentage of any political party participating.

While it claims to be in a coalition with two more secular parties, a fact which is technically accurate but politically empty, despite appearances to the contrary, Ennahdha wields the power behind the scenes in the country, in a manner which is virtually undisputed. If the recent Ennahdha congress which drew 30,000 attendees is an accurate measure, all indications are that, despite opposition, it will tighten its grip in the period ahead.

The other two political parties involved in the ruling coalition exist more on paper than in fact; unlike Ennahdha that has a nationwide organization and its eyes and ears everywhere, the other two are essentially Tunis (and a few other metropolitan areas) based. There is organized opposition to some of Ennahdha’s policies, especially its economic policies by the trade union federation, but apart that and a few disparate elements, the opposition is weak, disorganized and with little influence. Ennahdha runs the show.

In certain ways, this fact has already reaped a disturbing political and social harvest.

Despite fine words about the Tunisia’s Arab Spring, since October, the political atmosphere in the country has shifted markedly to the right as a new and hitherto marginal element in Tunisian society has raised what I can only describe as its ugly head: radical Islamic fundamentalism, or as it is also known, Salafism. Salafism’s base in Tunisian society in the past has been narrow to naught. That it should emerge with such force and unchecked violence is the result of a number of factors: the sufferings of Islamicists in Ben Ali’s prisons whose anger has been easily manipulated; some Tunisians trained by fundamentalist militants in Afghanistan and Iraq; some spill over from Libya; U.S. acquiescence.

More importantly though, Tunisian Salafism has been fueled by Saudi and Qatari funding and Ennahdha tolerance for and defense of their actions. A great deal of money has been pouring into Tunisia, both formally (loans to the government) and informally through the mosques. Aid, it seems is never really `free’ and comes with a heavy price tag. If originating from the IMF, the strings entail opening weak economies so that international capital can swallow what is left of domestic economies – be it in Russia or Tunisia. The strings attached to Saudi and Qatari aid include opening up Tunisia’s political space to Salafist elements to grow if not thrive uninhibited by any legal niceties.

And as both Saudi Arabia and Qatar are close and strategic allies to the United States, one can surmise that at the very least, the Obama Administration is aware of the Saudi- Qatari role and has either turned a blind eye to it, or more likely, has encouraged these developments. The notion that Saudi Arabia functions outside the perimeters of U.S. Middle East policy, is, to use the more polite British term, `poppy cock’.

Odd as it might seemed, given the degree to which the people of the United States have been pickled in anti-Islamic images and media at home, abroad, the U.S. – going back sixty years, has been quite comfortable in making alliances with Islamic movements – both moderate and radical – and has done so repeatedly. It appears as long as the current Tunisian government adhers to U.S. neo-liberal economic guidelines – which it does – and generally supports regional security interests – which it has proven faithful to concerning current U.S. policy towards Libya and Syria, it is more than likely that the Obama Administration and any that might follow – minus a few weak protests – will turn a blind eye from the current Tunisian Islamacist religious offensive.This as been U.S. policy up until now.

Habib Bourguiba was Tunisia’s first president and the leader of its anti-colonial struggle against France. A supporter of secular education, the separation of church (or mosque) and state and women’s rights, it is doubtful he would have permitted this Salafist drift in the Tunisian body politc to go so far. In fact, the policies of the current government, while careful not to attack Bourguiba frontally, are doing what they can to deconstruct `the house that Bourguiba built’. Ennahdha argues that it is countering Ben Ali’s secularism, but all indications suggest they want to go much further and are using the Salafists to reshape – or try to – the Tunisian body politic.

Ennahdha, which fashions itself internationally as `a moderate Islamic party’ bares much responsibility for this current Salafist surge. They have failed to reign Salafists in, something which would have been easy to do earlier on. Nor do they seem to want to. Their defense of Salafism is hollow and disingenuous, empty as an Egyptian Salafist imam’s advice on satellite television. Ennahdha speaks of defending Salafist free speech rights and thus says nothing about the repeated anti-Jewish slander (that has included calls of killing, removing Jews from the country). It claims be caught in the middle between Salafist excesses and `secular fundamentalism’.

No doubt, by focusing on cultural questions – what makes or doesn’t make a good Muslim – rather than what makes or doesn’t make a good citizen – Ennahdha has shifted the national discussion away from Tunisia’s economic crisis which has only worsened since Ben Ali departed the country so unceremoniously. Low wages, high unemployment levels – especially among the country’s educated youth, combined with a regime with a reputation of rampant corruption were among the key factors triggering the Tunisian Revolt and the Arab Spring in general. How ironic that since last October, the national discussion has devoted so little attention to this key area.

Although  Salafists now claim that the Arab Spring was a call to institute Shari’a, nowhere in the Arab World, certainly not in Tunisia, were these elements out on the streets, risking life and limb to overthrow the Ben Alis, Mubareks of the Arab World. But in the aftermath of the historic events, with a little help from their Saudi and Qatari friends, Salafists have become quite active.There seems to be a division of labor between Ennahdha and the Tunisian Salafists. Ennahdha controls the levers of political power. The Salafists have targeted the mosques, the media and the educational system for their special attention. If Ennahdha formally renounces basing the new Tunisian constitution on  Shari’a law, the Salafists informally and actively work with such a goal in mind, and they are not shy about admitting it. Far from it.

In Tunisia, Salafist rallies regularly include attacks against secularists, Islamic moderates and Jews, calls for shari’a law and where possible,  hoisting of the black banner of Salafist Islam to replace the Tunisian national flag. They have also desecrated Christian churches in Tunis. Their actions have long ago surpassed simply violent and bigoted speech. It has included trashing media outlets, threatening journalists, cultural people, trying to `take over’ universities, attacking trade union offices, threatening women who refuse to be pressured to dress as the Salafists demand, burning down bars and liquor stores. It is not only an attack on diversity, on the place for the more secular elements within Tunisian society, it is also an offensive against the more moderate forms of Islam that have existed in the country for centuries. 

None of this has been prosecuted by the Ennahdha-dominated Tunisian government. The list goes on. Tunisia’s Salafists have become nothing short of the brown shirts of the Tunisian Arab Spring, and their actions and strategies parallel similar Salafist campaigns in Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria. Their role is clear: reshape the country’s tolerate cultural map with an increasingly narrow vision of an Islamic society; to freeze the Arab Spring social revolution dead in its tracks, to reverse the progress demanded by millions throughout the Arab world for social and economic justice.

Habib Bourguiba's legacy casts a shadow over the Tunisian government's current social and cultural policies

Habib Bourguiba’s legacy casts a shadow over the Tunisian government’s current social and cultural policies


The most recent, but by no means the only, Salafist disruption took place in La Marsa, a suburban resort-beach town north of Tunis at the end of the Tunis-Carthage-La Marsa suburban train line. There, in early June, an art exhibit, `Le Printemps des Arts‘ Fair, was vandalized by as Salafist mob on its final day.

It appears little else than a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular and moderate Islamic community. A small group of Salafists, upset with some of the pictures, demanded that the paintings be taken down and for the exhibit to close. They were provoked by photos of some of the pictures from the exhibit shown on line, although a number of these placed on the internet were not on display! That still wasn’t the end of it.

Failing in their private efforts at artistic censorship, the self appointed thought police mounted a second and more expanded effort to shut down the exhibit. Several hundred Salafist supports – who just happened to be in the neighborhood of course – joined their morally outraged colleagues and crashed the exhibit, slashed and destroyed a number of paintings they found not to their liking, and by their narrow terms, blasphemous.

“According to Tunisia Live! “At least two paintings were slashed amongst which was Lamia Guemara’s Bleu De Prusse and a photograph as well as a sculpture were thrown on top of the roof of the building while a major installation in the courtyard, Punching Ball by Faten Gaddes, was taken out of the palace and burned outside.”

The Tunisia Live! article went on:

“A video circulating on social media sites shows a number of artworks deemed to be offensive. The video starts with a phrase saying – as if the Salafists represented anything more than a fringe group within Tunisian Islam, “Tomorrow all followers of Islam should rise in anger to defend Islam.” In what could be construed as a veiled threat, other images show the faces of people who produced or supported the works including intellectual Aissam Chabbi, lawyer Bochra Belhaj Hmida, and politician Najib Chabbi. At the end, the video presents the names of artists involved in the fair indicating their indignation to provoke Salafist and Muslims in general.”

Then as they have done in Kairouan, Sid Bou Zid and elsewhere, the Salafists, with no fear of government reprisals, threatened to burn down the place. What followed was a physical confrontation between the two groups, which only subsided when the police were called in to break up the melee. Angered that the police had broken up their little version of artistic Kristalnacht, the Salafists, some of them, in the spirit of seventh century Islam, brandishing swords, turned on the modest contingent of police trying to keep the peace.

But rather than arresting and indicting the Salafist culprits, as should have happened if Tunisian law was invoked, Ennahdha, the ruling party issued a curious statement condemning both sides of the confrontation but with an eye on implementing policies that would punish the artists rather than the Salafists! It called a law that would criminalize “the violation of the sacred” and promised to “work to include in the constitution a law against interference with the sacred.” This from a political party that promised to maintain the separation of church and state! While condemning the looting, the statement continues to define the main problem with the incident, not as radical Islamic fundamentalism, but as `secular extremism’.

The statement goes on, basically suggesting a witchhunt, but all too typically and hypocritically, to call on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”, ie.. The victims become legal, political targets; the perpetrators get a mild slap on the hands but nothing more. Ennahdha calls this being even handed. The Obama Administration remains silent suggesting that the Tunisian Arab Spring is going along as smoothly as ever.

In Part Two: The Salafists Go To College….The Habib Kazdaghli Story


Related pieces.

Tunsian Salafists: Brownshirts of the Arab Spring

Amilcar Notes 4: Tunisia and the New Islamic Politics

5 Comments leave one →
  1. kerim permalink
    July 25, 2012 7:02 am

    There has been a Cat & Mouse game playing out all along, before this serie of incidents occurred . The Art Exhibition of La Marsa is just one of many examples, on how the misuse of “freedom of expression” helped trigger these kind of reactions .
    The broadcasting of Perse Polis by Nessma tv, early 2011, when the country was still on fire, caused discontent en mayhem and which could have been averted, if there has been a real sense of responsibility . The only reason that I can think of, is the bad timing and a poor assessment of the situation, on the part the Nessma-Board .
    From the perception of the average tunisian, showing Perse Polis to the masses was uncalled for and had no purpose whatsoever, except maybe to challenge the salafists .
    Although the problem is not the movie which, by the way, was shown earlier in a few movie theaters, but rather the foolish decision by Nessma tv to have come with the wrong movie, at precisely the wrong time … And in the wrong place, if we make the distinction between showing a movie to a theater audience, and between showing it to the masses, on tv…
    …for free . And if we take into account the composition of tunisian society that still not ready to become a real open society, just overnight, we may conclude that neither Nessma nor the Exhibitioners, were likely to have understand what the message of the “tunisian – spring “ meant, in real terms . They were in fact, short of the mark . Integrity & Jobs were keywords that have ignited this chain-reaction throughout the Arab World, but by no means were the masses in need of watching iranian cartoons on tv, or attending bizar art-exhibitions with provocative character .
    we could only watch in disbelief what it had led to : More tentions and more clashes from all sides, and no one is taking the blame . Because there is no real coordination going on, when it comes to sensitive subjects, and the right way to introduce it to the public . For this matter, our TV stations, our Media and our exhibitioners have still a lot to learn . There is a long way to go .
    Another similar incident happened shortly after the Nessma blunder, when a tunisian-french female artist and feminist, came uninvited to present her Play “Ni Dieu Ni Maitre” ( No God nor Master) in a theater in Tunis . Soon it was called off . Again, bad timing is the common mistake here . The initiators and the organizers are to blame for their miscalculation . Did they ever realize that showbiz is a serious enterprise, able to measure what lives among the masses, and must have the skill to deliver the right “product”at the right time, to the right audience .? Not quite yet, I guess .

  2. July 25, 2012 7:27 am

    Kerim…as usual i appreciate these remarks. they ring true. just a question? you seem to be accepting a standard of values for `the Tunisian people’ of them not being `ready’ for the different cultural presentations cited. but the implication is that the `blame’ for these incidents lies with the insensitivity of those Tunisians whose views are not tandem with `the mainstream’. does the government – from everything i can tell essentially meaning Ennahdha – or the Salafists – bare any responsibility for all these disruptions? does Salafist `values’ or their actions…to they represent the thinking of `the average Tunisian?

  3. kerim permalink
    July 25, 2012 12:05 pm

    The salafists are certainly to blame, for taking the law into their own hands . It’s a criminal offence, period . But they should have never been given the chance, by those who could have foreseen it, unless it was a deliberate action to generate a reaction .
    The “standard of values” that I was referring to, reflect the general feeling on the ground among many tunisians . Perhaps it has something to do with the loss of a certain “tunisian Identity” that had undergone a bad plastic surgery, by the former regime, for a considerable amount of time . The scar is still visible to the naked eye . It is the result of a nightmare that lasted two decades, and where all values were thrown overboard, ranging from schoolteachers being molested by students, on a frequent basis, to the high rate of divorce, and of broken homes as a result . We know for a fact that kids from broken marriages are most susceptible to go in the wrong direction . But when there are no options, these individuals may themselves become even salafists, if everything else fails ! The list goes on and on, concerning the deep wounds found in tunisian society…prostitution…sex tourism…drug addiction…unemployment…low wages and high cost of living e.i. the price of 1 kg of meat has risen to about $12 while the average salary ( for those who have jobs) is around $350 a month .
    How can we then explain Ennahdha’s victory ? Naturally we do not know if Ennahdha will win the next elections, but there is no other political party in Tunisia with whom most people reckon with up to now . I do think that humans have a “dogmatic ” tendency to think that the restoration of “society values” is an exclusive task for conservative parties . In my opinion, the salafists do not form the main threat . The set of laws in the making, will take care of business as soon as it’s applicable . Any excess leads unmistakeably to penalization .
    But Ennahdha ceases to exist, from the moment it tranforms itself into a Dr.Jekyll & Mr Hyde . Ennahdha knows exactly what’s at stake and couldn’t afford such a misstep .


  1. Tunisia Culture Wars: Salafists Run Amok – The Case of Habib Kazdaghli, University of Tunis-Manouba, Dean « Rob Prince's Blog
  2. Rob Prince – Publications This Last Year or so « Rob Prince's Blog

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