The making and unmaking of a Tunisian Salafi

The making and unmaking of a Tunisian Salafi
Since the revolution, Tunisian Salafis have enjoyed their freedom, and the community is growing. But under former autocrat Ben Ali, being a Salafi wasn’t easy.
6 min read
16 January, 2015
Salafis in Tunisia have increased in number since 2011 and become more vocal [AFP]

When I first met Amine in the summer 2014, the 29-year old Tunisian was reasonably drunk and surrounded by friends.

He talked with ease, at times a gentleman, at times a joker. He displayed his designer stubble, round glasses and fashionable clothes. But that was after, long after, the time when he was a Salafi.

It is 2006. Nobody knows that Ben Ali's authoritarian regime, in place since 1987, has only five years left. In Tunisia's police state, repression is as fierce against advocates of freedom as it is against religious fundamentalists in the Salafi movement.

Amine is 21. He leads a normal life between university, where he studies economics, and his home in Bab Jedid, a neighbourhood of the capital, Tunis. His father died some years earlier, so he is now the man of the family.

     Salafi discourse, based on the literal interpretation of the Quran, is based on quoting sources.

One day, Amine comes across his high school friend, Aymen. It's been several years since he last saw him. Aymen is standing outside a mosque.

"He used to be the guy who knew most about girls, he was the wild one," Amine recalls, before flashing back to his memories. "That day, he was wearing the beard and the kamis [a traditional religious long shirt]."

"God can save anyone," Aymen explains in 2006. He offers Amine a part-time job in his new business, a print shop. It seems like a good deal and Amine could do with some money.

Getting in

At first, life at the shop is smooth. Aymen won't allow music - Amine finds this strange, but deals with it. After a month, Aymen tells him he can't work with someone who doesn't pray.

The other employee, Ahmed, is also a Salafi. But Amine finds him softer, more gentle. He feels closer to him. Every day, Ahmed invites Amine to prayer. "God is testing you," he tells him.

Amine finally decides to tag along. He won't be left aside anymore. He feels like a teenager who starts smoking in order to stay with his smoker friends.

Soon, Amine joins in every day. The water he splashes on his body during ablutions feels like a relief. He does it for himself, keeping ideology at a distance. One day, Aymen recites to him the first 30 verses of the Sura of the Cow.

"It makes the difference between a good and a bad Muslim," Aymen explains.

On his way home, Amine wonders: "Am I a good Muslim?"

He slowly accepts the way things are done at the shop. They listen to audio teachings all day, most of which are forbidden in Ben Ali's Tunisia.

With Salafis barred from hanging around in a mosque after prayer, they have after-parties in smaller, local mosques. Amine observes and listens. Like them, he now fasts on Mondays and Thursdays. On the street, he tries not to look women in the eyes.

Salafism in Tunisia

After decades of repression, most Salafis imprisoned in Tunisia were freed in the aftermath of the revolution. For more than two years, their numbers grew. They set up important social solidarity networks, in their strongholds and elsewhere.

Violent Salafi groups, notably Ansar Al Sharia, were soon held responsible for a number of violent attacks, among them the attack on the US embassy in September 2012.

After a series of attacks on the Tunisian military, leaving a dozen dead in the summer of 2013, the Islamist-led government declared Ansar Al Sharia a “terrorist” group. Its leader, Abou Yadh has been on the run since. Abou Ayoub (alias Salim Kantri), the second in command, was caught early in 2014.

Candidates at the 2014 elections talked about security above all. The new majority now promises a firm hand. According to the International Crisis Group, between 1,000 and 2,000 Salafis close to Ansar al-Sharia are now behind bars.

Not all Salafis are violent, though. Most find refuge in religious fundamentalism away from conflict. Others formed political parties.

The International Crisis Group noted in a 2013 report that Tunisian Salafism and al-Qaeda-style jihadism should not be lumped together; to do so “would risk provoking greater radicalisation and more violence”.

At home, his mother and sisters act as if nothing happened, while he tries to convince them with Hadiths and verses from the Quran.

The Salafi discourse, based on the literal interpretation of the Quran, is based on quoting sources.

Sitting at the terrace of a café eight years later, Amine can still recite the verses and Hadiths by heart.

Being in

Six months have passed since he met Aymen in front of the mosque. Amine has now completely integrated into Bab Jedid's Salafi community. There are 15, maybe 20 men living in a closed network.

Salafis buy and sell among themselves. If you need a plumber, you ask a brother. If you need advice, you ask a brother. In front of the mosques, some sell Halal products: non-alcoholic perfume, local pastries and Viagra to help them satisfy their wives.

Aymen supplies him with books, all photocopies since they are forbidden under Ben Ali's administration. The texts usually feature teachings and sometimes, calls for jihad.

Amine moves on to videos, also forbidden, like "the famous one" on the "holy war" in Chechnya. They don't have YouTube yet.

Amine knows that not all Salafi communities are linked to jihad. Some are quiet, finding refuge in religious fundamentalism without violence.

It's now been ten months. A proper Salafi, Amine despises "the others".

"He's a bad Muslim," "she's a bad Muslim," he thinks to himself, walking the streets of Tunis. He feels anger. They, the Salafis, are the chosen people.

For nearly a year, Aymen has been telling him about a man named Salim. To Bab Jedid's young Salafis, Salim is a role model. At the time, Salim Kantri was a young, small-time sheikh. He would later become Abou Ayoub, the number two in Ansar al-Sharia, now Tunisia's most notorious armed group.

Amine meets him. The young man appreciates the preacher's company, his imposing presence and his good words. Salim congratulates him. "We will build a life away from this government," the preacher says. Aiming for the rebirth of the Caliphate, most Salafis reject modern regimes.

Amine is in awe. He does not yet "dream of Bin Laden", but he thinks of 9/11 as the glory of Islam.

Getting out

     Scared and confused, Amine backs away from the community. He becomes a solitary Salafi then backs away from Salafism itself.

As he progressively dives into the community, Amine feels that he is coming under ever more surveillance.

Ben Ali's political police are everywhere. Amine finds out they came to ask questions at a café in front of his university.

The police turn up at a local Salafi gathering, taking away two.

That day, Amine didn't go to the meeting. The shop is not doing well. Amine and Aymen are arguing. Aymen insults him. Amine is startled. Later, he catches Aymen flirting with a girl.

In the face of such blatant hypocrisy, his thoughts go wild.

At home, his mother is worried: "Son, you are the only boy of the family. I can say nothing about your religion. But if someday the police takes you, what will I do?"

His mother's plea gets through to him. For him, she did everything. He feels responsible. He is the only man of the family.

Scared and confused, Amine slowly backs away from the community. He leaves the shop and becomes a solitary Salafi. Then, far from other Salafis, he backs away from Salafism itself.

Soon after, his former business partner Aymen is sentenced to a year and a half in prison for "membership".

Eight years later, Amine is still in contact with some of his old friends from the community. Many have renounced the movement the same way he did.

Amine now describes himself as an atheist.