Source: Combating Terrorism Center
In August 2013, the Tunisian government declared Ansar al-Shari`a Tunisia (AST) an illegal terrorist organization following its alleged involvement in two political assassinations. Recently, the interim government of Mehdi Jomaa has intensified efforts to crack down on violence by dismantling radical sleeper cells and preventing unauthorized imams from preaching. Despite these efforts, religiously-motivated violence remains a challenge to Tunisia’s democratic transition, as underground jihadist networks continue to operate, often with close ties to neighboring countries. Tunisia’s vast southern border, shared with Libya, is especially difficult to control. In March 2014, a new Salafist media outlet known as Shabab al-Tawhid (Youth of Pure Monotheism) was established, which some analysts suspect is a front or rebranding for AST. While AST has kept a low-profile following the Tunisian government’s decision to label it a terrorist organization, many of its members are still active in Tunisia and look for different channels to continue their activities, which include da`wa (proselytizing), the facilitation of foreign fighters to Libya and Syria, and in some cases religiously-motivated violence.
Within this increasingly clandestine network, mosques remain key locations for AST members and other radical Islamists to operate and spread their views, especially as imams. To understand the root causes of this problem, this article provides a brief background on religious scholarship in Tunisia and then evaluates how certain imams use mosques to spread a radical interpretation of Islam. It concludes that some preachers will continue to incite violence or politicize their sermons if the state fails to pursue significant reform within the religious sector.
Tunisia’s tradition of Islamic scholarship and preaching was long centered around its important Zitouna mosque-university, created around 703 CE. Zitouna scholars have been divided between a conservative majority, who were reluctant to the processes of modernization, and a more liberal minority who supported modernization trends and called for the reopening of ijtidad (interpretation of religious texts).
Following independence in 1956, Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, dismantled Zitouna University, replacing it with a simple faculty of Shari`a and Theology. Since Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, imams are officially appointed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which also used to control the content of prayer services, mainly in an effort to eradicate any political dissent, which they believed could easily gain momentum in mosques. Indeed, many imams were actually members of Ben Ali’s Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party, an upfront instrumentalization of religion for political ends. Moreover, a law in 1988 prohibited all activities and meetings in mosques by people other than those appointed by the state.
Losing Control of the Mosques
In the months that followed the 2010-2011 revolution, several hundred imams were replaced, often by violent Islamists who accused the imams of having collaborated with the former Ben Ali regime. By October 2011, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that it had lost control of about 400 mosques. The “uncontrolled” classification means that a mosque’s imams are operating without the official authorization of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. To become an “authorized” preacher, one needs to either have a relevant education at the Zitouna institution or take a special exam. Since October 2011, the state tried to reestablish control over these 400 mosques. On March 13, 2014, the Ministry of Religious Affairs estimated that 149 mosques remained out of government control; yet earlier the same month, the Ministry of Interior put the number of uncontrolled mosques at 380, in what illustrates the unreliability of publicly available figures. The latest official figure from May 2014 estimates that around 90 mosques remain out of government control. Most of the uncontrolled mosques are located in the densely populated Sahel region, a key destination for tourists.
It is unclear how many of the uncontrolled mosques are actually run by Salafists or jihadists, but the fact that their leaders and followers reject government authority over their activities—and that they have often taken over mosques by means of force—indicates that radical elements may be present. Additionally, a number of unofficial places of worship, generally estimated at less than 100, were also created after the revolution; the government’s efforts to replace unauthorized preachers might increase such parallel structures.
Besides two imams, at least two other people work at Tunisia’s approximately 5,050 controlled and uncontrolled mosques, and there is no transparent procedure for selecting these 20,200 people. It is also difficult to find such a high number of qualified people given that the level of religious scholarship during the Ben Ali regime was low. In Tunisia’s new political landscape, the content of prayer services is also no longer controlled by government authorities, a step many Tunisians approve of and view as part of the new liberties acquired through the revolution. Some imams, however, have taken advantage of this by inciting violence, preaching jihad and politicizing their sermons.
Many of Tunisia’s controversial prayer services take place in mosques that are uncontrolled, but even official, state-approved imams have incited violence, which indicates that Tunisia’s challenges within the religious sector are deeper than just a matter of replacing unauthorized preachers with approved ones. In March 2013, for example, then-minister of religious affairs, Nourredine Khademi, called upon Tunisians to join jihad in Syria, a position that is officially rejected by the government. Moreover, Tunisia’s current mufti is from Zitouna’s conservative camp and has supported polygamy; the previous mufti was forced to leave in 2013 as he was known to have political ties to the Ben Ali regime.
Nasreddine Aloui, the preacher of the Ennour mosque in the banlieu of Manouba in Tunis, called upon the youth in November 2012 to die as martyrs in the fight against the then-Islamist-led government. “Ennahda and other political parties want elections on the ruins and cadavers of the Salafist movement,” he claimed. Shortly before these statements, his predecessor, Khaled Karaou, and two other Salafists died after attacking two National Guard posts in Manouba.
Khamis Mejri, a self-proclaimed preacher of the El-Wardia mosque south of Tunis, has publicly called Usama bin Ladin a “hero” and Kamel Gadhgadhi, the alleged murderer of politician Chokri Belaid, a “martyr.” In December 2012, he stated on Hannibal TV that “people [who] say there is no such thing as a time for prayer” and “renounce prayer…should be killed as infidels.” In March 2014, he was sentenced to three months in prison for giving unauthorized prayers, but was conditionally released shortly afterwards. Authorities claim that Mejri is no longer preaching, but he still enjoys significant media attention.
In January 2014, the imam of the Sidi Ali Ben Salah mosque in Kef Province in northwest Tunisia was condemned for encouraging followers to kill police officers. In addition, the official preacher Ahmad al-Suhayli in Rades called for the destruction of the Jews in one of his prayer services that was aired on Hannibal TV. He also declared that “the al-Nusra Front, Ansar al-Shari`a, al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State of Iraq and the mujahidin in Somalia, in Mali and in Algeria – we all stand united against the enemies.” Suhayli claims that the media has exaggerated his statements, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs insists that he has the necessary credentials to continue preaching.
Moreover, Adel Almi, a self-proclaimed preacher who heads the “Moderate Association for Awareness and Reform,” has called for the death of Tunisian Femen activist Amina. In December 2013, he also founded a party called “Tunisia – Zaytouna,” in what is a claim to represent Tunisia’s centuries-old tradition of Islamic scholarship. Indeed, following the revolution, Zitouna University declared itself an organization independent of the government, and now various ideologues claim to represent its legacy; the actual status of the institution remains uncertain.
For his part, the imam of the Zitouna mosque, Shaykh Houcine Laabidi, has called in the past for the death of the artists of an exhibition he judged as blasphemous. Laabidi’s declarations have led authorities in several instances to prevent him from preaching—measures that were, however, only effective in the short term. Laabidi continues to lead prayers and insists that given Zitouna’s self-declared independence, authorities have no right to decide over its imam.
A legal framework has also been adopted to respond to the challenges within the religious sector, but the current stipulations are likely to be insufficient to guarantee a moderate preaching of Islam.
A New Legal Framework
Article Six of the Tunisian Constitution, which was adopted in January 2014, defines the state’s role as “the guardian of religion” which “guarantees liberty of conscience and of belief, the free exercise of religious worship and the neutrality of the mosques and of the places of worship from all partisan instrumentalization.” It also enshrines that the state is committed to “the dissemination of the values of moderation and tolerance and to the protection of the sacred and the prohibition of any offense thereto,” as well as “the prohibition of, and the fight against, appeals to takfir [excommunication] and incitement to violence and hatred.”
Human Rights Watch Tunisia has warned that Article Six could allow repressive interpretations of the definition of “sacred.” Most preachers, for their part, have fiercely criticized the article as it does not include a reference to Shari`a. They have also maintained that “the criminalization of apostasy is contrary Shari`a” and that such an important issue “should have been dealt with by a committee of ulama.”
Besides the new constitutional framework, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced in March 2014 the establishment of fixed opening hours for mosques—half an hour before and after services—to undermine “negligence” of certain mosques. Earlier that month, security forces seized molotov cocktails and cutting weapons in the al-Hidaya Mosque in Menzel Abderrahmen in northern Tunisia. It is unlikely, however, that this law is properly applied to mosques that are not controlled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. In many other mosques, however, the new legislation is observed.
Besides such legal measures to curb the spread of radical Islamist ideologies through mosques, there have been popular attempts to regain control of mosques. Among others, the inhabitants of Gammarth, a northern suburb of Tunis, chased away their imam, saying that he accused people of apostasy. Also, the inhabitants of the Jendouba Province town of Ghardimaou threw out their imam for being an extremist. Even a famous imam, Fadhel Achour, threatened to lead an imam strike in 2013 to protest security concerns within mosques, as well as to protest the lack of accountability within the ministry over the appointment of clergies. When Adel Almi threatened to publicly shame anyone who eats during Ramadan in 2013, a website countering his efforts was launched on Facebook with many people posting pictures of themselves consuming food during the holy month.
Moderate imams observe that younger Tunisians in particular are influenced by violent discourse within mosques, while older generations seem to be more resilient. This is consistent with previous observations that Salafi-jihadi ideology is more common among Tunisians under the age of 35.
In security terms, the state has increased efforts to control unauthorized activities within mosques and ensure that unlicensed preachers do not hold prayer services, but the challenges go much further than simple enforcement, as they touch upon the very substance of Islamic education in Tunisia. Moderate preachers insist that as long as the state does not pursue reform within Islamic institutions and properly train imams, some preachers will continue to incite violence or politicize their sermons regardless of government interventions, as a sufficient number of well-trained imams simply do not exist.
Many Zitouna scholars and imams constantly debate government policies, so it is unlikely that the institution provides the necessary neutral ground needed to properly train imams. In February 2014, Tunisian and Moroccan authorities agreed to train some Tunisian imams and preachers in Morocco in an attempt to elevate educational standards. A plan also exists to create a center to train imams in the province of Kairouan, but concrete steps to that end have yet to materialize. Until such long-term reforms are implemented, any attempts to regain control over preachers and their activities within mosques are likely to remain limited.