Islamism's Unity in Tunisia
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
A Sept. 14 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis left 4 dead, 49 injured, several buildings looted and burnt out, and the black Salafi flag flying above the embassy grounds. In response, the ruling "moderate" Islamist party of Tunisia, Ennahda, forthrightly condemned the incident; Minister of the Interior Ali Larayedh recognized that the government "failed to protect the embassy and we should offer our apologies to the Americans." Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, more vehemently condemned the Salafis as a "danger" to freedom and security in Tunisia and called on a fight against them through every legal means.
These statements reassured Americans that if long-bearded and burqa'ed crazies want to kill them, moderate-sounding Islamists in ties and hijabs are civilized, law-abiding allies. That in turn fits a policy going back to 1992 of fighting violent Islamists while cooperating with non-violent ones. Thus did American troops execute Osama bin Laden while American presidents helped Islamists reach power in Turkey and in Egypt.
Many other differences mark variant strands of Islamism: Yusuf al-Qaradawi urges conversion to win over non-Muslims, Nigeria's Boko Haram prefers to kill them. The Hizb ut-Tahrir organization aims to bring all Muslims under the rule of a universal caliphate, Turkey's Fethullahis aspire to build a national form of Islam. Egypt's Islamist president routinely wears a tie, his Iranian counterpart never does. The former Cat Stevens sings a cappella nasheeds, while Somalia's Shabab ban all music on the radio. Women may not operate a car in Saudi Arabia but they drive taxis in Iran.
Broadly speaking, Islamists divide into three types: (1) Salafis, who revere the era of the salaf (the first three generations of Muslims) and aim to revive it by wearing Arabian clothing, adopting antique customs, and assuming a medieval mindset that leads to religious-based violence. (2) Muslim Brothers and like types who aspire to an Islamic version of modernity; depending on circumstances, they might act violently or not. (3) Lawful Islamists who work within the system, engaging in political, media, legal, and educational activities; by definition, they do not engage in violence.
Oh really? Abou Iyadh, whose real name is Seifallah Ben Hassine, heads Ansar al-Sharia, a.k.a. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Tunisian police established a dragnet to question him about his role leading to the Sept. 14 attack. With the revelation of this meeting, the video undercuts Ennahda's condemnation of the Sept. 14 attack.
Revealingly, Ghannouchi states that "The government is now in the hands of Islamists, the mosques are ours now, and we've become the most important entity in the country." Note the references to "ours" and "we," further confirming that he sees Ennahda and the Salafis constituting a joint force.
Ghannouchi's reaching out to Al-Qaeda fits a larger pattern. The Turkish government not only works with, IHH, an organization associated with Al-Qaeda, but it may soon join North Korea and Iran on the black list for its lax terrorism financing laws. The Council on American-Islamic Relations appears legitimate but is a terrorist-supporting front organization founded by Hamas supporters. "Moderate" British Islamists exploited terrorist incidents to increase their clout.
The Tunisian tape brings yet another carefully crafted bifurcation of moderate and extremist Islamists crashing down. All Islamists are one. A moderate Islamist is as fantastical a notion as a moderate Nazi. Every member of this barbaric movement is a potential totalitarian thug. Western governments should neither accept nor work with the one or the other.
Oct. 30, 2012 addenda: (1) I lacked space to discuss the alarming news that the Tunisian government allows two jihadi camps to operate on its soil: for more details see "Tunisie: qui protège les camps jihadistes?" by Malik Aït-Aoudia in Marianne, a French magazine.
(2) For more along these lines, see the June 2012 study by the Quilliam Foundation, Preventing terrorism, where next for Britain? for the British government's Office for Security and Counter Terrorism (OSCT). It which argues that non-violent, apparently mainstream Muslim groups share the same ideology as violent Islamists. From an article in the Daily Telegraph (London) summarizing the report's contents:
Feb. 10, 2013 update: In an interview with the BBC, Ghannouchi tried to wiggle out of his earlier statement by claiming that "Salafists are not one group. There are those who promote violence and those who denounce it and there are those with whom the government of Ennahda has had confrontations." Ghannouchi slices up Islamists into thin tranches; I say that, in the end, they are all the same.
Mar. 27, 2013 update: Things have gone awry for Islamist cooperation in Tunisia, with tensions growing between the Muslim Brotherhood-style Ennahda and the Salafis, as Thomas Joscelyn documents in "War of words escalates in Tunisia":
On March 26, Ali Larayedh (who moved up from minister of the interior to prime minister) used an interview in the French newspaper Le Monde to accuse Abu Iyad, who has ties to Al-Qaeda, of being "deeply involved in issues of violence and arms trafficking." He also spoke of a Salafi faction "that advocates violence and terrorism. There is no dialogue with those who are at war with society."
To which Abu Iyad replied with threats: "Keep your sick ones from us, or we will direct our war against them until their downfall and their meeting with the dustbin of history. ... Know that we will not delay in saying that the answer is what you see, not what you hear. ... If you do not rectify your situation."
Joscelyn documents prior hostile words between the two sides and notes two issues that exacerbate tensions between Larayedh's government and the Salafis. First,
Second, the matter of Salafi arms:
In addition, there is the prospect of U.S. intervention on behalf of the government against the Salafis:
Comment: At this point, Rachid Ghannouchi's attempt to coordinate Ennahda and the Salafis appears to be failing, with the Salafis out of control.Intentions do not always succeed.
Apr. 1, 2013 update: More evidence that things are getting out of control in Tunisia: Charles Levinson writes in the Wall Street Journal, "Tunisia Sees Rising Jihadist Threat," that
And many more details follow.
June 3, 2013 update: Comes news (in an Islamist Watch-sponsored article by Andrew Harrod ) of Turkish cooperation that parallels the Tunisian one documented above, between the supposedly moderate government and some fiery Salafis. In this case, it's Suat Kiliç, Minister for Youth and Sport of the AKP-dominated government, who met with the leadership of the German-based Die Wahre Religion.
June 6, 2013 update: Mark Durie provides an excellent guide to understanding the distinction between (1) and (2) above, the Salafis and the Muslim Brothers, at "Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood: What is the difference?"
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