Salafis out of the mosques

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As Thameur Baccari, who had just reached his 30 years, was walking toward the headquarters of his Koranic studies association last June, he said that it had been decided to put safety rails at the entrance: "We do not feel safe anymore", he explained.

Three months later, in September, he arrived at the "17 décembre" cultural center of Sidi Bouzid smiling and saying "We've made it, we have recovered almost all the mosques, they have only one!"

The city was the scene of many violent events, most of which were triggered by groups of radicalized young, fed by a literal reading of the Muslim religion, often simplistic, to the point of becoming dangerous. The context was favorable to restore the possibility of praying, which was controlled under the old regime. This article does not intend to accuse those who wear a tunic or has a beard, because everyone is free to dress as they wish, but challenges the use of violence, justified by a partial interpretation of the scriptures, to impose their interpretation of Islamic society.


sidi 350Where are the Salafis of Sidi Bouziz coming from?

Jilani Omri is an imam and the president of Association régional des Imams in Sidi Bouziz. He attends a course titled "Muslim leaders and democracy", organized by Association Méditerranéenne pour le Développement Économique at the cultural center.

"After the revolution, the biggest change for us the imams was having regained the freedom of expression", he says. "Before, we could not speak, the imams were persecuted. We needed to support the RCD (Rassemblement Constitutionnel Démocratique, party founded by Ben Ali) to be able to play our role. All the speeches were dictated. Today we are free, but before we were not. Since then, most of the 'imams of the RCD' are dismissed. "

To understand the origins of the violence of these extremist groups, Omri Jilani reminds of the events that occurred on the heights of Slimane in 2006. An armed attack revealed flaws in the security system of Ben Ali, marking a turning point in the mentality of the people. The phenomenon of Salafism has not appeared with the revolution. For several years, the contingents of armed groups active in the Middle Eastern conflicts were largely formed by Tunisians, a very important percentage if we consider the demographic composition of the country, sparsely populated in comparison to other states in the region that have jihad fighters, such as Morocco, Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

"They are ignorant youth who have never received an education", says the 62 year-old imam, who was also a student of the association of Thameur. "You never stop learning" he continues.

Under Ben Ali, the teaching of religion was controlled, sometimes even banned. Imams who resisted were persecuted. The training at times took place through satellite tv channels, of Wahhabi trend (especially Saudi). Prisons had spread a radical interpretation of Koranic texts, and this is an element that is often reported in the testimonies of the inhabitants of Sidi Bouziz. "Many young offenders have become Salafists once released from prison", says Thameur.


The rise of the Salafis between 2011 and 2013

"After the revolution, the Salafis have begun to behave in such a way as to attract people, especially the young. The state was absent so they began to manage public order, patrolling the streets and souks, because we were in a period of great insecurity. In some places they were regulating the justice, as in Bizerte", continues Jilani.

"But little by little, once they achieved the trust of the people, they became more aggressive. They closed the taverns and even burned a police station. "

In 2012 there were many clashes between the Salafis and sellers of alcohol. A hotel that was serving alcohol to its customers was looted and the owner closed it. Not even the mosques were left unscathed.

"They won with physical violence or numerical superiority between 2012 and 2013. They attacked the people, even the elderly, sometimes even using the copies of the Quran! They even slapped me. They gave speeches in support of Al Qaida and Abou Yadh came twice to Sidi Bouziz ".

To gain the trust of the people "they have practiced cronyism, playing an important social role and funding sometimes even marriages, which are illegal, are not recognized by the state", continues the imam.


The "reconquest" of the mosques by the inhabitants

The vote for the new constitution in January marks an important moment. Ennahdha, the Islamist party in power since two years, left the government and is superseded by a group of "technocrats". This change was a relief for those who believe that Ennahdha had supported these radical movements, at least by not opposing it.

In May 2014, six out of ten mosques in Sidi Bouziz were in the hands of the Salafis. At prayer time, citizens used to go to the other four to "take a distance". "We were very numerous, some prayed outside because there was no more room inside."

The reconquest came with the support of the state. "We started a petition in two mosques, collecting hundreds of signatures. Then we went to the governor to say that we did not want the Salafis in the city. Finally we met the new Minister of Religious Affairs in Tunis. "

The authorities didn't take too long to respond. Police carried out checks in mosques and imams who did not have the documents in order were banned. For discretion, today, some have shaved their beards. All the heads are in prison but one, tells Thameur. An unauthorized demonstration last June ended with numerous arrests.

"They have no respect for the elderly, they have split families, pushing the boys against their own parents. Dozens of them went to Syria, mosques have organized collections to fund their travel costs. They use the same networks with Harragas, undocumented migrants who try to cross the sea to reach Europe. "

To recreate the link with the faithful, broken by the events, Thameur proposes "a form of resistance through knowledge, not based on force. Our religion preaches forgiveness, tolerance and forbids violence. Today the fight is done with education, this is what we do in our association."

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The Coranique régionale Association in Sidi Bouziz, where Thameur works, is the only governorate enabled to form and issue certificates to the imams so that they can perform their duties, and this authorization is granted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

The 2014 elections have raised important questions for students and for teachers association. And also for some imams of the city who fear a new crackdown, if the securitarian appearance should trigger a new psychosis in the country. The fear is also related to the possibility of creating an overlap between religious practice and extremism, by the mediatic omnipresence of the international jihadism.

For the moment the situation remains on hold, between a potential repression by the state and the risk of an attack by radical religious groups.



Rafika Bendermel

Photos:: Paolo Kahn

Translated from Italian by Övgü Pınar








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