The Salafi jihadi threat in Tunisia is taking on a new dimension, pitting the moderate Islamist government against Salafis of all stripes—groups that have long been suspected of posing a serious threat to the country’s security. But in the problem may lie part of the solution. Non-jihadi Salafis, particularly those who have shown a real inclination toward moderation, can play a key role in minimizing the jihadi threat and in addressing the future of Salafism in Tunisian politics.  

Over the past year, Salafi jihadi-related violence has been on the rise. Last month, Tunisian security forces clashed with Tunisia’s biggest Salafi organization, Ansar al-Sharia, when the group tried to hold an annual conference without official permission. The fallout was serious; over 200 Salafis were detained. Salafi jihadis who are suspected or implicated in violent acts are now moving swiftly through the courts. In June alone, six Salafis were sentenced to jail for five years for setting fire to a Sufi shrine in Tunis last October. Twenty others were given suspended jail sentences for the attack on the American embassy in Tunis last September. Ansar al-Sharia is also suspected—according the Minister of the Interior—of involvement in terrorism activities at the Algerian border, part of a crisis that Tunisian security forces have been battling since December.

For many Tunisians, the trials are a welcome development, as Salafis are suspected of committing numerous violent acts—including the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid, which rocked Tunisia and ushered in widespread disdain and fear of Salafis. However, these developments have invigorated interest in the complex mosaic of Salafi groups that are now vying for a voice in the new Tunisia. In particular, the less-combative members of the Salafi movement deserve closer attention. How they choose to conduct themselves in the following months will partly decide the reach of Tunisia’s jihadis in society. 

Apart from Salafi jihadis, two other major currents of Salafism exist in Tunisia: Salafiyya ‘Almiyya, often translated as "scientific Salafism," and political Salafism.  Members of the Salafiyya ‘Almiyya current are apolitical, preferring to immerse themselves in religious devotion. Their movement dates back to the eighth century AD. Until the last century, they remained an elitist and almost forgotten sect. Although their profile has risen since the revolution, scientific Salafism’s imprint on religious life remains limited—only around 24 of Tunisia’s mosques are under their control. Nonetheless, some scientific Salafi sheikhs, such as Bashir bin Hassan, are well-known religious figures, with impressive followings and media platforms.  

By contrast, political Salafis aspire to use political avenues to influence Tunisian society. Some have formed parties such as Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Although they were unsuccessful, Jabhat al-Islah members contested six seats in the Constituent Assembly as independents (the party did not receive an official license until March 2012) in the October 2011 elections. Enacting sharia law is their foremost policy priority,  and they have also called for cutting ties with the IMF and World Bank and for Tunisia to stop repaying foreign debts. Hizb ut-Tahrir also advocates an agro-industrial economy that is less reliant on tourism. Some of these groups have less alarming policy aims, including establishing a waqf (Islamic charity) system, invigorating Tunisia’s tech industries, and boosting the use of the Arabic language in schools.  Other Salafi groups, despite their undeniable political ambitions, shun mainstream politics. For example, Ansar al-Sharia lambasts democracy because it requires man-made laws, which they consider a symptom of a polytheistic state. Instead, it favors what it refers to as street politics, which includes organizing demonstrations and boosting its political engagement through charity projects in poor areas. 

However unpalatable their ideas and political ambitions, both scientific and political Salafis could play a role in mitigating the double threat that Salafi jihadis pose to Tunisia—imposition of sharia by force and violence against those who challenge them. Working with Ennahda, they could boost the credibility of moderate Islamism. Although Salafism might seem extreme by definition, the term is still helpfully vague. Some high-profile Islamists have shown a capacity to use the ambiguity of the term to their advantage. For example, last year Ennahda’s co-founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, claimed—in an attempt to pacify and woo young Salafis—that he himself is a Salafi in the sense that Salafism means a “return to the noble values of Islam founded on the Koran and the Sunna.

There is already evidence that some Tunisian Salafis are becoming increasingly pragmatic. For example, members of the Salafiyya ‘Almiyya current have vetoed violence when Tunisians have clashed over religious issues—from the airing of the allegedly blasphemous film Persepolis to a niqab ban on university campuses.  Some actors within Salafi political parties have slowly shed their jihadi convictions over the years. For example, Mohamed Khoja, who leads Jabhat al-Islah, was one of the founders of the Tunisian Islamic Front, which had suspected ties to terrorism. Now he rejects violence in Tunisia and insists that, if elected, members of his party would not outlaw alcohol or ban bikinis.

Even Ansar al-Sharia members, many of whom have waged jihad abroad, show a capacity to move away from extremism—at least publicly. Although Tunisian authorities believe that some members still have links to terrorism, Ansar al-Sharia has tried to outwardly distance itself from violence. In February, Abu Iyadh, the head of Ansar al-Sharia, expressed his wish that young Tunisians refrain from traveling to Syria to fight jihad and to focus on peaceful action at home. In a BBC interview in June, the head of the Ansar al-Sharia’s youth wing stressed that it was a peaceful group focused on preaching and charity activities. Ansar al-Sharia is eager to cultivate a peaceful image not just because it fears government reprisals, but also to avoid alienating members who are against violence in Tunisia. It is, after all, a disconnected movement that relies on dozens of charismatic leaders to exploit everyday discontent at the grassroots level of Tunisian society. 

If non-jihadi Salafis support peaceful action for the long haul, they can in turn reach out to Tunisians who are vulnerable to the seduction of Salafi jihadism. But their powers of dissuasion will depend on their ability to prove that their brand of Salafism is superior. Politically inclined Salafis must show that they can be more effective actors than Salafi jihadis can. In this regard, Salafi political parties have a much harder task than groups like Ansar al-Sharia. They must prove their ability to shape political decisions, rather than simply blasting more energy into street politics. Currently, Ansar al-Sharia has proven more successful in appealing to disenfranchised Tunisians. A large portion of its members are young and it has a robust and well-organized youth wing. Crucially, its emphasis on grassroots action gives unemployed youth the opportunity to feel empowered. By contrast, political parties’ youth activities are much less visible. Jabhat al-Islah’s Facebook page is dominated by pictures of middle-aged men. Similarly, older “wise men” are the face of scientific Salafism. As a result, these movements hold limited appeal for youth.

To a secular Tunisian or Western observer, the prospect of Salafi politicization is a catch-22 situation.  While increased Salafi civic clout is undesirable, their political marginalization strengthens the hand of terrorists who attest that the only way to make an impact is through force.  This predicament could be resolved by two potential scenarios. The first is the gradual moderation of Salafi ideology as they gain political experience. The second is a shift in focus away from controversial religious questions toward solving pressing economic issues within an Islamic framework—from the development of Islamic banking to the creation of a welfare state inspired by Islam’s egalitarian principles, for example. 

Such outcomes may not even be probable, let alone guaranteed. But, as Ennahda’s journey demonstrates, this kind of political evolution is not without precedent. After all, the party has gone from calling for sharia to leaving it out of the constitution completely. And, in the words of Rachid Ghannouchi, “astonishing is the capacity of [Tunisia] to tame the most stubborn of plants.”

Sherelle Jacobs is a Tunisia-based freelance journalist.