The MENA and Southeast Asia regions have undergone and continue to undergo massive political transitions.  Differences in the process and outcomes of their transitions can be viewed through the lens of a “civil society infrastructure” and the qualitative differences in both these regions. This essay series engages a variety of issues regarding the roles and impact of civil society organizations (CSOs) in these two regions during the transition and pre-transition periods as well as in instances where the political transition is completed. Read more ...

Much has been written about the rise of Salafism in Tunisia since the fall of the Ben Ali regime,[1] and most analyses conveyed more than a note of surprise regarding the emergence of such phenomenon in the country. In fact, the sudden public presence of Salafis in a country that had seemed, since independence in 1956, to have embraced secularism, shocked the Tunis-based liberal elites and the international community. The former did not recognize what they believed was the ‘true’ Tunisia in the young bearded men espousing a very conservative and confrontational form of religiosity. The latter did not think that political Islam, in any form, would be as attractive to the significant numbers of Tunisians as it turned out to be.[2]

A number of different explanations exist to account for the ‘under the radar’ growth of Salafism in the 2000s. First, many young Tunisian men exploring religion during the latter years of Ben Ali’s rule, found meaningful spirituality and ideas about how to socially integrate religion in the discourse of Salafi sheikhs emanating from the Gulf through the internet and satellite television.[3] Second, the war on terror—employed in the Tunisian context to shut out all dissent, particularly in poorer areas—drove some to embrace extremist religiously-based ideologies that seemed to provide both an explanation for, and a challenge to, local secular authoritarianism as well as western imperialism. Finally, a small but significant number of Tunisians left the country to fight in foreign wars, with many returning to fill Tunisian jails or operate underground. Once the revolution occurred, it opened up the social and political space for all sorts of groups and ideologies to be recognized in the public sphere.

Salafism became a prominent framework of social and political mobilization because its discourses led many young people to believe that democratic transition was not inclusive of Islam in its vision of a future Tunisia. A democratic, liberal and secular Tunisia was not the revolutionary end product that Salafists had envisaged. Such a Tunisia, to which even the Islamist party al-Nahda had committed, would simply replicate the social and economic divisions created under Ben Ali, which was unacceptable. In addition, and probably more significantly, the new system would also permit a far greater degree of pluralism in terms of freedom of expression, opening the way to the questioning of religion and its precepts. Finally, the new democratic Tunisia would adopt political rules that would, in theory, allow for the passing of legislation that might counter Shariah law, and this was strongly objectionable. In short, Salafism became the ideological framework through which many disenfranchised young people could challenge the new post-revolutionary institutional order, defy generational hierarchies, acquire social status in their communities and, also, ‘be cool’.[4]

However, Tunisian Salafism has been difficult to interpret in terms of the instruments employed to carry out its activism; it did not conform to the traditional categories used to analyze the phenomenon more broadly across the Middle East and North Africa. The literature on Salafism and its relation to politics offers three categories to understand Salafi activism:[5] The first type is defined as ‘quietist’ or ‘scientific,’ whereby Salafis refrain from interfering with political institutions entirely, focusing instead on religious education and studies. Those who belong to this trend follow religious precepts as literally as possible, almost withdrawing from society in the process. The second and much smaller category comprises ‘political’ Salafis who are keen on forming political parties and/or political associations, in order to promote their views and most preferred policies in an institutional setting. Political Salafis claim that only engagement can result in a meaningful defense and promotion of ‘genuine’ Islam. To them, focusing only on often obscure ecumenical matters―as the scientific Salafis do―is bound to leave the public space wide open to rival ideologies, such as liberal secularism and the Islamism the Muslim Brothers subscribe to. Finally, the third category is jihad Salafism, whose members promote violence and conduct armed struggle in order to create an Islamic state within which religious law will be applied as strictly as possible. Like the politicos, they criticize the aloofness of the scientific Salafis from the concerns of ordinary believers. However, they also criticize the politicos for wanting to participate in institutional politics, because they risk following the same path of compromise as the Muslim Brotherhood, losing in the process the orthodoxy required from believers when building the ‘perfect’ society.

From early 2011 until the summer of 2013, as mentioned earlier, Tunisian Salafism challenged the validity of these categories, implicitly suggesting that the categories were much more flexible and penetrable than previously thought. This is because jihadi Salafis―loosely grouped in a movement called Ansar al-Sharia (AST)―dominated the Tunisian public scene in contrast to all other Arab countries where quietists constitute the vast majority of Salafis. In addition and more significantly, Tunisian jihadi Salafis refrained from armed struggle; openly arguing against it, they operated like a social movement intent on promoting extremely illiberal views at odds with the majority of political parties and other civil society actors. As explained elsewhere,[6] the AST eventually fell victim to its own internal contradictions, as it became unable to decide whether to become an institutionalized actor―however critical of the system―or to remain outside the liberal-democratic structures being constructed in the country and challenging them, even through violence. The movement therefore could not reconcile its many factions and was outlawed in the summer of 2013 in order to secure the transition to democracy.[7] As of today AST can be said to no longer exist, as its former members have chosen different paths, ranging from armed engagement in foreign wars to withdrawal from any form of activism.

The emergence of Salafism in Tunisia, and in particular the rise and attraction of AST, equated for many to the rise of ‘uncivil society’ actors[8] who, because they promote illiberal values, do not merit a place within a liberal and democratic order. Over the last fifteen years, there have been heated discussions within academic circles about the definition of civil society and its applicability to Arab politics. Some scholars contend that the ethos of groups and associations―the typical civil society actors―should not be taken into account when employing the label ‘civil society.’ What matters, they argue, is that such groups and associations are genuinely independent of the state and the market, and that members’ affiliation with them is a voluntary act. This view, however, is hardly accepted in political and policy-making circles where the linkage between civil society and liberal democracy is believed to be natural, and where therefore the ethos of groups and associations is the primary distinguishing criterion of ‘civil’ and ‘uncivil’ societal actors.

In the Tunisian context the scholarly and political worlds have indeed collided on this latter point. For local and international actors involved in the transition to democracy, Salafis represented the ultimate adversaries of liberal democracy and thus needed to be forcefully marginalized or eliminated. The problem with this attitude is that it fails to acknowledge the genuine appeal Salafism had on a number of social constituencies, particularly among youth in poor urban areas. It thus refused to consider that alternative visions of Tunisia should at least be contended and engaged with despite their illiberalism and supposedly anti-democratic nature. In doing so, the disdain and inability of large sectors of so-called progressive society led to the revival of and justification for past authoritarian practices, which are then paradoxically framed in the name of defending democracy from intolerance. For Salafis themselves, their participation in society―no matter whether civil or not―represented also a paradox insofar as they benefited from liberal-democratic structures to propagate their anti-democratic and illiberal ethos and were aware of this contradiction. Many of them obviously found this difficult to reconcile with given the extremely negative views they have about democracy and individual rights. The dilemma of what to do with the civil society activism of Salafis belonging to AST has been solved politically, but not ideologically. From a political point of view, the main parties leading the transition, including Nahda, came to the conclusion that AST was a subversive force and an obstacle to the further institutionalization of democratization, therefore taking a very hard line against it. The consequence of a successful transition was in part employing the rhetoric, ‘they are not real Tunisians and do not represent Tunisian Islam’, alongside the practice—including the return of random arrests, searches and torture—of authoritarian exclusion of Salafis. AST of course brought much of this onto itself through its inability to act as a united movement and chart a non-violent course of action. However, the fact still remains that the positive outcome of the transition in Tunisia has been built on excluding those who offered a radically alternative vision of Tunisian identity today. Indeed, Bourguiba and Ben Ali had taken the same course of action against all those who did not share their ideological outlook about what it meant to be Tunisian and which values should have been dominant in society.

From an ideological point of view, the role of AST within post-revolutionary civil society has not been sufficiently discussed with respect to similar anti-system movements. There are three elements from the AST experience that should be highlighted and further studied: first, there is the ‘indirect strengthening effect’ that groups labeled as ‘uncivil’ can have on processes of democratization or on already established democracies. While intolerant, illiberal and anti-democratic groups can certainly constitute an obstacle and a threat to liberal and democratic practices, their presence might not be entirely negative because it can generate opposition to their views. In other words, what can ensue is political mobilization among sectors of society that, without the ‘threat’ of incivility, might not otherwise mobilize. In Tunisia the presence of Salafis and conservative Islamists, with their problematic demands on matters of individual rights and freedoms, contributed to increased activism by those opposed to their views and plans for social change. One has only to note the extensive mobilization that occurred when Islamists suggested that the Constitution recognize the ‘complementarity’ of women to men rather than their equality. In some ways, the arrival of illiberal movements on the public scene and their ability to propagate their message unhindered is ultimately beneficial to the political growth of society because liberals then have a clear target they can fight rather rely on authoritarianism to sweep problematic debates within society under the carpet through the use of repression. Up to a point, therefore, Salafism in Tunisia helped unify society through strengthening the political system.

Furthermore, there is a direct democratizing effect on ‘uncivil’ movements. While AST ultimately did not manage to become institutionalized and failed to set out a coherent, albeit radical, vision for Tunisia, a deeper understanding of the potential for what can be termed ‘democratic’ was present in at least some factions within the movement.[9] This is not to suggest that AST would have become a democratizing liberal force. Nevertheless, it is important to note that many anti-systemic movements across the globe have turned into mainstream social and/or political actors through routinized processes of engagement and institutionalization. In the Tunisian case, the Islamist party al-Nahda as well as president Moncef Marzouki attempted to bring AST into the fold, and some within the group were tempted to do so in the long-term.

Eventually, however, events led key actors in a different direction, and violent factions within the AST leadership required the hand of the state and security forces to end any hope of long-term moderation. However, the fact that some within AST might have accepted the constraints of a liberal-democratic system, while remaining critical towards it, can be seen as a maneuver used by former AST members to enter the realm of civil society after the movement was outlawed. Rather than choosing the path of armed struggle, withdrawing to religious studies or pursuing the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, they established human rights associations dedicated to defending young men captured by the security services and abused while in detention.

Finally, there is a conceptual challenge that the rise of AST in Tunisia brought about, which harkens back to similar debates elsewhere about the border between a supposedly civil society and an uncivil one. If one examines the values of AST and the policies it promoted, there is no escaping the movement being deemed as profoundly illiberal and anti-democratic. At the same time, though, one must also acknowledge that many within civil society hold views that are equally intolerant and anti-democratic in relation to those of Salafis. For example, the measures requested by many human rights activists and defenders of democracy which were, at times, obtained from state authorities were nothing more than demands to prevent Salafis from introducing their views. What is more, repressive practices and abuses against Salafis are often overlooked or considered acceptable, because of what Salafis believe. As mentioned, this problem has been solved in Tunisia from a political point of view, but the issue of ‘tolerating the intolerant’ has not, thus blurring the lines between civil and uncivil society.

Both democratizing countries and established democracies have experienced the rise of illiberal and anti-democratic movements, and are likely to do so again in the future. With this in mind, it is imperative that the lessons from Tunisia’s case with the AST are learned. There should be no tolerance for movements that employ violence to advance their views of society, but, at the same time, there should be no fear in engaging with groups and ideas that are unpalatable to the majority no matter how problematic and illiberal they might be. Refusing to acknowledge their legitimate existence in society or demanding that such views be suppressed would simply lead to a renewed form of authoritarianism, which, in time, might turn against all dissenters and not only against  ‘illiberal’ ones.   

[1] Monica Marks, “Who are Tunisia’s Salafis?” Foreign Policy, The Middle East Channel, September 28, 2012,; Stefano Torelli, Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, “Salafism in Tunisia: challenges and opportunities for democratization,” Middle East Policy, 19 (2012): 140-154; and Anne Wolff and Raphael Levefre, “The demon or the demonized? Deconstructing ‘salafism’ in Tunisia,” Open Democracy, June 5, 2012.

[2] Haugbølle Rikke Hostrup and Francesco Cavatorta, “Beyond Ghannouchi. Islamism and Social Change in Tunisia,” Middle East Report 262 (2012): 20-25. 

[3] Haugbølle Rikke Hostrup, “New expressions of Islam in Tunisia: an ethnographic approach,” Journal of North African Studies 20 (2015): 319-335.

[4] Monica Marks, “Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism,” Mediterranean Politics 18 (2013): 107-114.

[5] Quintan Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 29 (2006): 207-239.

[6] Francesco Cavatorta and Fabio Merone, “Post-Islamism, ideological evolution and ‘la tunisianité’ of the Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda,” Journal of Political Ideologies 20 (2015): 27-42.

[7]  Fabio Merone, “Enduring Class Struggle in Tunisia: The Fight for Identity beyond Political Islam,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 42 (2015): 74-87.

[8] See Petr Kopecký ad Cas Mudde (eds.), Uncivil Society? Contentious Politics in Post-Communist Europe (London: Routledge, 20013).

[9] Francesco Cavatorta, “Salafism, liberalism and democratic learning in Tunisia,” Journal of North African Studies, forthcoming, 2015.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is an independent, non-partisan, non-for-profit, educational organization. It does not engage in advocacy and its scholars’ opinions are their own. MEI welcomes financial donations, but retains sole editorial control over its work and its publications reflect only the authors’ views. For a listing of MEI donors, please click here.