Print this page
Wednesday, 10 December 2014 02:00

The Polarizing Ambiance in Tunisia: Rise of Salafis, Criticism of Secularists and the Evolving Strategy of Hizb al-Nahdah

Written by Mohammad Dawood Sofi
Hizb al-Nahdah―officially founded in 1981―witnessed a ‘rebirth’ of its political career in the post revolution Tunisia (March 2011), thereby posing a considerable impact on the political milieu of the region. The restructure and reformation of the Movement besides the devising of new strategies and policies befitting the changing socio-political atmosphere are the key involvements of al-Nahdah. The emergence of Salafis as a new political force obviously demanded al-Nahdah to redefine its role, strategy, and outlook. This has been recently manifested in its role as a mediator between different political actors―Secularists and Salafi groups―which is most difficult and complicated endeavor as per Rashid al-Ghannushi, the primary ideologue of the Movement.

Salafis―Who They Are 

The term Salafi is derived from the word ‘Salaf’ meaning ‘Past’ and here it refers to the one who strictly draws on the Qur’ān and the Sunnah and imitates the example set by the first three generations of the Muslims known as al-Salaf al-Ṣāliḥ―the Virtuous Forefathers.[1] In the 20th century, the term Salafi was used for the reformers like Muḥammad ‘Abdūh (1849-1905) and Jamāl al-Din Al-Afghāni (1839-1897), who aimed to restore the Muslim identity on one side and to rid the Muslims from the mentality of Jumūd (stagnation) on the other. In the contemporary period, the trend is more identified with the famous reformer of Islam Muḥammad bin ‘Abd al-Wahhāb (1703-1792) than to Jamāl al-Din Al-Afghāni and Muḥammad ‘Abdūh.[2]


Salafis Surfacing in Tunisia: Types, Causes and Impact

In the post revolution Tunisia, Salafis began to represent―albeit sharing certain broad characteristics―diverse trends. Generally speaking, Salafis in Tunisia presently represent three distinctive tendencies which as categorized by Monica Marks are: Scientific or Scripturalist Salafis, Political Salafis, and Jihadi Salafis.[3] tunisia salafis 

Composed of middle aged and older individuals, Scientific or Scripturalist Salafis―while being apolitical and quietist―lay much emphasis on Da‘wā activities[4] as a means to reform the society. The group, besides renouncing both violence and democracy, meticulously insist on the strict implementation of Shari‘ah.[5]

The Political Salafis as the name reveals, are engaged in the political activities so for so to accomplish their cherished goal of implementing Shari‘ah in the country. On the one side the group readily admits the blemish of the democratic system and on the other side it looks upon the very system “a vehicle to attain a more caliphate-like, shariah-based polity”.[6] By stating that at certain specific situations the flawed and faulty means justify holy ends, the Political Salafis in a way try to justify their own approach and strategy. At present in Tunisia three parties[7] represent political Salafi trend: Jabh āt al-Iṣlah (the Reform Front), Ḥizb al-Asālā (the Authenticity Party), and Ḥizb al-Raḥmah―the Mercy Party.[8]

Contrasting Scientific and Political Salafis, the Jihadi Salafis, predominantly composed of the young ones, according to Merone and Cavatorta reject politics within the plural institutions on the grounds that it can deliver neither material nor ethical goods.[9] This group gives more thrust on the use of Jih ād―the method obviously (rather practically) unusual from the others―as the most viable way to realize their objectives. Monica Marks whilst presenting certain features of the group and the threat it poses inside and outside the region writes:

They [Jihadi Salafis] comprise the most vocal, rapidly growing current of Tunisian Salafism. … The youth, dynamism and noticeable momentum of jihadi Salafism have raised alarm both within and outside of Tunisia. It is this strain of Tunisian Salafism―adamant, highly vocal and sometimes destructive―which has sparked fears and increased pressure on analysts to come up with satisfying explanations for the appeal of Tunisian Salafism, as well as quick-fix recommendations to neutralize its perceived threats.[10]

The abject surprise for one and all is the vigorous surge of Salafis in the post revolution Tunisia. It is roughly estimated that the number of Salafis in the country is about 10,000 in a population of 11 million.[11] The Salafis control about 400-500 Mas ājid[12] as confirmed by the Minister of Religious Affairs Nūr al-Din Khādmi in March 2012[13] and hitherto the number obviously would be more than what was estimated three years before. Notwithstanding this, Salafis are also intensely engaged to make their presence feel in other spheres of the life as well. They do so by staging demonstrations, challenging dress code, advocating the strict implementation of Shari‘ah, favoring the segregation of sexes, opposing the selling of alcohol, and rejecting the spread of immorality via cultural festivals and art exhibitions.[14]

For many―insiders and outsiders―the strong appearance of Salafis seems to be a phenomenon that is sometimes beyond one’s comprehension. Therefore, knowingly or unknowingly everyone is busy to extract the causes responsible for their growing tendency. Various analysts and researchers attribute the growing influence of the Salafis in Tunisia to the prevailing socio-economic situation. Some others opine that the release of different personalities like Shaykh Abū Iyāḍ―leader of Anṣār al- Shari‘ah[15] and the return of many Salafi figures, who were in exile, to Tunisia and thereafter the dissemination of their views largely contributed to their forceful emergence in the country.[16] In addition to this, the rise of Salafis in Tunisia to a great extent seems to be linked with their day-to-day actions individually as well as collectively. Their practical life as one observes grabs the attention of the masses toward them whether intentionally or unintentionally. In short, whatever may be the reason; it is convincing enough that their emergence in the country will certainly impact the ‘transition’ both at social and political level.


The Polarizing Ambiance and the Evolving Strategyof al-Nahḍah

With the abrupt rise of Salafis in the country, al-Nahḍah is facing a wide variety of combined challenges from the various sectors of the society. Not to speak of the pressures posed by the disintegrating and reeling economy, worth to mention is the growing influence of Salafis, the criticism from the Secularists, and the very division within the Movement. Al-Nahḍah finds itself in an awkward position, oscillating between Salafis who accuse it of being enemy to Islam[17] and the Secularists who criticize it of being too lenient in dealing with the Salafis. Moreover, as per International Crisis Group, the Party’s―not being ideologically unitary in nature―composition of various strands and the split within is another serious issue the Movement is facing as is evident from the below quoted item:

An-Nahda itself is divided: between religious preachers and pragmatic politicians as well as between its leadership’s more flexible positions and the core beliefs of its militant base. Politically, such tensions give rise to an acute dilemma: the more the party highlights its religious identity, the more it worries non-Islamists; the more it follows a pragmatic line, the more it alienates its constituency and creates an opening for the Salafis.[18]

Currently the much debated issue is the division within the Movement, and the analysts categorize that its political leadership like Rāshid al-Ghannūshi̇̄ and Hammadi al-Jibali―known as pragmatics―seem to be more flexible and moderate in their approach. While as, its religious leadership (the Movement’s base) known as ‘conservatives’ such as Sadok Chorou is considered to be extreme. Thus, al-Nahḍah is experiencing a volatile situation because of divisions inside and the challenges outside. The entire situation is by far best explained by the Party’s President and primary ideologue Shaykh Rāshid al-Ghannūshi̇̄ who says:

It is true that our development was very fast. We came from 50 countries and 27 prisons, and we organized ourselves in about 9 months … we organized ourselves and our program and we went to power without real preparation. We committed many mistakes and so we need to rest and contemplate about our experience.[19]

In this direction, the observers hold that the Party is going through a process of reorganization and reformation.  As a consequence of the wholesome development in MENA region, especially in their own country Tunisia, al-Nahḍah’s restructuring, reorganization, and change in outlook is reflected vis-à-vis intermediary between Salafis and Secularists. If the case of al-Nahḍah’s support to the Salafi political parties like Jabhāt al-Iṣlah, Ḥizb al-Asālā, and Ḥizb al-Raḥmah and thereafter their legalization is examined carefully, one may reach to the conclusion that al-Nahḍah is trying to maintain a balance between the two polarities―Salafis and Secularists. Providing legal and institutional platform to these groups will bring moderation in their mentality and approach. Al-Nahḍah firmly reckons that dilution of the conservative setup of the Salafis is possible by integrating them into the mainstream political discourse,[20] that is to say ‘dilution and moderation through participation’. The Movement is very much optimistic about the moderation of Salafis in the near future as is substantiated and validated by the statement that “An-Nahda is under no thrtunisia electionseat from the Salafis.”[21] Throughout the period of post revolution era, the Party has to a great degree of perfection played the role of mediation and will do the same in the future too as according to Nader Hashemi “[al-Nahḍah] is perfectly suited to serve as Tunisia’s mediating group during the country’s democratic transition process”.[22]

To sum up, al-Nahḍah being heavily engaged in defining its policies and strategy anew has taken a pragmatic approach of far reaching consequence in dealing with the country’s various polarities. The task of mediation besides being significant in diffusing the escalations is also inevitable for Tunisia’s peaceful transition. Stefano Torelli, as quoted by Dr Nader Hashemi, highlights the much significance of the mediating role of al-Nahḍah in the following lines:

This is the most interesting aspect to underline concerning al-Nahda strategy in the new Tunisian political landscape. What we are witnessing in Tunisia is the capacity of a political party to mediate between different instances. The role that al-Nahda is playing could be crucial in the new Tunisia where several political and social actors are vying for supremacy.[23]

In Tunisia, for mediation between different polarizations, al-Nahḍah is by far best suited to perform this role, thanks to the existence of various currents in the Movement. On the one hand its political figures like Rāshid al-Ghannūshi̇̄ and Hammadi al-Jibali―moderate in their approach―help the Movement to strengthen ties with the secular forces and on the other the religious figures―the base―like Sadok Chorou lend a hand in bringing them closer to the Salafis. So, being a leading political force, the Movement’s role in bringing the economic prosperity, maintaining balance between ideologically competing forces, improving security situation, and overseeing peaceful transition is critically significant.   



The current ideological polarization in the country demands the need of a ‘mediating group’ so as to reconcile the persisting differences between various ideological currents especially of Salafis and Secularists. Despite the Movement’s criticism in terms of its poor and unsatisfactory performance regarding employment, security, and regional disparity, still it has remained successful to some degree in bringing the stability to the country by taking some pragmatic steps as mentioned above. Nonetheless, the circumstances demand a more active and vibrant role of the Movement as a mediating group in order to facilitate the transformation of these conflicting polarities from ‘competition to cooperation’. Consequently, the objectives of the revolution may be difficult to accomplish plus the situation may turn volatile if al-Nahḍah fails to do so.

The changing political landscape of the country suggests that al-Nahḍah itself is going through the phase of transition and how the Movement would modify and transform its approach and outlook is yet to be ascertained especially after witnessing a solid defeat from al-Sebsi led party, Nidaa Tounes. Besides solidifying their own house and obviating the other challenges, the Party after losing the recent held parliamentary elections (October 2014) in the country will contentedly play a significant rather dynamic role of the opposition.



* Mr. Mohammad Dawood Sofi is presently pursuing his PhD on “Contemporary Challenges to Islam: A Critique of al-Nahḍah of Tunisia” in the Department of Islamic Studies, Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), Aligarh, India (since Nov 2012). Author of a book on History of Islamic Civilization (2013), his publications have appeared in Hazara Islamicus, Pakistan; and Die Welt des Islam, Germany (in print). His major areas of interest include: Modern Islamic Political Thought, Islamic Movements of North Africa, Rashid Ghannouchi and Hizb al-Nahda, Democracy, Pluralism, Globalization, and Human Rights.

[1] Shahin, Emad El-Din, “Salafiyyah” in John L. Esposito, et al., (eds.) The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009, Vol. 5, p. 29 

[2] Marks, Monica, “Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism: Understanding the Jihadi Current,” Mediterranean Politics, Vol. 18, No. 1, March 2013, 104-111, p. 108 

[3] Guazzone, Laura, “Ennahda Islamists and the Test of Government in Tunisia,” The International Spectator: Italian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 4, 2013, 30-50, p. 34 

[4] Marks, Monica, op. cit., p. 109 

[5] Allani, Alaya, “Islamism and Salafism in Tunisia after the Arab Spring,” Right to Nonviolence’s Tunisia Constitutional e-Forum, 2 October 2012, 1-5, p. 1 

[6] Marks, Monica, op. cit., p. 109 

[7] Ibid.

[8] Led by Muḥammad Khouja, the party Jabhāt al-Iṣlah was legalized in May 2012;  Ḥizb al-Asālā led by Mouldi Ali was granted legal permission in March 2012; and the Ḥizb al-Raḥmah headed by Said Jaziri in July 2012.  For further details see, International Crisis Group, Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge, Middle East/ North Africa Report, February 2013, pp. 21-22 

[9] Merone, Fabio and Cavatorta, Francesco, “Salafist mouvance and sheikh-ism in the Tunisian democratic transition,” Centre for International Studies, Dublin City University, No. 7, 2012, p. 6

[10] Marks, Monica, op. cit., pp. 109-110 

[11] Wolf, Anne, “An Islamist ‘renaissance’? Religion and politics in post-revolutionary Tunisia,” The Journal of North African Studies, Vol. 18, No. 4, September 2013, 560-573, p. 568

[12] El-Issawi, Fatima, “After the Arab Spring: Power Shift in the Middle East?: The Tunisian Transition: The Evolving Face of the Second Republic,” LSE Research Online, May 2012, 18-22, p. 21. Available online at  

[13] Al Arabiya News, “Extremists control hundreds of Tunisia’s mosques: religious affairs minister”,  (31/ 3/ 2012) Accessed on 26/11/2014  

[14] Maddy-Weitzman, Bruce, “Historic departure or temporary marriage? The Left–Islamist alliance in Tunisia,” Dynamics of Asymmetric Conflict: Pathways toward Terrorism and Genocide, Vol. 5, No. 3, November 2012, 196-207, p. 203

[15] For more details see, Torelli, Stefano M., Merone, Fabio, and Cavatorta, Francesco, “Salafism in Tunisia: Challenges and Opportunities for Democratization,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 19, No. 4, December 2012, 140-154 

[16] Wolf, Anne, op. cit., p. 569 

[17] It was the reaction of Shaykh Abū Iyādh to Ali Lareyedh’s statement in which the later said that the Jihadi Salafis are the greatest threat in the country and the establishment needs to fight them.   

[18] International Crisis Group, op. cit., pp. i-ii 

[19] Lang, Hardin, et. al., Tunisia’s Struggle for Political Pluralism after Ennahda, Center for American Progress, April 2014, p. 12 

[20] Feuer, Sarah J., “Islam and Democracy in Practice: Tunisia’s Ennahdha Nine Months In,” Middle East Brief, No. 66, September 2012, 1-8, p. 5  

[21] International Crisis Group, op. cit., p. 30 

[22] Hashemi, Nader, “Why Islam (Properly Understood) Is the Solution: Reflections on the Role of Religion in Tunisia’s Democratic Transition,” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, Vol. 30, No. 4, 2013, 137-145, p. 142

[23] Ibid.