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Salafi Party Vows to Use Reason, Not Force, to Change Tunisia

The head of Tunisia’s first licensed Salafi party said today the group was intent on showing that democracy and strict adherence to Islam could co-exist in the secular nation that gave birth to the so-called Arab Spring uprisings.

The main challenge for the Islah Front party, which was licensed on May 11 by the Islamist-led government, is to change the misperception toward Salafis in Tunisia, who “have faced a smear campaign by the secularists,” party head Mohamed Khouja said in a telephone interview.

The principle of freedom espoused by democracy does not run counter to Islam, and “we do not see a contradiction between Sharia and contemporary modernism,” Khouja said, referring to Islamic law by its Arabic name.

Tunisia’s uprising that began in December 2010 set in motion other mass protests across the Arab world that led to the ouster of its president, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Libya. Since then, Islamists have gained solid holds in power, dominating the legislatures of both Tunisia and Egypt.

In addition, Salafis, who adhere to a stricter interpretation of Islam, have emerged as a force in politics after decades of crackdowns by the secular governments in those countries.

The Salafis’ growing strength has raised worries among secularists and others that they may seek to impose strict Islamic guidelines. In turn, those could limit women’s rights and undercut key revenue sources for the country such as tourism by banning alcohol sales in restaurants or the mixing of the sexes on beaches. Salafis in Tunisia have already clashed with artists during protest rallies.

Khouja stressed that Islah “is a political party based on the principles of reform within the Islamic heritage, and we will not use force to prohibit wine or beach clothing.” Instead, the party will use “persuasion and advice” to change attitudes, he said.

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