Imam Abderrahman Kammoun says he’s a victim of an assault on freedom of expression. Tunisia’s government calls him an extremist whose sermons fuel violence.
Clashes erupted, with the cleric’s Salafist followers burning tires and police firing tear gas, after Ministry of Religious Affairs officials and security forces tried on March 28 to remove Kammoun from his mosque in Kairouan, 140 kilometers (86 miles) south of the capital, Tunis.
In rooting out preachers it sees as a threat, Tunisia faces another pivotal moment three months after Islamist and secular leaders agreed to a new constitution, a collaboration cheered by investors. To maintain democratic momentum in the sole Arab Spring nation to avoid widespread turmoil following the popular uprisings, it must tread lightly.
“If members of this movement think they’re participating in a newly pluralistic environment, then cracking down may further radicalize some,” said Francesco Cavatorta, a professor at Quebec’s Universite Laval who studies the North African nation’s politics. The government needs to “balance views that Salafists stand for, which aren’t appealing to the majority, with their right to express them.”
Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, a 51-year-old engineer who will govern the country’s 11 million people until elections this year, has given security forces three months to assert control over 150 mosques considered hotbeds of radicalism. Behind the crackdown is a rise in violence and concern that Islamists, some veterans of Syria’s war, will recruit youths angered over poverty and unemployment.
‘Sons of Salafis’
The stakes are high for Tunisia, where political uncertainty in 2013 contributed to a slump in foreign direct investment and reduced reserves to three months of imports, according to World Bank data. President Barack Obama met with Jomaa this month and pledged $500 million in loan guarantees.
“This isn’t a campaign to neutralize the mosques but a war on freedom of thought,” Kammoun said after agreeing to leave Kairouan to avoid arrest. “The sons of the Salafi movement are being targeted,” he said of the ultra-conservative sect that adherents believe reflects a purer Islam that’s become associated with violent jihad.
Amid optimism over the new charter, the yield on government bonds fell in March to the lowest since before the 2011 revolt that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali more than three years ago.
Tunisia’s trouble with its mosques began with that uprising, the first of the Arab Spring protests.
“A lot of the imams were seen as lackeys of Ben Ali’s regime,” said Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at The Washington Institute, who focuses on political Islam. “Every Friday, they were given a speech to read. After the revolution, these imams were kicked out, and a lot of mosques were taken over by Salafists. Because there was no regulation, it was a sort of free for all.”
Stung by criticism it was being too lenient, the Islamist Ennahdha party that assumed power after Ben Ali’s fall took on the radical fringe.
The offensive’s centerpiece was the banning of Ansar Al Shariah, blamed for two assassinations and attempted suicide bombings last year, and designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. for its alleged role in the 2012 attack on the nation’s embassy and school in Tunis.
While the ban disrupted an organization that had won some backing by supplying food and medicines to communities cut off from state support, it also made it harder to police the group.
Ansar “didn’t have any clear cut political agenda,” said Frederic Volpi, senior lecturer in international relations at the U.K.’s University of St Andrews. “Banning the movement fragmented it: Some joined the rank of transnational jihadism, some went to Syria. Others resorted to political activism,” he said. “These tend to be the people in charge of mosques around the country that the government has decided it doesn’t like.”
Some members of Ansar may have been involved in terrorism, yet many weren’t, said Alaya Allani, a Tunis-based specialist on the group, who called instead for a national dialogue.
“What happened with Ansar Al Sharia and the jihadist movement in general, from arrests to prosecutions, may have led part of the movement” to take up arms, he said. “Violence can’t be eliminated by violence.”
The latest campaign is moving slowly, with 20 mosques targeted since February, according to Ministry of Religious Affairs Director Abdelsattar Badr, most in the northeast. Walid Zarrouk, secretary-general of the Union of Prisons and Reform, said that about 1,400 people have been arrested on terrorism charges since the wider crackdown began.
After Friday prayers, officials move in, evicting imams operating without a license and enforcing opening hours.
They have been welcomed by many who have seen the character of their faith challenged. In Ezzouhour, Imen Ajroudi, 35, said she now wears a veil to prevent harassment by Salafists, while her husband no longer goes to the mosque after being told to grow a beard.
Tensions in Kairouan, home to one of the most important historical centers of Islamic learning, had simmered for months. In May, a policeman died during clashes after authorities barred an Ansar meeting.
Kammoun, the ousted imam, said he fears a return to the collective punishment meted out by the autocratic Ben Ali.
“Salafists are not infallible,” he said. “But their mistakes remain individual errors.”