By Fabio Merone
If Ansar al-Sharia truly desires integration into Tunisian society and values charity work over violence, it is time for its leadership to act. At the same time, the Tunisian government must engage with more moderate elements within the controversial group, which it has now declared a terrorist organization.
Ansar al-Sharia emerged from the evolution of international jihadism. It was the result of the experience of the organizations that declared jihad at the beginning of the 1990s and those that fell victim of Ben Ali’s repression in Tunisia. Mostly considered political prisoners, they all were released together in the aftermath of the January 2011 revolution thanks to the implementation of a general amnesty policy.
What is new about this Tunisian jihadist movement is that, over the past two years, it has been able to transform a spontaneous working class social and youth movement into radical Islamic project. That it is why, when beginning my fieldwork , I was struck by the expertise of the movement in steering a large and unsophisticated group of young people toward a more defined and ‘educated’ path.
There is something very particular about the Salafist-jihadist movement that gives disenfranchised youth a sense of belonging and social value. For many of them it has also meant a chance to become a leader and to be committed to a cause. This is something no other party, association, or movement was able to provide them.
I do not believe, however, that Ansar al-Sharia is really able to represent the social and material concerns of the youth. Their social activities are limited to charity and the organization’s political vision of society is limited. Most of all, it is their dogmatic vision of the world that makes them not only devoid of a realistic solution to the material concerns of the people, but, at worst, can channel the social radicalism of its young followers into intolerant and violent acts.
But declaring Ansar al-Sharia a coherent and homogenous terrorist group is a big mistake.
There is no doubt, not even for a second, that violence cannot have a place into the new Tunisia. There can also be no doubt, however, that repression cannot be the solution to the threat these groups pose. It has already been attempted in the past and failed. Former presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali considered Islamism a ‘disease’, an anomaly of the society that could be cured with eradication. They failed. The first Islamic current they tried to suppress, the Islamic Tendency Movement, is now the ruling Ennahdha party. The second one, which matured in the early 2000s, is the core of Ansar Al-Sharia.
The Islamic movement that became Ennahdha was the attempt of the middle class to be included in the process of building the state. Ansar Al-sharia today is the attempt of a part of working class society to be included. The revolution came as the result of a split between the middle class and the ‘others,’ with youth in working class neighborhoods expressing their frustrations. They thus were on the front lines in clashes with police during the uprising against the Ben Ali regime.
There is not a police solution to political Islam. The youth that today are so easily integrating into the ranks of the Salafist movement are simply trying to get into a group, to participate in social life, and to make sense of a life of poverty with no chance for escape. This is a large part of the Tunisian population that needs to be represented in political society.
One may ask: why do those young people identify with jihadism? Why do they look to religious identities to address their conflict with society? For a young man in this context, it is natural to do so. Other ideologies have not fulfilled their needs. Communist or socialist parties, for example, have never succeeded in becoming a popular movement in the Arab world, and pan-Arabism has been a popular ethos but not a concrete tool for addressing specific social conflicts. For these young people, it makes sense to talk about jihad, as it gives them a way of legitimizing the radicalism naturally created by their social position.
This is not to say that we have to accept Salafism or jihadism as an unavoidable expression of society. Rather, we have to understand that a certain approach to religion is more widespread that one may think. We cannot settle the question by simply saying that these are ‘terrorist groups’ that have to be eliminated from society. More consciousness of the need to integrate these young people is needed, along with an open cultural debate: Islam must be discussed openly in order for it to evolve in Tunisia’s new democratic context.
Ansar al-Sharia’s ideals likely fall in the middle of the larger Salafist-jihadist movement. The group’s founders established a core ideology and a program for its development. They succeeded in imposing their ideas as a model for a larger radical Islamic public. We may expect, however, that there are many autonomous groups acting under the Ansar al-Sharia name. If this is true, the leadership must make a clear move.
If Ansar al-Sharia’s talk about a new jihadist project based on dawa (charity) is genuine, this is the time for it to step forward. For those in the group I have often heard speak about merging with and being part of Tunisian society, this is the moment to understand that we can live together without tension or violence.
At the same time, the state and the rest of the political elites calling for revenge against Ansar al-Sharia must understand that a zero-sum solution does not exist. The only way to overcome the crisis is to open up room for mediation that will allow the moderate camp within Ansar al-Sharia to develop a clear platform condemning violence in order to declare itself a legal organization. This is the only way to integrate the members that consider the movement a chance for their integration into social life, and the only way to distinguish them from those whose idea of jihadism involves fighting and killing.
For those who insist on the latter path, there is no solution but accountability.
Fabio Merone is an assistant researcher at Dublin City University. He has worked for a year on a research project funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation on the evolution of Islamism in Middle Eastern and North African countries after the Arab Spring. Merone has authored and co-authored several articles on Salafism in Tunisia. He lived in Tunisia for more than a decade, working as a correspondent for the Italian NENA news agency.
This post reflects the opinions of the author and not of Tunisia Live as a publication.