Tunisia's Salafis, adherents of a stricter interpretation of Islam than the majority of the country’s Muslims, are increasingly familiar protagonists in news stories. Two years after the revolution that overthrew dictator Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, Salafis are often portrayed as violent, intimidating, resisting official decisions or stopping practices they judge forbidden by Islam.
Overshadowing all the more minor incidents is the still unsolved assassination of the leftist politician Chokri Belaid in February. Belaid was a vocal critic of Salafi ideology, which he regarded as running counter to Tunisia's liberal values. Authorities have pointed the finger of blame at those from the shadowy world of Salafi groups.
Beyond the news headlines, however, Salafism is a complex social phenomenon among young Tunisians looking for a direction in life following the 2011 revolution. While only a very small minority of Tunisia's regard themselves as Salafis – a recent report suggested their total number at around 50,000 — the influence of their worldview is extending.
Tunisians drawn to Salafism often still live in their home neighborhoods alongside the peer group they grew up with — and with whom they have often shared the demoralizing experience of unemployment. Take the example of Hergla, a pretty coastal village north of Sousse. During the 2011 revolution, Hergla did not stir: “here it was just the birds tweeting as usual,” one young man explains. With a population of not much more than 6,000, crime is low and just four officers usually staff the local police station. Like many other places in Tunisia, the town now has a small group of local Salafis.
On April 11, a mob of Salafi sympathizers tried to storm the police station to free one of their number who had been arrested. Local police described the man as a known petty criminal who had converted to Salafism. Amid the tear gas, two policemen opened fire, killing 23-year-old Mahmoud Mrad and seriously injuring a child. When the clashes continued after the dead man's funeral the next day, those clashing with the police were not Salafis, but just young men who had grown up with Mrad – a studious type who was well liked locally. Some villagers blamed Salafis for having brought trouble to the town, but were, naturally, unhappy about the police shootings.
Elsewhere, young people have mobilized against intimidation by Salafis. High-school students in Menzel Bouzelfa, east of Tunis, that same week cheerfully organized a small demo in support of their head teacher and to face down local Salafis. In line with an education ministry directive, the head had prevented a girl from attending class in the full niqab, or face veil. Local Salafis appeared outside the school with megaphones and speeches aimed, unsuccessfully, at converting students to their cause. Three masked men then attacked the head teacher with sticks as he arrived for work on April 10.
But this image of fundamentalism lacks some nuance. Aware of an image problem, some Salafi groups have avoided confrontation. When football fans in the port town of Bizerte clashed with the police for three days last week — over a decision that had blocked the Bizerte team from going through to a cup final — the Salafis told local youths "we will not revolt with you," recounts one young man. Locals appealed to Salafis for help in protecting their businesses during the disorder, he said, as "here the Salafis are more respected than the police." The fundamentalists declined, but did have contacts with the provincial governor over how to calm the situation.
One of the best analyses of the many-layered context of Tunisian Salafism is a lucid report by the NGO International Crisis Group. It reviews the full spectrum of groups, from the quietist to the fundamentalists. Those involved in violence typically have low educational levels and sometimes previous criminal records. It cites an estimate of around 2,000 Tunisians engaged in armed jihad in Syria, and notes that by February there had been 14 Salafis killed in confrontations with the Tunisian state, including two men who died on hunger-strike alleging wrongful imprisonment.
Salafism in Tunisia is still a relatively new phenomena, with limited in-depth research. The challenge for sociologists and others, therefore, is to piece together a better understanding of this most radical of movements. Looking for grassroots stories beyond the headlines will provide rich material to nuance their narratives.