Tunisians express less support to Salafists, political Islam

Friday 08/01/2016

Tunis - A recent survey indicates a decline in support for Salafism and political Islam in Tunisia, against an increase in religious tolerance in recent years.

The survey, conducted last spring and summer and released at the end of December, reflected rising public support for secular democracy and openness to the outside world even though Islam­ists remain a political force in gov­ernment and society.

The trends seem to bear the im­pact of the steady escalation of ji­hadist militancy. Terror incidents, particularly since 2013, have un­dermined the country’s sense of security and its image abroad. Suicide bombings, assassinations, assaults on secular activists and clashes between jihadists and se­curity forces have raised concerns among Tunisians and frightened away tourists and investors the country badly needs.

Some 80% of Tunisians ques­tioned in 2015 said they had no trust in Salafists, versus 55% stat­ing such a view in 2013; 3% in 2015 said they fully trusted Salafists, compared to 11% in 2013.

The opinion polls were conduct­ed in 2013 and 2015 by a team from the University of Maryland, in col­laboration with the universities of Michigan, Eastern Michigan and Longwood and in conjunction with Tunisian institutions.

Over recent years, Ansar al-Sh­aria has emerged as the principal jihadist Salafist organisation in Tunisia. It has attracted young fol­lowers through charity work and a radical narrative of confrontation with the West.

The government and independ­ent civic groups accuse Ansar al-Sharia of violence, including attacks on art galleries, bars and trade union offices; a September 2012 assault on the US embassy in Tunis, bombing plots, attacks on the Tunisian military and the 2013 assassinations of two political lead­ers.

Attitudes vary within the ranks Tunisia’s Salafists. Many do not advocate jihad, adhering to what pundits call “scientific” or “scrip­turalist” Salafism. Other Salafists reject politics altogether. They say mixing politics with Islam is a cor­rupting distraction that soils God’s law with that of man.

Some Salafists have chosen to take part in the political process. In March 2012, the government legalised Jabhat al-Islah (The Re­form Front). Two months later, the government legalised the Tunisian branch of Hizb ut-Tahrir, an inter­national Salafist organisation. Hizb ut-Tahrir rejects party politics, al­though it functions as a legally or­ganised party.

The survey indicated Tunisians respondents lean more towards Western-style government, back­ing in higher numbers religious tolerance, embracing their national identity and showing less support for political Islam. During the 2014 parliamentary elections, Tunisia’s mainstream Islamist party, Ennah­da, came in second behind Nidaa Tounes, the main secularist party.

Ennahda won about 30% of the vote in 2014 compared to the 37% in elections in October 2011.

The victory of Nidaa Tounes in 2014 reflected a negative verdict on the Islamists’ performance when in power in 2012 and 2013. Senior En­nahda figures concede that manag­ing the country’s affairs, including security and the economy, had proven more difficult than they had anticipated.

Beji Caid Essebsi, the veteran politician who founded Nidaa Tounes in 2012, went on to win the presidential elections and lead his party to legislative victory in 2014 over scepticism about the Islam­ists’ ability to rule the country.

Nearly three-quarters of Tuni­sians questioned in 2015 said the country would be better off if Islam did not mix with politics, the same as in 2013, according to the survey. Those who stated a negative per­ception of Islamic government rose from 63% in 2013 to 71% in 2015, poll data showed.

The number of Tunisians who said the country would be better off if the government followed West­ern-style government rose from 47% in 2013 to 57% in 2015. A sign of some political maturity, the ratio of Tunisians backing military rule fell to 29% from 36% even though confidence in the army rose to 95% against 92% two years earlier.

The decline of support for po­litical Islam among Tunisians has been accompanied by a rise in the sense of national pride from 77% to 84%.

Tunisians identifying them­selves as “citizens of Tunisia” rose to 51% from 47% while those who saw themselves as “Muslims above all” declined from 59% to 52%.

The survey indicated a shift in the mindset of Tunisians towards more openness and respect of other religions and cultures. The number of Tunisians who said they were against non-Muslims being banned from practising their religion in Tu­nisia rose from 81% to 89% while those who opposed children being not allowed to learn about other faiths went from 77% to 88%.

On a scale of one to ten, the num­ber of Tunisians who gave a high opinion of Americans’ morality rose to 4.97, while the perception of the morality of fellow Tunisians fell from 6.04 to 4.82. This trend was in stark contrast with the ul­traconservative world view, which often describes American values as corrupt.

In contrast with 10% of the pub­lic that deems it important for Tu­nisians to work for the implemen­tation of sharia, no less than 74% say it is an “important obligation” instead to “excel in science and technology”.