Fears grow of Islamic extremism in Tunisia
By: Henry Ridgwell
Source: VOA News
TUNIS — Tunisian opposition groups continue to blame the assassination of party leader Chokri Belaid on extremist Muslims known as Salafists. They accuse the ruling Ennahda party of encouraging religious violence – a charge the government denies. But no matter who might be behind Belaid’s death, there is growing fear among moderate and secular Tunisians that extremism is on the rise.
Worshippers prayed and listened intently to the Friday’s sermon among the ancient surrounds of the Al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunis last week.
In a traditionally secular country, Tunisia’s mosques are at the heart of a debate over the extent of extreme religion in society.
Opposition groups blame Islamic extremists for the February 6 killing of party leader Chokri Belaid.
Organizations known as the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution are accused of carrying out an agenda of religious violence – attacking art galleries and harassing women who refuse to wear Islamic dress.
Many critics claim they are backed by the ruling Ennahda party.
It’s a charge Minister for Religious Affairs Laroussi Mizouri strongly denies.
Mizouri says the government condemns violence and any calls for violence. The vast majority of mosques in Tunisia are calling for unity, he says, as well as tolerance and the rejection of all kinds of discrimination and violence.
But opposition groups point to videos posted on YouTube painting a different picture. One shows a preacher in the southern city of Zarzis calling for the head of Belaid. It was uploaded the day he was killed but its authenticity cannot be independently verified.
Ali Zeddini of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights blames extremism on foreign influences.
Zeddini says Tunisians do not have a tradition of religious extremism. So the question of religion in Tunisia, he says, has never come up before. Zeddini says Tunisian people are a kind people, moderate, Mediterranean, and with a Malachite Islam which is tolerant and a long way from extremism.
Among the flags at a pro-Ennahda rally in Tunis Saturday were the distinctive black and white banners of the ultra-orthodox Salafists.
But rally organizer Bechir Khalfi says Ennahda is a tolerant party.
He says Tunisians want to build tomorrow’s Tunisia together and do not want to exclude anyone, not the extreme left nor the extreme right. He says people want to build a Tunisia for all.
But critics of the government say they fear for their lives. The studios of TV channel El Hiwar El Tounsi were vandalized last year and equipment stolen. Company president and presenter Taher Ben Hassine, a well-known critic of Ennahda, says he fears he will meet the same fate as Belaid.
Hassine says he sent his wife and daughter to live in France because he knows extremists want to do something against him. He says he does not know when it will happen but has no doubt extremists want to harm him.
Tunisia’s government says episodes of violence are symptomatic of a country in transition. Critics say that Islamic extremists are attempting to silence the opposition through intimidation and murder.