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Salafism in Tunisia: An Interview with a Member of Ansar al-Sharia

[Riot policemen protect the justice ministry building, as Tunisians gathered in front of the justice ministry in Tunis, Tuesday 6 November 2012, as part of a demonstration by Salafi Muslims protesting against the imprisonment of hundreds of Salafi militants. Image by Amine Landoulsi/AP Photo.] [Riot policemen protect the justice ministry building, as Tunisians gathered in front of the justice ministry in Tunis, Tuesday 6 November 2012, as part of a demonstration by Salafi Muslims protesting against the imprisonment of hundreds of Salafi militants. Image by Amine Landoulsi/AP Photo.]

The emergence of Salafi movements in post-Ben Ali Tunisia surprised both the international community and many in Tunisia itself. The astonishment was such that when the first Salafi demonstrations took place in downtown Tunis, journalists and observers were talking quite confusingly about the phenomenon. Some accused men of the former regime of having organized the demonstrations by these bearded men, others claimed they were members of the Tahrir Party (a pan-Islamist movement), and others still labeled them with the generic formula of “Islamists.”

What many did not fully realize is that a new rebellious generation had matured during the 2000s, keeping their views hidden. When democracy gave the chance for everybody to “perform” freely, they showed off and did all through their most meaningful symbols. Dressed in the Afghan kamis and sporting long beards, they slowly occupied public spaces, particularly in working class neighborhoods.

As the phenomenon grew, hysteria began to spread in society, especially among Tunisian seculars and liberals. In the context of the Ennahda electoral victory in the 2011 elections of the constituent assembly, and with the emergence of a larger Islamic public, Tunisia seemed to have radically changed its face. In fact, the time had finally come to reveal the “lie” of a secular country that appeared more similar to France than to any other Arab country. Post-revolutionary Tunisia was showing off a new Islamic identity.

Nevertheless, a distinction must be made between different Islamic representations. There is, on the one hand, a large and better known Islamic sphere represented by a conservative middle class, which finds its political reference mainly in the Ennahda party. On the other hand, there is a new radical Islamism composed mostly of a younger generation, belonging to the main disenfranchised social class and integrating into the public scene in the name of jihad.

While the phenomenon is the heir of international jihadism—most famously inspired by al-Qaeda—the social dynamics expressed in the Tunisian scenario are new. Thousands of young people from lower social classes were appearing in the public scene, employing the intellectual and political tools of a radical Islam. Adopting the international slogans of jihad, they started to occupy a new social space. They do not recognize democracy but instead, they benefit from the freedom it guarantees, practicing their “jihad” in a Muslim society with a Muslim inspired government (though very moderate from their point of view). It is an unpredictable situation that gives them new chances but new challenges as well.

The chance is the possibility to operate in a context of freedom. If you live in a Muslim society and the system is letting you practice and “live” according to your values, there is no reason to conduct a violent jihad. At the same time, when you preach freely, society holds you accountable—a society that may question or be afraid of you. This leads to the transformation of your jihad into a peaceful process.

The jihadi Tunisian movement is, at this stage of its evolution, an interesting case study. The interview that I have conducted below clearly retraces most of the elements that I have introduced. As witnesses of this process (my colleague Francesco Cavatorta and I in the framework of a larger research), I discovered that behind the name Ansar al-Sharia (the denomination of the jihadi Tunisian organization), there was an incredible social movement. Just like it is discussed in this interview, Tunisia is going to be a laboratory both in its transformation from dictatorship to democracy and in the emergence of a new jihadi movement.

Ansar al-Sharia drew the attention of the majority of observers, especially the ones following the evolution of al-Qaeda. It must be said that in the second decade of 2000, a sub-group of the terrorist group emerged in the Arabic Peninsula, taking the name of Ansar al-Sharia. Many thought that the Tunisian group responded to the same logic. The suspicion was that this denomination was nothing but the evolution of al-Qaeda in the framework of a new international strategy.

Though Tunisia’s movement is ideologically and emotionally related to the duties of international jihadism, it is also something different and very specific. Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia declares itself as being a new political project, part of the new Tunisian scene created after the revolution.

This interview was conducted over the course of three different meetings with a young leader of Ansar al-Sharia between January and March 2013. We discussed freely but decided together to make it as a "personal confession," in which he talks about his personal experience in an immigrant district of Tunis. I met him in his neighborhood several times and he invited me to participate to some of Ansar al-Sharia’s actions.

After the American embassy demonstration, which degenerated into a riot on September 2012, the finger was pointed at Ansar al-Sharia and a repressive campaign was launched against the organization. Many young leaders were arrested and two of them died after a hunger strike carried out in protest against the illegal measures of detention. Ennahda began a campaign against them that has yet to cease. The party is under pressure both from the secular portion of society denouncing them for not fully opposing jihadism, and the larger Salafi and more conservative public that accuses them of acting like the Ben Ali regime used to when facing criticism.

In reality the Islamic moderate camp—including Ennahda and the scriptural Salafis (interested in studying sharia law rather than doing politics)—acted on a two levels. In addition to repression, a religious action is taking place, attempting to bring this young generation to the “right path” of a pious and non-violent Islam. 

At the moment, the situation in Tunisia is even tenser than it was after the assassination of Chokri Belaid. The two men arrested for his assassination are close to jihadism and, according to sources close to the investigation, they have admitted their affiliation to Ansar al-Sharia. Of course Ansar al-Sharia denies it very strongly and denounces it as being part of a plot to eliminate the movement. It is not my role to delve into such a delicate and complex affair. I only propose that this interview, which was possible thanks to the mutual trust between the interviewee and the author, might be useful to highlight how a member of Ansar al-Sharia articulates his message. He reviewed the interview and accepted this final version.

Fabio Merone (FM): How did you become engaged under the Ben Ali’s regime?

Interviewee (I): Since I was a little boy, I used to pray but not regularly. I was also a great reader and that helped me approach religious readings. At the age of twelve, I joined the Tablighs. It was a religious group the regime tolerated because of their belief that religion and politics should not mix; a sort of laic conception of a separation between the two. I learned from them how to practice dawa, both individually and in a group. But at this time, I remained open to different experiences and continued to deepen my thoughts through new readings, until I was between seventeen and eighteen.

In the end, I was not completely satisfied with Tablighi activities. Their goal was very loosely defined: to Islamize society. Fine, but “how” do we accomplish this? It seemed to me in the end that, for the Tablighi group, dawa was solely for the sake of dawa, and that is it. In this period of doubt, I ended up bumping into some youth both from the Ennahda party and Hizb a-Tahrir. I began to meet them regularly and there was an intense exchange between us. I liked the ideas of Hizb a-Tahrir. Unlike the Tablighs, they seem to have an international perspective, as well as a political project: they have a specific goal and a plan to reach it. Furthermore, as a result of their analytical approach, I was introduced to more philosophical readings that I became very fond of. In this way, my vision of the world expanded beyond a purely religious one. At this time, I started to read some Marxist authors, as well the evolutionary theories influenced by Darwinism. But it was religion that ultimately provided me with the intellectual structures that formed in my mind, and it was in religious thoughts that I found fulfillment. However, it was religion that was able to accommodate politics—that was able to offer a complete and holistic vision of the world. 

This intellectual evolution led me to eventually join Hizb at-Tahrir and become a clandestine activist. I remember two books I read during this time, which influenced my thinking. The first one was The Awakening of Europe's Sick Man. The author was an orientalist. I do not remember his name. The other book was Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s book: The Book of Monotheism. The latter was obviously forbidden in Tunisia, but a friend of mine at that time used to bring us books from outside the country. This reading was crucial for my intellectual development. The author’s main ideas were persuasive, and based on strong and objective arguments (adalla). In comparison with the orientalist’s work, I found Abd al-Wahhab’s arguments more convincing. At that time, I continued as a member in Hizb a-Tahrir, but my worldview had changed.

FM: It is more or less the path of a young man who finds the response to his questioning in the Islamic thoughts. Why did you become specifically jihadi, though?

I: The first real breakthrough in my thinking came on 11 September 2001. I loved Bin Laden very much. I was not alone. There is a method I follow in developing my worldview. If I feel convinced or attracted by someone’s ideas, I investigate the opinions and views that others hold of those ideas. In this case, I looked around and realized that that the attack in New York and Washington seemed very popular with people in our neighborhood. Many people seemed to be happy with these events. I remember a neighbor coming out on the street and shouting with joy, regardless of religious or Islamic belief. Bin Laden had given us back our dignity and pride. America is our political and religious enemy, and Bin Laden managed to strike at its heart.

I became curious, and wanted to know more about al Qaeda, and started doing research. I was encouraged, among other things, by the fact that my enthusiasm was shared by Islamic groups of different tendencies. It was not easy to get access to sources, since it was the most dangerous subject to talk about at the time, and web sites were monitored by the state. So I could not get direct sources, but I more or less followed what was being said about these events in the news.

The stories of the al-Qaeda mujahiddin reminded of the epic of the sahaba (the first group of Muslims), and I felt, for the first time, pride in being Muslim. Yes, I was proud, I felt for that the world respected, and feared us. I had a strong admiration for sheikh Bin Laden. His life fascinated me. How could it be possible that a man so rich, that was materially comfortable in life, had renounced everything to go to live on a mountain. Not to mention, all the financial resources he provided for the religion. These are respectful individuals - Bin Laden, Zawahiri, and Abi Yahiya Libi. These are people with respected social positions, both in a religious and civic sense. They left everything to give themselves to jihad. 

One more factor confirmed for me the rightness of al-Qaeda’s project. In our neighborhood, everything they said was reflected in our daily reality and practices. For example, they talked about our corrupt Arab governments that repress religion in order to please Westerners, things I related to in my daily life. At the age of fifteen, I had my first experience with policemen. I was arrested because they saw me pray during the morning sobah prayer. They treated me very harshly in order to teach me a lesson: to make me understand that a young man like me would be better off doing something else then going to pray. At the age of eighteen, they arrested me for the second time, because I was standing with a group of friends on the street and they thought we were talking about religion. They detained and abused me for the second time. It was a great injustice and nobody talked about it. We were submerged in hypocritical rhetoric, which spoke of terrorism all the time, just to please the West. Sheikh Bin Laden was the only one talking the truth. He was sincere and honest, unlike the majority of our double-talking politicians.

And I liked the sheikh (Bin Laden), even in human terms. I saw him once feel compassion for a little girl’s death, I saw him burst into tears. He seemed to me like a man that has devoted his life for his principles. A strong man, a man that does nt lie, does not fear anything. He was always worrying about others, expending all he has for Islam, just like the sahaba. We were all proud of them (al Qaeda).

It was the first turning point in my life. After that moment, everything changed. I dreamt about joining al-Qaeda. I tried to join, but it was too difficult at the time. Many of those that left for Afghanistan did so through the tabligh, which used to send people to Pakistan on a regular basis.  Tabligh send people to Pakistan to gather them each year in an international meeting. Some of the ones that participated decided to stay once they got used to life over there. Others went explicitly for that purpose. They joined the organization with the non-declared aim of joining the jihad in the region.

The second turning point in my life was the “Sulaiman events” in the winter of 2006-7. A group of jihadists was discovered on a mountain fifty kilometers away from Tunis and, as a result, clashes took place with the security forces. Since then, the police began standing in front of the mosques of the neighborhood. Occasionally, they would randomly choose one of the people coming out from prayer, and detain them for a while. There were many arbitrary arrests such as these. However, this policy did not yield the intended results, but rather led to the exact opposite. Instead, people started to ask about the ones who were arrested. The more police brutalized these pious men, the more the normal people felt sympathy towards them.

It is a strange moral that reminded me of the story of the prophet Mohammed. In particular, when he received the first revelation. Khadija’s uncle instructed him that just like Jesus and other prophets, the truth is opposed at the beginning, but at the end people, would be convinced about you and your message. It is exactly what happened with the Salafis after the Sulaiman events. And just like the prophet’s mission, the first ones who joined the Salafi movements were the youth and poor. 

Socialism, capitalism, they have been tried and they failed. Besides, they do come from us, they come from another world (e.g. the West). They are unsuccessful--the policy of birth control, for example. Why should we take from the West; in those societies where the age average is very high, and there are very few young people. At least in our societies we have many young people. Those are Western ideas they imposed us. I want to have four or five children. I want a young society.

This is just an example to say that at the end of my human and intellectual evolution, I came to the conclusion that all the ideas they imposed on us, since childhood, were ideas that came from West and brought us nothing but failure. We have the Quran and the sunna that give us an alternative: with our religion we can dominate the world, just like we used to in the past.

At that time, I knew a small group of young people (three or four) that liked jihadi thinking. At that time we did not describe ourselves as Salafis. Sometimes we would call ourselves “jihadis.” The others attributed the mainstream definition used today to describe us. Of course, none of us knew about the other’s ideology. We were too afraid to confess to others our thoughts, even when you felt that the person you were talking to had the some opinions. We met at the café in our neighborhood where would talk about the Islamic creed, or just comment on the news. In a short time the group had grown.

FM: How did you and your group participate in the uprising in 2010-11? 

I: When the uprising started in Sidi Bouzid, on 17 December, I worked as a storekeeper in a car dealership. I remember looking for news about events going on over there on the office computer trying to avoid censors with a proxy.  I then started posting videos on Facebook, which were circulated. I would put commentaries below the videos, making sure not to use religious language. At that time, people associated religion with terrorism. I had to hide my identity not only out of fear of the police but also out of fear of people’s judgment too.

Our neighborhood group met and decided to mobilize and participate in the ongoing uprising without using religious slogans. In between the people mobilizing there was Hizb at-tahrir and Ennahda members, but we were all participating as individuals not as organizations, and no one showed their affiliation. We decided to follow the majority.

On the 12, 13, and 14 January, there were clashes with police in Tunis. During those days, we became acquainted with new people of all ideological tendencies over the internet. We all came together to bring down the regime. We asked ourselves what would be the most effective way to topple Ben Ali. We agreed it was obligatory to mobilize the capital city. As the south and the center exploded, Tunis did not move.

We decided to move then, together with the shebab of Ettadhamen and Bab al-Jedid. Salafis were part of the uprising. In the afternoon on 12 January, many young people started to come out on the streets in Ettadhamen and Dawer Hishr. We united and mobilized together, then headed toward Ettadhamen. Many others joined us as we marched, including the district’s thieves and criminals. We have to be honest. Any time we moved, this group of people would join us in order to take advantage of the situation (in order to steal). At night, the news spread that the city’s entire urban belt was mobilized. Tunis finally rose up. The action of mobilization was working. In the clash, two shebab from Ettadhamen died. This was the turning point of the uprising. Just like what happened in the interior region, people of all ages, including women and men, began to clash with security forces. Police were surprised to find this reaction from people when they came into our neighborhoods and onto the streets. It was a battle, house by house. A zero-sum battle had begun between the regime and us.

The day after, on 13 January, we decided to change our strategy. We had learned military tactics due to our jihadi formation. Each one of us is training every day and learning fighting techniques. We coordinate in small groups. Police were expecting a reaction after clashes in the neighborhood. We surprised them, and instead of moving en masse toward a unique target, we decided to organize quickly in abrupt assaults. By 13 January, the revolution arrived to all the neighborhoods in the capital. Ben Ali’s speech that night was proof that we won.

In those two days of the uprising, we fought and they fought. There was a lot of rage and policemen were afraid. It was clear. They abandoned the police stations—they seemed to not have orders anymore. They were no longer receiving any political directions and the necessary reinforcements were not coming in. 

On 14 January, we felt that the police had all gathered in front of the Minister of Interior. Our group headed to the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) headquarters where people were gathering for a demonstration. At the same time, a spontaneous discussion was taking place. The trade unionists feared clashes with police and two scenarios were suggested. Our group was not satisfied with either of those two options, so suddenly we started to shout “Ministry of Interior,” and we walked in that direction pushing the crowd with us. That is the story behind the famous demonstration of that day, which ended up crossing Bourguiba Avenue and going to the Ministry of Interior. The Tunisian revolution was never peaceful; we achieved our goals through force. My personal conviction is that something that was taken by force can only be returned through force as well.

FM: How did the jihadi movement come out after the revolution? 

I: After the revolution our group was unveiled. We were Salafis. All of a sudden, we began shoning off our allegiances. We dressed in an Afghan manner, and showed clear signs that related us to al-Qaeda. We did it on purpose; we wanted to show off our identity.

People began to look at us in a weird way. For the first time, we acted under our new group identity. We lived then, together with all the people, as the "Committee for the Protection of the Revolution” --beautiful days lived intensely. We wanted play a role in the post-revolutionary environment; we wanted to have adventures. It was during this time we decided on a sort of “military” role for our group. I remember one of those nights the army patrols warned us to not cross the point of no return, because outside it may be dangerous. We did not heed this warning, and instead did exactly the opposite. Armed with knives and sticks, we went out to face a superiorly armed enemy. It was done in the spirit of challenge and adventure.

After the days of the neighborhood committees, our group grew in solidarity and unity. In reality, we were nothing more then awled al-houma, a group of kids that grew up together in the same neighborhood. The only difference now is that we were building up a new identity. During our recreation time together, often playing a football game or having a picnic in the mountain, we would speak about religion. This is how a group of friends from the district (neighborhood) would find themselves turning into a Salafi group. Though we did not like to be separated from the others; what distinguished the Salafi group from others was our specific spirit of solidarity. For example, in football games, the Salafi part of the group would form a separate team. Or, when we went out for picnic, we Salafis would share all the food together. Finally, we were one group, but inside, there was a specific shared spirit among the Salafis. A special current flows between us Salafis.

The other guys of the group, the ones that are not Salafis, noticed this particular feeling that we shared. They were impressed. I remember one particular friend who used to be a street urchin, decided to join us. One day he came to see me to understand what was this special feeling that we shared. We are more than friends; we are brothers. We share ethics and between us, there is a special strength and solidarity.

FM: Though many people may feel that you want to impose on them your vision of religion. 

I: Our conviction as Salafis is that religion should not be imposed by force. You cannot impose people to follow you. Let us take the example of the historical Islamic movement in Tunisia, what today is the Ennahda party. Their actions in the past caused people to be afraid of them; so the people rejected them. It was the same for the other side, the ones that wanted to force people to renounce their religion. The result was the opposite of what they had hoped for. Yet, the stronger the repression, the stronger the members’ sense of belonging. 

We do not want to develop a project in conflict with the people. They are our families, our friends, our neighbors, our brothers, and sisters. We are a part of them. More than that, we insist on the fact that we are part of the people, which makes us the opposite of politicians. We are not, and nor do we want to be a detached elite. Furthermore, we do not have hierarchies. We have perfect equality in our movement. The simple person has the same right to express his opinion as the educated one. A young boy, even if he does not have the same experience as an elder, can still have a better idea when it comes to a specific issue. His age does not make a difference. We are neither classists nor elitists.

FM: How did the movement begin to grow?

I: The Salafi movement is comprised of small groups of young people. The youth are joining the movement in big numbers. In our neighborhood, a big part of the ultras supporters, which I was also a part of, joined the Salafi movement. In the stadium, we experienced the first forms of freedom. At that time we were singing songs of freedom, against the regime and the police.

Our group grew very quickly. Our meetings were informal; they took place mostly in cafés. The guys loved it, because it made them feel that we are a part of them. I remember once we organized a dawa (preach) in one of the neighborhood cafés. On that day, a football match was going on and the café was crowded. In agreement with the owner (a friend) we installed loudspeakers. At the end of the match, we asked the people to stay. It was a big success. We always do our preaching in the local dialect, far from the language of politicians. We are simple people and we address simple people in our sermons. We do not care about showing off a cultured language as, for example, Hizb at-Tahrir activists do. In cafés, you find people from all kind of social backgrounds. We all share our dialect. During our sermons, people also had fun. Sometimes we would talk in a funny way and make sure to keep our speeches light. Only at the end would we dedicate a few words to politics. This is what our work mostly consisted of during this time. We spontaneously organized dawa activities or, alternatively, a distribution of leaflets.

Then we began to build relations outside of the neighborhood. We got to know people from all over the country. Through our personal networks, the movement grew to a national level. 

FM: Tell us more about your leaders, the “sheikhs.” How does one become sheikh?

I: Many new sheikhs emerged from this sort of networking. The term sheikh is actually quite general. It is a term of respect that the guys use for someone whose moral authority they recognize. This authority may be either religious or political. You become sheikh or leader if you show a special ability in relation to daily practices. In particular, if you are proactive in finding solutions and in making decisions. Of course, there is also a more intellectual side to being a sheikh. In this sense, one joins the ranks of sheikhs through a personal path of studying and deepening of religious knowledge. 

They were the main actors in the organization of the movement. They became known among the youth through videos distributed on Facebook. Soon, all the young activists of the movement became familiar with these sheikhs and would rush to see them whenever a popular sheikh would come to a nearby mosque during a speaking tour. These sheikhs had an important impact on the evolution of   the movement, and the sense of belonging it engendered amongst its followers.

FM: Ansar al-Sharia was the idea that shaped the movement?

I: Ansar al-Sharia developed within the framework of this network that emerged after the revolution. In fact, the idea of creating a Tunisian Salafi project was already in the mind of those that had participated in the international jihad, and above all, in the mind of Abu Iyadh. The Tunisian jihadi project is really the brainchild of Abu Iyadh. Other leaders emerged in the process I have described. They became representatives of different local groups. Little by little the exigency of having a fixed structure was raised. Meetings were taking place at a regional level, and did differentiate geographically between the structures. You should not think though that it is a top-down organization that emerged. On the contrary, it is a lightweight and decentralized movement, with an extended autonomy for the local groups, which are the real core of the movement.

FM: What are Ansar al-Sharia’s ideology and objectives?

I: The main aim of the movement is the creation of an Islamic state, implemented through dawa. So we have tried to put in place the instruments to achieve this. Our aim is to propose a concrete Islamic alternative, capable of facing today’s reality. The duty of Ansar al-Sharia is to produce a program and the competences to run it. 

FM: Did you write a program?

I: With that in mind we created specific departments for each sector of activity. Of course we discussed the fact that we needed to evolve intellectually and therefore, find experts between us for each subject.

We elaborated a program in health, tourism, and education. We presented our program in Kairouan (the second national Ansar al-Sharia’s rally on May 2012). We decided that we should have our own range of associations, including a sports association. Since its establishment, we had a clear idea of what Ansar al-Sharia’s mission was, with a formal organization and a program that reflected this.

FM: What about the structure? Was it influenced from the evolution of the organization? 

I: As I said, the principle of local autonomy is very important to the group. The lowest level in the organization’s pyramid structure is its most important. It can be a local group, organized on a neighborhood level, or even lower than that, such as a group that can be divided further on a micro level, as with the groups in individual mosques.

Small groups comprised of around twenty people were formed, and they played a central role in the coordination of such activities. For organizational purposes, the country was divided into three: north, center, and south.

FM: When did you officially begin your activities?

I: In April 2011, we announced the birth of the movement. It was an official ceremony and we invited politicians to participate. The meeting was in Soukra (Tunis suburb), in a hall in which 2000 people attended. Ansar al-Sharia was officially born.

The group’s first official activity was a humanitarian action in Choucha refugee camp, where refugees coming from Libya were being accommodated (during the Libyan uprising). We created our own structure in a separate space inside the camp. Our small camp was well organized and self-sufficient, which is why many at that time (the local media) started to talk about an Islamic Emirate in Ben Guardene. 

FM: Tell us a little more about the internal debate. How did you discuss the evolution of Ansar al-Sharia’s project? 

I: The principal idea behind Ansar al-Sharia’s project was the notion that Tunisia is a specific country and this specificity should be respected. We recognized that this is the world we live in, and with which we want to deal. We have the Quran and the sunna, sure, which are universal. But we also have our own specific context. We are neither Afghanistan, nor Iraq. Furthermore, the name that we chose for our salafi-jihadi project does not necessarily mean that we are referring to the Yemeni experience. When we chose this name, some of us in fact raised our concerns that we would be associated with the international jihadist-terrorist project as a result. Different names were proposed, but in the end we really thought that it was the best name to describe our activities so we stayed with it. 

FM: But still you are part of a larger international jihadi movement? 

I: We do share our theoretical references with the international jihadi movement.

FM: Who are the authors that you consider your theoretical references?

I: From the perspective of the development of our group’s theoretical framework/worldview, some of the most influential Salafi activists include: Abu Quttada al-Falestini, Abu Mohammed al-Maqdassi, Abu Basir Tartusi, Hani Sabahi, and al-Aulaki. Abu Kottada al-Falestini is probably the most influential among them--our brothers that were in Europe over the past years all flocked to listen to his lessons. It is not strange then that Abu Yadh himself or Abdallah a-Tunsi went to him as well. Sheikh Hani Sabahi is also respected in our movement. We have a steady contact with him and he is very sympathetic to our experience. 

FM: How is your experience is different from the others?

I: It is clear to each of our activists that our experience is unique, in the same way that our revolution was also original and unique.

FM: After you created Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, many other groups came out with the same name. Some observers thought that it is part of the same international jihadi project.

I: As we were the first of the “Arab Spring” to build a jihadi movement, it is obvious that others have watched and considered us a model to imitate. That is why it has not come as a surprise to see other groups come out in different countries with the same name. But it should not make people think that we are one and the same. I insist on this point, our experience reflects the particularity of the context we live in. Of course, the success or the failure of our experience will have an impact on the experiences of other countries. This is true as well for the general post-revolutionary process in our country. Today, Tunisia has become a political laboratory. 

FM: Let us go back to the original debate. 

I: Our project was based on two points: the specificity of the Tunisian experience and the specific competences and instruments available for us to realize an Islamic state as an alternative to the existing scenario.

This was the gist of our discussions at the time. We knew, of course, that this was an ambitious project. We realized very quickly that the first thing to do is to work on influencing people’s way of thinking. To destroy is simple, but to build up demands time. For fifty years, the Tunisian people have lived under a regime that has westernized every aspect of their social lives. Tunisians are Muslim, and they are thirsty for religion. Once we manage to overcome the prejudices towards us, the Tunisian people will be keen to pay attention.

FM: Are you saying that the international jihadi movement has changed?

I: The jihadi movement has not changed in the way that many analysts assume. What it has changed is the reality in which we operate. Today, we are in a regime of unprecedented freedom. Why should we embark upon a jihad? This does not mean we have eliminated the idea of jihad from our philosophy. When it comes to our religion, we embrace it all. Obviously, jihad is a part of that. It is a duty for each and every Muslim. For example, if one day France invades Tunisia and occupies it, jihad would be a duty for all of us. In the context of today’s Tunisia, though, it is clear to us that jihad should be based on dawa. The goal is to reach Tunisian society, the society we live in. I want to change it. I am not interested in taking over power. This is the big difference between the others in the political scene and us. Our target is the people, not the state.

FM: You do not recognize the state?

I: We do not recognize the State, nor democracy, for the simple reason that we are guided by the sunna and the Quran. The only law with worth for us is God’s law, and not secular law. Of course, as we said, we deal with reality, but without forgetting that sharia remains our reference. Sharia is a law that we apply in our daily attitudes. For example, when we are in a group with friends, and take a walk, we are applying sharia among us.

FM: To what extent does Ansar al-Sharia represent the Tunisian jihadi movement? 

I: Ansar al-Sharia does not represent the entire jihadi movement, although it has been a key part of this movement since the period immediately following the revolution. However, the salafi-jihadi project is bigger than Ansar al-Sharia. Our proposal is to work with the others. We share the same goals with other brothers. Differences exist only in the means we have chosen to achieve these goals.

Ansar al-Sharia’s goal is not to achieve power. That is why we do not stress on having the largest number of members, but rather getting people involved in the general salafi-jihadi project. Our main objective is to reach people’s hearts. We are keen to make people understand that we are a protection for society and not a threat. It is true that we have a lot of work to do in order to convince all of our members of the validity of our aims and means. I agree that we still need to teach our young members that religion is not something to impose by force. I confess that this is a big part of our work today. Our organization grew very quickly. Everyday new members are joining. The greatest task for us now is to incorporate new members into our framework and vision.

FM: As far as I know, not everyone within the Tunisian jihadi movement agree on Ansar al-Sharia’s project.

I: The creation and the success of Ansar al-Sharia initiated an important discussion within the salafi-jihadi movement. At the beginning, the debate was focused on the name. As I said, many feared this name would hinder our efforts to reach people as they may link it to the movement in Yemen and terrorism. Later, another point of discussion emerged around the question of whether this organization would, sooner or later, become just another political party. Would Ansar al-Sharia eventually be integrated into the democratic process? Was there an underlying ambition for political power?

FM: You fear being associated to democracy?

I: It would be interesting to point out here that we are not absolutely in opposition to pluralism and elections. Our project is an entirely new initiative. At its heart is the idea of adapting a pure Islam to modern times, that is why we are not against pluralism and elections in principle. The main point is that we could conceive of such a development, but only in the context of an Islamic state. The state that we imagine is based on God’s laws. This is the not up for discussion. We are Muslims and we want to act according the Quran and sunna. Within this framework, the existence of parties and elections would not be forbidden. However, the current stage prevents us from working on the societal model that we would like to develop. We are currently at a different stage, which requires that we still work on the minds and the hearts of people, both inside the movement and outside it. 

FM: There was also a more doctrinal aspect of discussion.

I: There is, of course, another issue that has emerged, which is more doctrinal. Some accused us of making a jamaa (in the sense of claiming of being a group of exclusive Muslims). Our response was that Ansar al-Sharia is an organization, and not a group of people excluding others. This discourse is based on the Quranic definition of jamaa. In the prophetical mission, the jamaa was comprised of the first Muslims that joined the prophet. So jamaa in this sense is the equivalent of Muslims. In our defense, we say that Ansar al-Sharia is not the jamaa, but rather it is an organizational tool.

FM: What was, in this discussion, Khatib Idrissi’s position? 

I: At the beginning, Khatib Idrissi’s (the most respected salafi-jihadi cleric outside Ansar al-Sharia) criticism of the organization focused on its name, later on, he criticized the idea of having an organization. My personal feeling is that his views changed. The turning point was certainly the meeting at the Presidential Palace that took place October 2012, after the American Embassy incidents when the President invited a group of clerics as representative of the movement.

FM: What were your views on the meeting? 

I: The youth of the movement were against this meeting. It was a mistake, and we are not ashamed to admit this before our sheikhs. If the state wants to open a dialogue, it has to come to us and not the opposite. There is a saying from the classical era: “If one that goes to princes, it is because something is not clear.” This was the first point we disagreed on. There is a second one and it regards Khamis Majri’s attitude vis-a-vis Moncef Marzouki. When Majri met with Marzouki, he referred to him as “Honorable President of the Republic.” Why did he not just call him “president?” Why did he need to say “honorable?” This was the second point we disagreed on. 

The feeling of bitterness increased after some sheikhs approached us. In the middle of clashes with police in Dawar Hisher, they contacted us and insinuated that we should go back home. They said this as we were under siege in the middle of a battle (in reference to the clashes between a group of Salafis and police in the aftermath of a gang quarrel in the neighborhood. Four young Salafis died and a policeman was wounded). We were still trying to recover the body of our slain brother from the police station. In this context, all they had to say was “go back home,” without discussing or trying to understand our reasons.

They acted just like the others (the politicians), in an elitist manner. Abu Iadh is not like that. He always takes time to discuss issues with us, and decisions are taken together. He respects us and treats us as equals. This is exactly the opposite of the attitude of our sheikhs. What did they do in this palace? Who has delegated them with the power to negotiate with the state? Who gave them the right to speak in the name of the entire movement? 

Later on, they (the sheikhs) wanted to organize a meeting in Ennour Mosque, the mosque where the clashes with police happened. The guy from the mosque's committee refused, they ended up holding their meeting in a mosque in Ettadhamen.

FM: What is the situation now? Where are you today?

I: At this stage, things have changed and we are back under pressure. The period of freedom is over. We knew that it would not last. We were expecting that. Our activities are now completely suspended. We are not even able to organize our third congress as it was scheduled.

FM: What is your reaction to this?

I: In response to this campaign, we came up with a new campaign that we called “The International Campaign to Join Ansar al-Sharia." We call on all Salafis, the young and the sheikhs to join us. We called it an "nternational campaign" because we insist that Tunisia is a model that can be exported. We want to realize our project peacefully; we want to realize the jihad through dawa. And we think that everybody that shares the same objectives can identify himself under “Ansar al-Sharia,” which means nothing but “partisan of Sharia.”

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