On Tuesday, March 20, thousands of Tunisians marched in opposition to extremist voices calling for an Islamic state or a Caliphate. Tunisia's revolutionary uprising in January 2011 did not feature any evident exhibition of religious imagery or oratory, but Salafi (literally predecessors - those who aspire to live a conservative Muslim life ostensibly reflective of the life the Muslim predecessors lived in the age of the Prophet) voices have sought to claim the revolution as a mandate to impose Shari'a; or, rather, their puritanical interpretation of Islamic law.
Since the 1956 independence from France, Tunisia has been the most avidly secular Arab nation. President Habib Bourguiba (1956-86) curtailed the power of the clergy, banned polygamy and gave women equal divorce rights; and promoted an ideology of state secularism so gallant that he once drank orange juice during the fasting month of Ramadan.
Many Tunisians now worry that this legacy is being threatened. The current elected government is a "troika" consisting of a moderate Islamist party (al Nahda) alongside two left-of-center secular parties (CPR and Ettakatol). While al Nahda - which holds the most ministries and the premiership - has insisted that it does not aspire to ban alcohol or bikinis, that it will keep the nation tourism-friendly, and that Islamic laws are not an aspiration, many Tunisians protest that it has trended softly in response to often violent and disruptive behavior by Salafis. Detractors argue that either Nahda is playing a cynical electoral gambit wary of alienating part of its base or that at heart it shares the Salafi goals but prefers to allow them to carry the burden.
al Nahda argues that it isn't sympathetic to either the extremists or the secularists, but is trying to negotiate a delicate middle path and is also constrained by how much attention it can focus against Salafis considering much of the country is witnessing recurrent strikes and other pressing priorities - especially over unemployment. It isn't true that al Nahda has ignored Salafis. It sent in riot police when Salafis took over a university demanding that niqab (full-face veil) students be allowed to attend. The Salafis were kicked out and the university reopened with the niqab ban still enforced. A young Salafi who head-butted a secular lawyer was arrested and, last year, Salafis who attacked a cinema screening a anti-religious film were also arrested. Salafi violence has not gone without response. Although many Tunisians, myself included, have demanded a more forceful reply.
But where should this reply come from? The ruling coalition or civil society? The Tuesday rally was staged in response to a Salafi rally. Just as a past secular and liberal gathering was in response to the head-butting incident. Tunisian editorial pages, news programs and radio shows are at the forefront in speaking against extremism - as is the average Tunisian, secular and pious. Extremism cannot be defeated with the heavy hand of the state which may only exacerbate tensions and even imperil the freedoms of the general public in the name of "combating extremism".
As the Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki recently said, “The nation cannot be built with one color. Tunisia will pay a heavy price in blood and tears if [the state] has to confront by force extremists from all sides.”
The Salafis are a obnoxious bunch. But while loud they number a marginal few. They have to rely on dramatic episodes and thuggery in their attempts to get their way. If this crosses the line into physical attacks or holding institutions hostage then that is, of course, a policing matter for the state.
But it is up to Tunisian civil society to defeat extremism and bring many of the astray youth who fell for a vacuous ideology promising a false salvation from humiliation and depravation back into the mainstream fold and discredit the Salafi current. In calling for the state to defend Tunisia's liberal legacy, these very Tunisians are themselves doing it.
The revolution did not rely on a vanguard. So why start now?