The recent licensing of the salafist party Jabhat al-Islah (Reform Front Party) in Tunisia is raising concerns inside and outside the country that such official representation of the religiously ultraconservatives might incite further activity of the already vocal – and increasingly violent – salafist movement, hence jeopardizing Tunisia's fragile democracy.
While such reasoning is understandable in the light of recent salafist unrest inside the country, it has to be borne in mind that the Reform Front Party is peaceful in its goals and means. Beyond that, it might have the potential to give the religiously ultraconservatives and disenchanted youth a political voice, embed them in the political process and thereby help to de-radicalize the salafist movement.
Reaching Tunisia's youth is particularly crucial given that an increasing number of young people join Tunisia's religiously ultraconservative movement, with a salafist being on average 27 years old. Parts of Tunisia's youth – one of the country's most volatile socioeconomic group – seem to retreat to religion to find answers to their political disillusionment and economic distress.
This, however, does not mean that the Reform Front Party's ideology is inherently democratic. Its leaders have made on several occasions clear that they support democracy only to the extent it is constrained by religion.
“In Europe, democracy gives sovereignty to the people, but in Muslim countries, we prefer to emphasize the sovereignty of Islamic legislation” told me Mohammed Khouja, the head of the salafist party, adding that, for him, “the job of the lawmaker is to distinguish the 'haram' (illicit) from what is 'halal' (licit) according to Islamic law.”
Such religiously ultraconservative vision implies that on issues such as women's rights the party is clearly in conflict with internationally recognized democratic standards. When being questioned about the Reform Front Party's position on polygamy, Mohammed Khouja, for example, maintained that men should be allowed to have up to four wives.
While radical in the eyes of many liberals, the salafist party is unlikely to incite further religiously motivated unrest inside Tunisia. “We reject all sort of violence – be it motivated by religion or not”, Mohammed Khouja told me in reference to a recent salafist attack on an arts exhibition in Tunis.
The party's willingness to participate in Tunisia's political process also indicates that the Reform Front Party reflects one of the salafists' more moderate streams – most religiously conservatives reject any engagement into politics. Already during last year’s Constituent Assembly elections members of the Reform Front Party participated as independents, but they did not manage to obtain any seats.
Still now, the support base of the new party is small, bringing together no more than few hundred members. With around 10,000 affiliates throughout the country, salafism constitutes a minority movement in Tunisia, even if more people come to join the movement. Unlike religiously ultraconservative parties in other countries such as Egypt, the impact of the new salafist party is therefore likely to remain limited, at least in the close future.
Some salafists are also skeptical towards the party due to its perceived proximity to Ennahda, Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamic party, suggesting that through its very engagement into politics the Reform Front Party will mellow its convictions. Other more radical salafists, especially the jihadists, fiercely oppose the new party, depicting it as disconnected from the religiously ultraconservative movement. As Abu Sanat, a salafist-jihadist living in Tunis, told me: “The Reform Front Party does not mean anything to us, it does not have a potential to mobilize and it does not have a social base”.
The new salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to “tame” the most violent and radical salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually get hold of some of Tunisia's religiously ultraconservatives, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country's new democracy.
But before rejecting the Reform Front Party in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind how the other salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially violent movements spreading throughout the country...