Tunisia Islamist trends back to the forefront

Talk about possible role in next government


The lid is now open for Islamic parties and movements to gain political legitimacy in Tunis after squashing it for decades by the toppled “Ataturk-style” regime in the North African country.

The ousting of the Tunisian President Zine El Abdine Ben Ali brought to the limelight all opposition parties that have been outlawed by the former regime including the Islamists.

The most prominent of all Tunisia’s Islamic parties is the Renaissance Party or al-Nahda, under the leadership of Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi.

Ghannouchi's media appearance denouncing Ben Ali’s regime after the “Jasmine Revolution” heralds a new sense of plurality which can include the joining of Islamic parties in forming a new Tunisian government.

Al-Nahda Party, founded in 1981, focuses on reviving the role of mosques, rejects the separation between religion and the state and supports the Arabization of education while maintaining the learning for foreign languages.

Considered the main representative of political Islam in Tunisia, al-Nahda aims at proving the applicability of Islam in all matters of life and rejects violence as a means of change while asserting the importance of consultation (shura) in resolving political, cultural, and intellectual issues.

Salafi movement

Sheikh al-Khatib al-Idrisi is labeled as the “Sheikh of Salafis” in Tunisia
The Salafi movement, under the leadership of Sheikh al-Khatib al-Idrisi, is the most recent of Islamic trends in Tunisia and has been lately witnessing a silent growth in its ranks.

The movement has not being involved in politics and confined its role to mosque preaching, but it has always been targeted by Ben Ali’s regime. Al-Idrisi, who comes from the central governorate of Sidi Bouzid, was arrested in 2006 after clashes with security.

Idrisi was sentenced to jail for two years on charges of issuing fatwas that sanction jihadist actions and covering up terrorist activities.

A blind 56-year-old man, Idrisi started gaining popularity among Tunisian youths in 2005, several years after he got back from Saudi, where he worked in nursing, and has so far released three books and wrote a book of Quran exegesis that has not been published yet.

Tunisian Salafi youths are mainly active on the internet especially in social networking websites like Facebook. However, they do not refer to themselves as Salafis and do not declare belonging to the Salafi movement.

According to the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners, the age group of detained members of the Salafi movement ranges from 25 to 30 and sometimes goes down to 19. Around 46% come from the north, 31% from the center, and 23% from the south. All detainees were arrested under the terrorism law.

Islamic Liberation Party

The Islamic Liberation Party was founded in Jerusalem in 1953 by Sheikh Taqiuddin al-Nabhani, a deflector from the Muslim Brotherhood. The party started gaining ground in Tunisia in 1973 and managed to attract several military officers, which led the government to accuse it of preparing for a military coup.

Members of the Islamic Liberation Party were put on trial in the years 1983, 1986, and 1990, with the last trial including 228 defendants. Arrests and trials extended to 2006 and after, which proves the party managed to stay active despite tight security measures imposed by the government. Several of the party’s members faced military trials.

The number of the party’s members is unknown due to the secrecy with which they shroud their activities. What is known about the party is that its manifesto supports radical change through coups, the establishment of the Islamic Caliphate, and the ousting of all regimes regarded as an extension of imperialist hegemony in the Muslim world.

Despite its belief in the importance of having army officers join its ranks and the role of the military in effecting change, the Islamic Liberation Party rejects armed conflict and use of violence and supports plurality within an Islamic framework.


The emergence of the Shiite faith in Tunisia started when Tunisian scholar Dr. Mohamed al-Tijani al-Samawi published a book called Then I Was Guided, in which he recounted the story of his conversion to the Shiite denomination.

However, the Shiite school of thought started becoming popular in Tunisia after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran and it started by attracting several members of al-Nahda party.

The number of Shiites increased with the growing influence of Iran’s supreme guide Ayatollah Khomeini in the early 1980s. This wave of Shiites was known as “those who followed the Imam.”

Relations between al-Nahda Party and Shiite groups are fraught with tension. Sheikh Rached Ghannouchi was banned from going to Iran and he accused the Iranian regime of supporting Ben Ali’s regime and conspiring with the president against him.

Shiites in Tunisia were given relative freedom during Ben Ali’s regime. They were allowed to travel to Iraq and Iran and they became reportedly funded by Shiite seminaries in the holy cities of Najaf and Qom.

According to Islamic researcher Salah al-Din al-Jourshi, the number of Shiites in Tunisia does not exceed 2,000, while Samawi insists they are hundreds of thousands.

Progressive Islamists

The movement of Progressive Islamists is an offshoot of al-Nahda Party and was made up of students, professors, and intellectuals who are Islamic-oriented and interested in rereading the heritage of the Muslim Brotherhood, which represents the main nucleus of modern Islamic ideology.

The Islamic Progressive Movement, which was formed in the late 1970s, rejects extremism and is open to progressive ideas from both Sunnis and Shiites alike, including liberals and leftists.

The movement gradually distanced itself form the mother party, al-Nahda, until it finally declared its independence in 1980.

The Islamic Progressive Movement, which had no political ambition and did not try to reach power, was finally disbanded and most of its members are now affiliated to al-Jahiz Forum, which aims at reviving the intellectual environment in Tunisia and focuses on attracting Arab and Muslim scholars.

(Translated from the Arabic by Sonia Farid)