Laughing Salafist: Tunisian creates magazine to show Islamists can smile

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Long considered one of the Arab world's most secular countries, the rise of the influence of religious hardliners in Tunisia over the past two years has alarmed artists, intellectuals and liberals.

Seen among such hardliners in Tunisia are Salafists, who advocate a conservative brand of Sunni Islam.

Many Salafists were jailed under the authoritarian rule of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, but their emergence after his downfall worries Tunisia's secular elite, especially after Salafists attacked cinemas and wine vendors and burned Sufi Muslim shrines.

But one man is hoping to bridge the cultural divide between those on all sides of the spectrum, with his own online publication.

Blogger Bader Lanouar describes his website as a 'modern Salafist magazine' that entertains without straying from religious tenets.

“We consider that we practice authentic Islam, the Islam that exists in the Koran and the Sunna. We don't do too much freestyle or right and left,” he said.

Writing articles from his home in Sousse, Lanouar says his aim is not to make money, but to open up the debate.

“I have neither expenses nor an income from this blog. I do it partly for pleasure, and partly, as I explained earlier, to change mentalities and to open up a dialogue,” he said.

Lanouar's 'SLF Magazine' takes its name from the three letters in Arabic that form the root of the word 'Salafi'.

Attracting around 6,000 visits a day, the most read articles on the website are 'Things you cannot do when you wear a qamis (Islamic dress)' and 'Are jihadists modern-day superheroes?'.

Despite the 'jihadist superheroes' on the pages of his blog, Lanouar says he would not describe his own work as any kind of jihad.

“I don't feel that I am working hard, to say this is a jihad. I am not struggling to find the right words or fighting a virtual or real enemy. So for me, it's not a type of jihad,” he said.

The 34-year-old says his articles cover topics from fashion, lifestyle, events and technology - but do not portray “half-naked women” to attract more readers.

“It's exactly the same areas of interest as other people: we want to have the latest phone, we want to be fashionable, we want to go out,” he said.

The Salafists, who model their lifestyle on the Prophet Mohammad and his companions, seek a broader role for religion in public life in Tunisia - something that has emerged as the most divisive issue in the country in the wake of the 2011 popular uprising.

After the revolution, radicals took over around 1,000 of Tunisia's 5,000 mosques, which are normally run by the Religious Affairs Ministry, and turned them from quiet places of prayer to platforms to call for jihad and sharia (Islamic law).

Violent Salafi groups also rioted over an art show they deemed blasphemous, demonstrated at Manouba University to demand that women students wear full face veils and patrolled some districts to pressure residents into following their puritan Islam.

Two assassinations of secular politicians this year, blamed by the government on radical and Salafist-based Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, have also alienated many Tunisians.

But despite the negative view many have of the Salafists, Lanouar says the comments written on his website show many non-Muslims are avid readers of his articles.

One of Lanouar's first fans was his friend, Mustafa, who says the publication finally provides an outlet for Salafist ideas.

“It's an original idea, it's something new which allows us to have our own magazine because we don't have a medium for expressing ourselves, for our ideas,” Mustafa said.

He says the negative publicity that Tunisia's Salafists receive is unjustified.

“It always happens, when we are laughing with other people, they say: 'No, how come you're doing that? You're not real Salafists. Real Salafists don't laugh, they are always serious, even aggressive.' It's a false image,” said Mustafa.

He's not planning a paper version yet, but Lanouar will be hoping his SLF Magazine will present Salafists in a more positive light - far removed from the Islamist extremists that the Tunisian government is under increasing popular pressure to crack down on.

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