Thousands of Salafist Muslims marched on Kairouan in Central Tunisia, as part of the extremist Islamic movement’s annual assembly. The exclusively male attendees, many of whom were dressed in Afghan military uniform or waving Salafist black flags, marched through the city and raised a banner over the minaret of its mosque, the oldest in Africa.
The demonstration comes in the wake of the rejuvenated Jewish annual pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba, the continuation of which was in doubt after Israel’s National Security Council expressed fears the country’s activists were planning attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets.
Chief organiser of the pilgrimage, Rene Trabelski, refuted such security fears and claimed a successful 2012 pilgrimage would “show the world that Tunisians accept difference and that the new Tunisia is not as Islamist and radical as some think”.
“It’s a country that respects religious minorities as always”, he added.
The event went ahead with some 1,500 Jews from across, France, Tunisia and Italy.
Organisers of the Salafist assembly had instructed marchers to remain “calm” and not to talk to reporters. Many participants however defied their request not to chant slogans, reciting “We are all the children of Osama (bin Laden) and “Jews, Jews, the army of Mohammed is back”.
The Salafist movement has risen to prominence since its launch in April 2011, following the popular protests that forced former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to flee Tunisia after 23 years in power, and which constituted the start of the Arab Spring across the Muslim world.
The revolution brought moderate Islamists to power to replace the former secular administration, but also led to the rise of extremist groups advocating the adoption of fundamentalist shariah law.
The leader of the outlawed Hizb Ettahrir party, Ridha Bel Haj told the crowd he was hopeful because of the number of participants in the country’s second annual assembly:
“The revolution was made so that sharia could be applied”, he said.
According to “The Promise” magazine distributed at the rally:
“The second congress...reunites all brothers whose objective it is to apply sharia and God’s law in our country”.
Also on the list of speakers was Anser al-Sharia leader and Al Qaeda associate Seif Allah Ben Hassine, who was declared as such by the UN in 2002, before being granted amnesty in the Tunisian uprisings.
Not all observers were willing or welcome participants, however. A group of tourists were seen leaving in disgust, while a crowd of women gathered nearby expressed their horror at the demonstration:
“Frankly, my first reaction in seeing them was fear,” said one of them. “I don’t know if they bring luck or misfortune to Tunisia, but I’m afraid of a second, religious revolution.”
There are an estimated 10,000 Salafist adherents in Tunisia, in comparison with approximately 1,000 Jews remaining from a former 100,000-strong community.