The mosque of Kasserine is an oasis of peace in a desert of chaos. In the back of the mosque, a group of students is following Islamic lessons. Studying together with like-minded youth gives them a feeling of home. ‘A sense of belonging and a clear structure in their lives, is what many young people from Kasserine are seeking’, said one of them. ‘Some find it at IS, others find it with us. Our religious community also gives structure, the difference is that we are peaceful.’

PIETER STOCKMANS and MONTASSER ALDE’EMEH

Before the revolution even these gatherings of peaceful Salafists were impossible. Any expression of religious organization was immediately seen as a potential terrorist threat.

‘The security services used to think we were calling for violence just because we look like jihadists, with beards and long robes’, one of the youth says. ‘But we have always been ideologically opposed to jihadists, and even to all the uprisings in the Arab world. After all, we follow the scholar al-Albani. Jihadists revolt, but do not have the means to bring it to a successful conclusion. This is not allowed in Islam. They call themselves Salafists, but are nothing more than terrorists dressed as Salafists. And where did they get the idea they can kill tourists? Salafis follow the example of the prophet Mohammed, who made a pact with strangers to offer them protection.’

‘After each jihadist attack, we feel increasing pressure on our religious community. We are being held responsible for the actions of people who are our enemies. There is no one who fights against terrorism more than we do, because we fight them intellectually. We convince young people, not by force, but with arguments that IS is wrong. But some rather follow their instincts and desires to fight, rather then their minds. They reject our knowledge to be able to go for adventure in a war zone.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

(c) Baram Maaruf

After visiting the mosque, two agents outside started aggressively interrogating three young men from the mosque: ‘Who are you? Are you Tunisian? Why do you speak to these foreigners?’ They are probably agents of the intelligence services. Apparently, the trust between the government and the Salafists is not yet fully restored. But we did not allow the agents to interrogate the youngsters and walked off together.

We sat in a café where men smoked the water-pipe, which is not permitted by peaceful Salafists and jihadi Salafists. But these Salafist youth take a tolerant attitude. ‘We are opposed to smoking, but we don’t judge others’, says 27-year-old Sabri. ‘We feel distaste for the act, not hatred for the person. That’s what we learned during our lessons in the mosque. We study the books of Sheikh al-Albani. We don’t declare other Muslims as apostates. When I hear someone declare other Muslims as apostates, I go and report it at the police.’

Another peaceful Salafist who owns a tiny shop with Islamic clothing, books and perfume (photo), did call the leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party an apostate. ‘I even prefer Ben Ali over Ghannouchien’, he says, referring to Rachid Ghannouchi with the French word for “dog”. ‘Ennahdha has adapted Islam for the sake of gaining political power.’

(c) Baram Maaruf

(c) Baram Maaruf

Imad Nasri, who used to be imam, phrased it more elegantly: ‘We have ideological problems with all Muslims who use Islam to engage in politics. Our doctrine is different. When I was an imam, a group of jihadi Salafists entered the mosque and began to pray behind another man. After I refused me to join them, they declared us to be apostates. They see us as their biggest enemy because we have the knowledge to combat them intellectually, to deter young people to join them. Also the Islamist party Ennahdha asked me to talk about them favourably in my preaches so that people would vote for them. Again I refused.’

Because of their apolitical and secular attitude these Salafists have a good relationship with the authorities. It was the chief of the police who introduced us to Imam Nasri.

‘Before the revolution, the government made no distinction between different kinds of Salafists’, he said. ‘They did not even know we are Salafists because we follow the ways of the prophet. I spoke with the governor of Kasserine. “You resemble those terrorists”, he said. Since the revolution we had the chance to prove the difference between Salafists and jihadists. This is my biggest goal: make clear to the authorities that we have nothing to do with people who legitimize violence under the guise of Salafism so there would be no misunderstanding and we would have the freedom to practice our faith freely.’

On the way to the mosque where Nasri goes to pray, a convoy of police cars and armored military vehicles suddenly thundered through the narrow streets of this popular district. On board were heavily armed soldiers and police. ‘They come back from the mountains. There they patrol every day and go look for terrorists,’ said Nasri. ‘I prefer the armoured vehicles of the state over those of IS. I prefer the national Tunisian flag over the black Islamic flag if that black flag stands for human rights violations.’

Uninformed readers would find these words remarkable for a Salafist, but in fact they’d find them perfectly normal if they’d understand the differences between the groups who call themselves Salafist. An understanding of these differences is crucial in the fight against violence in the name of Islam.

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