After Slaughter Of Tourists, Tunisia Cracks Down On Islamists

Jun 29, 2015
Originally published on June 29, 2015 6:29 pm

Tunisia was in shock after at least 38 foreign tourists were killed Friday at a beachside hotel, apparently by one man: Saifeddine Rezgui, who was in turn killed by police.

Amid the horror, there was defiance in the air in the seaside town of Sousse. Hundreds of foreign tourists decided to stay, and were out on the beaches. And local residents held a patriotic demonstration, waving the red national flag and chanting about unity in a palm-fringed square.

Many talked about how to prevent another attack. One demonstrator, Wahiba Sleimi, who was there with her husband and son, said there should be a lot of arrests.

"After the revolution," she said, referring to the 2011 popular ousting of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, "people were released from jail, who should not have been."

She added: "Many things happened after the revolution. Sometimes we're even nostalgic for the time of Ben Ali."

This is a little jarring coming from her, because she's dressed in the long gown and headscarf favored by devout Muslim women.

Living under Ben Ali was sometimes tough for such people. Rights groups say hundreds of religious and politically active Muslims spent years in jail on flimsy charges. Women who wore the headscarf had trouble getting government jobs.

But Tunisia is weaving a narrow path between the autocratic habits of the old regime and the Islamist violence proliferating in much of the Arab world.

Support For Tougher Measures

After a recent surge in violence that included an attack on tourists in a museum in the capital, many Tunisians support tough measures. Over the weekend, authorities announced plans for the closure of about 80 mosques deemed extremist and the banning of some radical political parties.

A local official from the secular ruling party Nidaa Tounes, Ahmed Zeglaoui, approves.

"It's a good idea because there is no place for these kind of people in Tunisia," he says. "OK, they are Tunisian, but now they have a new culture, which is not our culture. It's not our responsibility to absorb them in our system."

But some think the crackdown could backfire.

The attacker, Rezgui, studied in the nearby town of Kairouan, an ancient place with a long Islamic history. The imam of the town's great mosque, Taieb Ghozzi, says his town is being misrepresented.

"They are saying that we are creating terrorism in Kairouan," he says angrily as he goes to lead Ramadan prayers.

Ghozzi has spoken out against violent extremism. But he says banning radical, but nonviolent, political parties is an overreaction. So is closing mosques.

"Why — for the sake of one or two people — would we deprive people of prayer in these mosques?" he asks.

Parliament member Sayida Ounissi, from the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, says closing mosques won't change mindsets.

"It's not like you close a mosque and these guys will just disappear like this," she says. "You are closing a space. You are not closing minds."

Ounissi would like to see a more competent police force and justice system rather than measures targeting religion and politics. She says the crackdown will make people feel like victims. It could be a tipping point for some young Tunisians.

"If they feel society doesn't accept them, they might think it's fine to harm society," she says.

Lilia Weslaty contributed reporting to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The North African nation of Tunisia was in shock this past weekend after a man with a Kalashnikov rifle killed at least 38 tourists at a beachfront hotel. The government has responded by cracking down on Muslim extremists. NPR's Alice Fordham reports from Tunisia.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Amid the shock of Friday's mass killing, there was defiance in the air in the seaside town of Sousse. Hundreds of foreign tourists decided to stay and were out on the beaches.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

FORDHAM: And locals held a patriotic demonstration.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)

FORDHAM: Many talked about how to prevent another attack. They generally assumed the killer, Saifeddine Rezgui, was motivated by Islamist extremism. Earlier this year, there was a similar attack on a museum in the capital. And in recent months, police arrested hundreds of suspected extremists. One demonstrator, Wahiba Sleimi, said that's a good thing.

WAHIBA SLEIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: She says "After the revolution that kicked out the autocratic leader Zine al Abidine Ben Ali four years ago, people were released from jail who should have stayed."

SLEIMI: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: "Many things happened after the revolution," she says. "Sometimes we're even nostalgic for the time of Ben Ali." This is a little jarring coming from her because she's dressed in the long gown and headscarf favored by devout Muslim women. Living under Ben Ali was sometimes tough for such people. Rights groups say hundreds of religious and politically active Muslims spent years in jail on flimsy charges. Women who wore the headscarf had trouble getting government jobs. But after the surge in violence, many Tunisians support tough measures. At the weekend, authorities announced the closure of about 80 mosques deemed extremist and the banning of some religious political parties. A local official from the secular ruling party, Ahmed Zeglaoui, approves.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AHMED ZEGLAOUI: It's a good idea because of - there is no place for this kind of people here in Tunisia.

FORDHAM: He says radical Islamists are alien to the national culture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZEGLAOUI: OK, they are Tunisian, but now they have a new culture which is not our culture. It's not OK. It's not our responsibility to absorb them in our system.

FORDHAM: But some think the crackdown could backfire.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRAYER)

FORDHAM: The attacker, Rezgui, studied in the nearby town of Kairouan, an ancient place with a long Islamic history. I meet the imam of the great mosque, Taieb Ghozzi, there. He says his town is being misrepresented.

IMAM TAIEB GHOZZI: (Through interpreter) They are saying that we are creating terrorism in Kairouan. This is what they are saying.

FORDHAM: Ghozzi has spoken out against violent extremism, but he says banning radical but non-violent political parties is an overreaction, so is closing mosques.

GHOZZI: (Through interpreter) Why for the sake of one or two people would we deprive people of prayer in these mosques?

FORDHAM: And I meet a moderate Islamist politician, Sayida Ounissi, who says closing mosques won't change mindsets.

SAYIDA OUNISSI: These people, they don't disappear. It's not because you close a mosque that these guys are just going to disappear, like, you closing a space. You're not closing mind.

FORDHAM: Ounissi would like to see a more competent police force and justice system rather than measures targeting religion and politics.

OUNISSI: If we say, OK, so you don't have a right to exist anymore, where are they going to go?

FORDHAM: She says the crackdown will make people feel like victims. It could be a tipping point for some young Tunisians. If they feel society doesn't accept them, they might think it's fine to harm society. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Sousse, Tunisia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.