Ennahda and the Salafis
Underpinning Ennahda’s integrationist strategy is its leaders’ belief that political inclusion and Islamic education provide the best means for neutralizing the potential violence of jihadi Salafism. Ennahda leaders tend to view the country’s jihadi Salafis as wayward children—younger, more confused versions of themselves who never had the chance to be properly educated in a more cerebral form of “Tunisian Islam,” which they generally describe as moderate, tolerant, and inclusive. Cracking down on young Salafis or demonizing them will, in Ennahda’s view, only serve to further marginalize and isolate them. Personal experience also shapes the now-ruling party’s views regarding political inclusion. Former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali sought to malign Ennahda as a terrorist group in the 1990s, and many of the party’s leaders were imprisoned or exiled, where they seem to have internalized the notion that dialogue and political representation offer effective alternatives to extremism.
Privately, leading members of Ennahda routinely blame Ben Ali’s regime for jihadi Salafism. By positioning police officers in mosques, scripting Friday sermons, and coopting religious institutions like Zeitouna Mosque, the old regime “deprived mosques of their true function,” according to Monia Brahim, a member of Ennahda’s shura council. “Ideally, the mosque is a place of discussion, liberal education, and exchange. Under Ben Ali, mosques couldn’t exercise their role, so young people turned to conservative sheikhs on the TV and internet.” For Ennahda’s leadership, the road to Salafi integration runs through a reactivated Zeitouna Mosque and the strengthening of Salafi political parties, often led by Salafi scripturalists whom Ennahda hopes can promote peaceable readings of Islam and eventually convince anti-democratic young jihadis to engage in the political system.That's fair enough, and I don't think some Western commentators take enough note of the ways in which deposed Arab regimes served as incubators of violent extremism. However, the Tunisian government does have a responsibility to maintain security for all its citizens, a responsibility not really fulfilled by handling rioters with kid gloves.