In the context of the ongoing Tunisian revolution, an authoritarian restoration seems unlikely, but besides the organization of the political scene becoming more pluralistic, questions are raised about the ways in which the religious field can be restructured, considering the changes brought about by the years of former President Ben Ali’s rule.
Under President Bourguiba and then under his successor, Ben Ali, the traditional institutions associated with the Islam of learned ulemas (Islamic scholars) were considerably weakened and placed under strict government control, thus losing their autonomy in relation to the state. Political Islam was obviously repressed. Finally, Sufism has been weakened by the modernist emphasis of successive Tunisian regimes since the country gained its independence from French rule.
In an authoritarian environment, two new lines of Islam developed, in contrast with the previously mentioned currents. Firstly, a kind of “light,” non-political, individualist understanding of Islam has developed. This trend was supported by transnational influences, such as new preachers (e.g. the famous Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled) as well as by local ones: Ben Ali’s son-in-law, Sakhr al-Matri, launched Radio Al-Zeitouna, promoting such a kind of piety, and also launched several charitable organizations and an Islamic bank, under the leadership of a young preacher, Mohamed Masfar. Secondly, Saudi-inspired Salafism gained an audience via satellite television channels from Egypt (the channel Al-Nas, i.e. “the people”) and from the Gulf countries.
It introduced a more radical kind of religiosity. Since the revolution, it has already started to express itself: a few Salafi groups have taken control of some mosques, forcing their former imams (prayer leaders) to resign.It seems likely that the institutions promoted by the son-in-law of the former, now exiled, president will lose their credibility. At the same time, the Ennadha movement, representing political Islam, seems neither willing nor able to take over. During an initial period, Salafi trends might benefit from that situation. Then, provided political Islam manages to restructure itself, a polarization of the religious field might occur, unless the state manages to bring about its own structuring of religious life.
— By Patrick Haenni, a researcher at Religioscope Institute, reporting from Tunisia