More than 40 tombs of Muslim saints have been destroyed or attacked in Tunisia since the January 2011 revolution, a sign of growing fierce, and sometimes militant, Salafi opposition to Sufi practices of piety, writes Annette Steinich in the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung (April 12).
In the only case in which culprits were arrested, the arsonists who had set fire to the tomb of a 12th century female mystic were found to be three radical Salfis. Since many of those tombs are also historical monuments, this has also led to the destruction of a valuable cultural legacy.
This is shocking to many people in Tunisia and elsewhere, especially since such practices had been accepted for centuries. The veneration of saints and respect for their tombs is not a fringe phenomenon in Islam. However, rigorist currents such as Wahhabism and now Salafism see such practices as superstitious and even blasphemous.
Educated Sufis claim, however, that people coming to pray to the tombs are actually addressing their prayers to God. Across the Muslim world Salafism has been critical of such traditional and popular piety. Such views are supported by propaganda spread from Saudi Arabia, where Wahhabism is the official expression of Islam.
According to the director of the Institute of National Cultural Heritage, Adnan Louhichi, the attacks should not be seen as isolated incidents, but as part of a strategy against “moderate” forms of Islam. Anti-Sufism
thus becomes part of a wider concern about the growing activism of Salafi groups. Most of them do not support armed insurrection, although some groups are willing to engage in armed struggle: the others hope to influence society in their direction and hope to earn support through various activities, including charitable work.
According to an interview by another Swiss daily, Le Temps (May 3), with a French expert on Salafism, Romain Caillet, some members of the leading Islamic political party, Ennahda, would like to see the government take a more determined stand against Salafism, but most Ennahda members prefer to favor the unity of the Islamic field; thus the government is willing to give free rein to Salafis as long as they do not advocate violence.
In the meantime Sufis have started cooperating in an attempt to present a united front: the main Sufi brotherhoods launched a Sufi Union in late 2011. They are willing to engage in discussion with all sectors of civil society, including political parties, but do not want to directly enter the political field themselves or to associate with a specific political party: Sufi centers should not be turned into political places, according to their spokesman.