A September 14 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis left four dead, 49 injured, several buildings looted and burnt out, and the black Salafi flag flying above the embassy grounds. In response, the ruling “moderate” Islamist party of Tunisia, Ennahda, forthrightly condemned the incident. Minister of the interior Ali Larayedh recognized that the government “failed to protect the embassy and we should offer our apologies to the Americans.” Ennahda’s leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, more vehemently condemned the Salafis as a “danger” to freedom and security in Tunisia and called for a fight against them through every legal means.
These statements reassured Americans that if long-bearded and burqaed crazies want to kill them, moderate-sounding Islamists in ties and hijabs are civilized, law-abiding allies. That, in turn, fits a policy going back to 1992 of fighting violent Islamists while cooperating with non-violent ones. Thus did American troops execute Osama bin Laden while American presidents helped Islamists reach power in Turkey and in Egypt.
Many other differences mark variant strands of Islamism: Yusuf al-Qaradawi urges conversion to win over non-Muslims; Nigeria’s Boko Haram prefers to kill them. The Hizb ut-Tahrir organization aims to bring all Muslims under the rule of a universal caliphate; Turkey’s Fethullahis aspire to build a national form of Islam. Egypt’s Islamist president routinely wears a tie; his Iranian counterpart never does. The former pop star Cat Stevens sings a cappella nasheeds, while Somalia’s Shabab ban all music on the radio. Women may not operate a car in Saudi Arabia, but they drive taxis in Iran.
Broadly speaking, Islamists divide into three types: (1) Salafis, who revere the era of the salaf (the first three generations of Muslims) and aim to revive it by wearing Arabian clothing, adopting antique customs, and assuming a medieval mindset that leads to religious-based violence. (2) Muslim Brothers and like types who aspire to an Islamic version of modernity; depending on circumstances, they might act violently or not. (3) Lawful Islamists who work within the system, engaging in political, media, legal, and educational activities; by definition, they do not engage in violence.
Their differences are real. But they are also secondary, for all Islamists pull in the same direction, toward the full and severe application of Islamic law (the sharia), and they often cooperate toward this end, sometimes covertly. For example, a recently leaked video from Tunisia spectacularly links Ennahda to the embassy violence. Initially broadcast in April 2012, the video resurfaced on October 9. In it, Ghannouchi talks tactics with young Salafis to achieve their common goals and boasts, “We’ve met with . . . the Salafis, including Sheikh Abou Iyadh.”
Oh, really? Abou Iyadh, whose real name is Seifallah Ben Hassine, headsAnsar al-Sharia, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Tunisian police established a dragnet to question him about his role leading to the September 14 attack. With the revelation of this meeting, the video undercuts Ennahda’s condemnation of that attack.
The video also shows that Ghannouchi sees Ennahda and the Salafis as allies in the effort to dominate Tunisia and implement sharia. He offers his Salafi listeners some strategic advice: “I tell our young Salafis to be patient. . . . Why hurry? Take your time to consolidate what you have gained by creating television channels, radio stations, schools, and universities.” He also admonishes them to “fill the country with associations, establish Koranic schools everywhere, and invite religious preachers.”
Revealingly, Ghannouchi states that “the government is now in the hands of Islamists, the mosques are ours now, and we’ve become the most important entity in the country.” Note the references to “ours” and “we,” further confirming that he sees Ennahda and the Salafis constituting a joint force.
Ghannouchi’s reaching out to al-Qaeda fits a larger pattern. The Turkish government not only works with IHH, an organization associated with al-Qaeda, but may soon join North Korea and Iran on the blacklist for its lax terrorism-financing laws. The Council on American-Islamic Relations appears legitimate but in fact is a terrorist-supporting front organization founded by Hamas supporters. “Moderate” British Islamists exploited terrorist incidents to increase their clout.
The Tunisian tape brings yet another carefully crafted bifurcation of “moderate” and “extremist” Islamists crashing down. All Islamists are one; a moderate Islamist is as fantastical a notion as a moderate Nazi. Every member of this barbaric movement is a potential totalitarian thug. Western governments should neither accept nor work with the one or the other.