What does it mean when fanatics attack relics and mosaics? Simply put, a jihadist front may be expanding to engulf Tunisia in chaos as it has done in neighbouring Libya.
There are three possible explanations. It would be easy to say that Tunisia’s once-thriving tourism industry was the target of the attack. In fact, it is more than that. What is being targeted is the civic way of life enabling citizens to live at once as Muslims and democrats. This should be the primary concern of Tunisia’s citizens and the new political elite shaping the country’s “Second Republic” after the January 2011 Revolution.
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Wednesday’s deadly attack on a museum in Tunisia should not be oversimplified as a threat against tourism. It is far more serious than that. It may mark the assault against civic political organisation and a fledgling experiment combining Islam and democracy.
That experiment, the Arab Spring’s first approximation of a durable democratic transition since the 2011 Arab revolts is a blend of Islam and democracy. It seeks a two-fold synthesis: 1) between a moderate brand of Islam that tolerates ballots, gender equality, rule of law, pluralism, accountable government, and coexistence with the West; and 2) a form of democracy that is inclusive of all faiths and freedom of worship.
Anathema to jihadists
The experiment has a bigger chance of success in homogenous Tunisia than any other Arab state. Tunisia’s famed religious scholar Muhammad Tahar Ibn Ashur (died 1973) came closest to elaborating an interpretation of Islam that promotes enlightened Muslim identity and rationality. His masterpiece “The Higher Goals of Islamic Law” (published in 1946) would be an anathema to jihadists and literalist religious preachers.
The terrorist attack against a museum adjacent to the country’s parliament in the upscale Bardo neighbourhood, signals a tactical shift by jihadists in Tunisia and North Africa in general. Until Wednesday, attacks against state symbols, especially the army and security forces, were confined to the Jebel Chaambi, the mountain areas near Kasserine. Ambushes of army units in 2012, 2013 and 2014 by extremists, particularly the Uqba Ibn Nafaa group, caused dozens of fatalities among soldiers. Last July alone, 15 soldiers were killed by this deadly unit.
The daring operation executed in the heart of a rich suburb within the precincts of power is more than symbolic. It places the entire elite staffing of the so-called “Second Republic” on notice. This is the deadliest attack since the democratically-elected secularist president, 86-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, was sworn into office three months ago.
Essebsi’s secularist party Nidaa Tounes, winner of the November 2014 parliamentary elections, rules Tunisia in a consortium with Ben Ali associates and leftist partners – historically known for hostility towards Islamists, including the moderate Ennahda Party.
Tunisia's security apparatus suffers from incompetence if not out-and-out laxity. The stigma lives on. Back in 1988, a Mossad commando elite unit was able to assassinate the PLO's number two in command, Khalil al-Wazir, in Tunisia.
Tunisia’s security apparatus
The last thing jihadists want for Tunisia is for democracy to triumph, much less for secularists even if democratically elected to run this North African – Arab and Muslim – country with a population of 11 million.
Tunisia’s security apparatus suffers from incompetence if not out-and-out laxity. The stigma lives on. Back in 1988, a Mossad commando elite unit was able to assassinate the PLO’s number two in command, Khalil al-Wazir (Abu Jihad), in Tunisia. Wednesday’s attack will add to security woes in a country that needs to direct its limited resources towards the civilian economy in order to create youth employment and lower budgetary deficits and international debt.
The attack has always been on the cards. And there is no reason why it was allowed to happen with such ease.
The deteriorating security conditions in Libya, Syria and Iraq are proving infectious. Libya, more immediately, threatens stability in Tunisia. Borders are porous and the illegal transit of weapons and jihadists, including battle-hardened ISIL returnees, compound the threat to this Mediterranean country.
For over six months, intelligence about terrorist plans to expand the jihadist fronts have circulated in the country and it is known to most politicians. In late 2014, jihadist commanders close to Libya’s branch of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – including Torki al-Bina’ali of Bahraini origin – schemed to take the jihadist war to neighbouring Tunisia.
The Tunisian commander heading Uqba Ibn Nafaa, Khalid al-Chayieb, might have adopted such a strategy. He has hundreds – if not thousands – of Tunisian fighters in Syria’s ISIL to call upon for the activation of this plan. And it is not inconceivable that Tunisian and Libyan returnees from Syria are mobilising to widen jihadist operations, bringing the war to Tunisia’s urban centres.
Allegiance to ISIL
Like in Libya, where local militias have pledged allegiance to ISIL, Uqba Ibn Nafaa is following suit. As far as rhetoric is concerned, the war of words against the new political establishment in Tunisia began late last year. Wednesday’s attack must be understood to fulfil this logic.
Yet it would appear as though this jihadist message was not taken seriously enough by security strategists in Tunisia. Many Tunisian citizens have not forgotten the not-so-veiled threat by Uqba Ibn Nafaa in September-October 2014 to carry out punitive operations against the army and security forces referred to as a “tyrannical” system (taghoot).
In January, it was Paris, with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. In March, it is Tunis, with the attack on the museum in Bardo.
What is it about relics and ruins that keep on drawing fanatics? Whatever it is, it has nothing to do with Islam. The advent of Islam in Afghanistan did not spell the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (dynamited by fanatics in March 2001) – nor did it herald cultural erasure and historical vandalism such as that we witnessed at the hands of ISIL this month against the Assyrian archaeological site of Nimrud in Iraq.
Nor did it bring destruction to Roman or Carthaginian relics, including the largest collection of mosaics in the Mediterranean. The early Muslim proselytisers to Tunisia, as elsewhere, appreciated the Roman architectural genius. In the Zeitouna and Kairouan mosques, among the oldest in the Muslim world, they borrowed that genius using some of the most exquisite marble pillars to raise buildings, rather than erase them.
Indeed, if there is a pattern to be discerned from Wednesday’s attack on the National Museum in Bardo, the threat is far graver than a loss of tourism for Tunisia.
Dr Larbi Sadiki is a senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratisation: Elections without Democracy and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.