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Middle East

Tunisian minister ousted for criticizing Saudi Arabia

A Tunisian religious affairs minister has been fired from the government after linking Saudi Arabia's religious ideology with extremism. Is the criticism fair and does Saudi Arabia bear any responsibility for terrorism?

The minister, Abdeljalil Ben Salem, had been relieved of his post by Tunisia's Prime Minister Youssef Chahed last Friday after claiming Saudi Arabia's religious doctrine, Wahhabism, inspires terrorism. The government claimed Ben Salem's remarks were an attack on the country's diplomatic values. 

Tunsien Youssef Chahed bei Amtseinführung (picture-alliance/ZUMA Press/C. Mahjoub)

New head of government in Tunisia, Youssef Chahed

In an interview with Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM, Ben Salem told Saudis to "reform your school because terrorism has traditionally come from it. I say this to you with love and modesty"

On social media, Arab Twitter users expressed their dismay at the decision to sack the minister.

 "Abdeljalil Ben Salam said yesterday that Saudi Arabia is the source of terrorism. He was fired from his ministerial post for saying the truth - what a crime!" tweeted Jalalet El Malik El Moathem

"Those who respect humanity and tell the truth are punished in this world. The Tunisian Religious Affairs Minister has been fired because he accused Saudi Arabia of being a vehicle of terrorism," wrote the anti-Saudi government Twitter user "Victory of the Opposition."

Closer alignment with Saudi Arabia

Tunisia has often been considered the most liberal Arab nation, particularly near the country's capital, Tunis. The first president of the country, Habib Bourguiba, promoted secular values in the country, such as the separation of religion and government and the equality of women and men as enshrined in the 1956 Code of Personal Status.

His successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, continued the liberal religious policies until he was ousted and forced into exile in the 2011 Tunisian revolution. After several changes of government, the current setup, led by the Nidaa Tounes party, also maintains liberal values, but has pursued a pragmatic strategy of trading with the most conservative Arab country, Saudi Arabia.

Tunesien Ben Ali in Abwesenheit zu 20 Jahren Haft verurteilt (AP)

Former Tunisian President Zine Abedine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia

"Relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Tunisian Republic are both historic and well-established. The two nations cooperate in a variety of ways, politically, culturally and economically" said the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Tunisia's Arabic website. It also talks about a rise in mutual investments in each other's economies after the 2011 revolution.

Wahabbism

The economic ties enjoyed by the two countriesplayed a large role in Ben Salem's dismissal. The former minister's opinion that Saudi Arabia's Wahabbist religious ideology fuels extremism, however, is not uncommon.

"A member of the US Congress has said that Saudi religious ideology is the cause of terrorism in the world" tweeted Zhret Tishreen, using the hashtag, "Wahhabism is the reason behind terrorism"

Wahhabism, an ultraconservative form of Islam, is named after Muhammad ibn Abd Al-Wahhab. It's often considered to be a part of Salafism, a movement that believes life should be lived according to the Prophet Muhammad in the eighth century. Moreover, Wahhabism remains the state-sanctioned form of Islam in Saudi Arabia - a society where women cannot drive and religious police roam the streets.

Critics of Ben Salam's dismissal in Tunisia are wary of the kind of influence Saudi money can have on Tunisia's secular environment. They also argue that Tunisia should follow in the footsteps of the United States and Europe, who have long enjoyed economic ties with Saudi Arabia but have recently started to accuse the Wahhabist ideology of being extremist. 

Verschleierte Frau in Saudi-Arabien (picture-alliance/dpa)

Saudi Arabia, the most conservative Arab country

"After a period of indifference, the ties between the United States and Europe are beginning to fray with Saudi Arabia, a country which is being singled out as an accomplice and sponsor for spreading jihadism" said Tunisian writer Slaheddine Dchicha in a French editorial titled "Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Jihadism" for the Kapitalis news organization.

Confronting Extremism

On Monday, Tunisia adopted a new plan to fight terrorism in the country. Tunisia's national security council, led by President Beji Caid Essebsi, released a statement that the "national strategy to fight against extremism and terrorism" relies on four principles, "prevention, protection, juridical proceedings and retaliation." No further details were released in the report.

Although the country is relatively safe compared to the rest of the region, it faced tragedy last year after terrorist attacks struck the capital's Bardo Museum as well as the seaside resort town of Sousse. The violence left more than 70 people dead, many of whom were European tourists. 

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