It is a tale of sex and sheikhs, war and religion, all fuelled by a combustible mix of the Internet and ideology. There are YouTube clips of Saudi sheikhs counting men’s celestial sexual partners, devout Muslims offering to adopt illegitimate children, and Tunisia’s anti-Islamist news outlets busily looking for ways to use the shocking allegations to expose the fragility of the country’s ruling Islamist coalition.
So what exactly has Tunisia and the Arabic-language web so abuzz? A heated debate that started late last month after reports that Tunisian women had been travelling to Syria to perform religiously sanctioned ‘sexual jihad’ (jihad al-nikah) - with some allegedly having sex with more than 100 rebel troops before returning home. The issue had first come to light in March, when Saudi Sheikh Mohamad al-Arefe had allegedly issued a fatwa (religious ruling) calling for women to come forward for jihad al-nikah and boost the morale of jihadists fighting against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Some Western media outlets have taken the reports at face value, others have expressed serious skepticism. But in Tunisia, the subject has become political dynamite. The notoriously anti-Islamist Tunisian press has used the issue to step up calls for the government’s fall, reporting that hundreds of women had returned from Syria pregnant.
The secular press singled out the reaction of an Islamist leader incredibly popular with his party’s conservative base: Habib Ellouze, who offered to adopt the illegitimate children resulting from jihad al-nikah unions. Ellouze subsequently said that the “sexual jihad” story was completely invented, though that was barely covered. Instead, Tunisian press has been busy printing “I told you so” articles and blaming the Islamist-dominated government’s laxity toward hardline positions of the Salafists.
Sign of weakness
Indeed, the confusion over the jihad al-nikah debate among Islamists is just another indication of the instability of the uneasy alliances that the current government in Tunis must rely upon. The country is currently led by the self-declared moderate Islamist movement Ennahda, which actually includes hardline elements. It is a sign of weakness that there was so much confusion in the way the government responded to allegations of sex and religious manipulation - even though there was very little actual proof - with the Ministry of Women publishing a communiqué promising a crisis unit dedicated to dealing with the influx of women returning from jihad.
Dissent among Islamists has redirected observers to a root cause behind the disagreement: the party’s own tense relationship with Tunisian Salafists. Aside from Ellouze, who told reporters that the entire story of jihad al-nikah was a farce, Minister of Religious Affairs Noureddine Khadmi also denied the claims. Saudi-linked Khadmi - who was nicknamed the “imam of jihad” - has made enemies through his alleged encouragement of violence in religious sermons, and by demanding the daytime closure of restaurants and cafés during the holy month of Ramadan.
Meanwhile, other prominent Islamists in leadership positions (like Ennahdha’s president Rashid al-Ghannushi, as well as Islamist Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh) have failed to publicly denounce jihad al-nikah as a farce. This has been construed as accepting that it exists. Why, then, has the narrative of Tunisian women’s sexual jihad exploded with various key figures’ express and unspoken accord? For one, the salacious jihad al-nikah drama has allowed both Islamists and progressive opposition figures to shine the light on the evils of extremism.
The key point that emerges from the spectacle of nighttime political debates and sober press conferences is perhaps mainly the divergence of opinion regarding the definition of extremism. Tunisian progressives believe that Islamists (specifically the ruling party Ennahdha) are religious extremists, secretly in alliance with the Salafists they denounce; thus, exposing a despicable network pandering to the worst combination of sex and Islam is intended to tarnish the image of all Islamists, including the “moderates” in government.
Still there are other signs pointing to significant internal dissent, most notably the decision of the Tunisian Islamist party’s leadership to break with its Salafist brethren, pinning the blame for two recent high-profile assassinations squarely on the most prominent Tunisian Salafi Jihadi group. And so are the stories of sexual jihad actually true? French news outlets have picked up on the serious holes in the original account. In a perverse twist, it seems that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may have manufactured such stories in his continuing effort to discredit the Syrian opposition as sexually voracious, sociopathic jihadists.
And what about the Saudi sheikh who allegedly delivered the initial fatwa, the religious ruling sanctioning sexual jihad? He denied issuing such it, dismissing it on his Twitter account as a “fabrication.” Tunisian women returning from sexual jihad in Syria - if there are any - thus may find a community of individuals concerned about their welfare, or dedicated to pontificating about it. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s political actors, ready to endorse caricatures of their own opponents, may wind up finding themselves with the strangest of bedfellows.