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Tunisian town's mourning of a suicide highlights softer side of Salafism

Salafism has a reputation for intolerance and violence. But one Tunisian town's response to a local suicide, considered a sin, shows a different side. 

By Correspondent / July 5, 2012



Goubellat, Tunisia

On Monday last week the people of Goubellat, a farming town west of Tunis, discovered a body hanging in the minaret of their mosque: Mohamed Ali Riahi, a young metalsmith was an apparent suicide victim.

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“He was level with the first landing of the staircase,” says Houssein Riahi, a cafe worker and friend who was among the first to the scene. “Around him, emptiness.”

Mr. Riahi’s death has raised painful questions in a town where many belong to Islam's Salafi sect, a deeply conservative form of the faith.

Islam in general considers suicide a sin. But while rising Islamic fervor has Tunisians elsewhere bickering across religious fault lines, the people of Goubellat – from the pious to the not-so-pious – are facing tragedy together.

“We’re all distraught and we’re trying to learn from this suicide,” says Ayman Riahi (no relation), the town’s imam. “We have to teach our young people that nothing merits taking one’s life.”

Ayman Riahi (no relation to Mohamed) is the sort of Muslim – bearded, self-assured, and ultra-conservative – whose emergence has rattled many Tunisians. He took over as imam of the mosque after the revolution weakened state control of mosques and his predecessor left town.

For decades former presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali enforced a strict secular order, but today the moderate Islamist Ennahda Party leads a coalition government with two secular-leaning parties. Meanwhile, Tunisia’s minority Salafi movement is increasingly demanding Islamic rule and what it considers due respect for Islam, sometimes triggering violence.

Last month, vandalism by Salafis of an art exhibit in Tunis they called blasphemous spiraled into rioting as poor youths took advantage of disorder to clash with police. In Goubellat, Salafis demonstrated outside the national guard post to protest the artwork.

“People say we’re terrorists,” says Ayman Riahi. “In fact, we’re just defending our right to live in an Islamic country with Islamic laws – to live as God commands us.”

The simple life

Goubellat is a place where life moves to simple rhythms. Nearly everyone shares the same surname. They are traders, craftsmen, and farmers. Some are Salafis; others, including the family of Mohamed Ali Riahi, are not.

“The Salafis here are alright,” says his older brother Sami, who worked alongside him with their father making various metal fixtures and repairs. “Even if they know you drink, they don’t bother you about it.”

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