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. 

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.

“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.”

The family lives in a two-story house at the edge of town. There are tomato plants in one direction, watermelons in another, and in the distance, low hills dotted with olive trees. They describe Mohamed Ali Riahi as an easygoing young man who drank alcohol one day and prayed the next.

“And he loved the sea,” says Sami. “We used to drive over together to the beach by Tunis and go swimming.”

Last year Mohamed Ali Riahi was driving near Goubellat when he struck another car. His left arm was broken and he spent weeks in hospital. While his family members say he suffered no other injuries, many in Goubellat believe the accident gave him a knock on the head that led to mental problems, setting him on a downward slope.

“You’d say ‘Mohamed’ and he’d pause, then look up and say, ‘Yes?’,” says Houssein Riahi. “He was out of sync with the world.”

On June 23, he dropped by Houssein Riahi’s cafe. He ordered tea and talked about the beach. The following evening he showered, put on a new black shirt and blue trousers, and addressed his father, Ali Riahi.

“I’m sorry," he said.

“For what?" asked his father.

“I just need to say I’m sorry,” he replied. Then he left the house and did not return.

The next day, June 25, children playing in the mosque found Mohamed Ali Riahi hanging from a rope inside the minaret. Houssein Riahi heard the uproar and rushed to the scene. For a moment he was stunned. “Then I began to cry,” he says. 

A softened sermon

Last Friday, Ayman Riahi put on his white skull-cap and a crisp white robe and gave perhaps his most difficult sermon to date: a warning that suicide invites damnation coupled with a call not to pass judgment.

The Riahi family say they don’t believe that Mohamed Ali Riahi killed himself, but can offer no other explanation. A police investigation is under way. 

On the terrace of a cafe near the mosque, a young barber named Fadel Riahi and several other men were discussing other questions as Ayman Riahi’s voice soared over loudspeakers into the hot afternoon.

“That young man never would have gone astray if we had a proper state,” Fadel Riahi says. “That’s right, a Caliphate state,” replies Fathi Riahi, a middle-aged farmer. Others voiced agreement.

The sermon ended and they hurried to the mosque for the midday prayer. In the barbershop, Fadel Riahi’s colleague Lemjid Riahi was opting not to pray.

“I don’t think an Islamic state would help – it doesn’t work with democracy,” he says. “But I don’t have a problem with Salafis. We’re like a family here, and Mohamed Ali’s death has touched us all.”

The prayer ended, and worshippers spilled from the mosque into the street. Inside, Ayman Riahi rested from his sermon, then went to the cafe.

“It was very sad, for me and for those praying,” he says. “There is never joy in a death.”

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