I am no stranger to Islam's most dangerous, destructive strain of thought: Salafism, or Wahhabism. Yet encountering Tunisia's Salafists left an indelible impression of fear and foreboding in me.
My colleague Isobel Coleman and I are in Tunisia on a research visit. In our meetings with secular liberals and democratic Islamists alike, a constant theme raised by our Tunisian friends was concern about the increasing appeal of hardline Salafism among some of the country's youth. Arriving in the aftermath of a mob torching parts of the American embassy in Tunis, we had our own cause for interest in Salafists too.
When we asked Tunisian Islamists from the Ennahda party about whom we should meet from Salafist leaders, they told us Salafists are not an organized force in Tunisia. They have no leaders or institutions which we could contact. That kind of talk struck me as odd, not least because Salafists in Tunisia have organized public events of "martial arts," attacks on hotels serving alcohol, and most worryingly, a march from downtown Tunis to the U.S. embassy, complete with Molotov cocktails and ladders to scale the walls. (Some actually traveled by bus.) This requires leadership, coordination, and planning.