Having spent six months studying Arabic in Tunisia, and living with Tunisian families, Lucy Deacon examines the country’s relationship – or lack of it – with extremism
AS the identities of the British tourists massacred in Sousse, Tunisia on 26 June start to be released and harrowing accounts of the survivors make it into the press, the humanity of the tragedy is being brought close to home.
But nowhere will the wider consequences be more acutely felt than among the Tunisian population. The usually lively ‘Iftar’ meal, shared by families and friends at sundown to break the Ramadan fast, was a sombre affair on Friday as Tunisians struggled to take in the reality of a second sizeable bloodbath on their soil since March.
The wave of enthusiasm that accompanied the successful ouster of dictator Ben Ali in 2011 in what was to be the first of the Arab Spring uprisings, peaked some time ago and has in many cases turned to disappointment.
It would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Tunisia is a country where violent trends of Islamic extremism are taking hold. In fact, this is not true.
Despite being a plucky and ambitious nation who believe in their rights, many Tunisians now lament the passing of the days of the dictatorship of Ben Ali and his predecessor Habib Bourguiba, when despite tight restrictions on freedom of political and religious expression they felt secure on the streets of their country.
Of course, it is always easy to look back in nostalgia and to its credit Tunisia has made an impressive transition from dictatorship to democracy, the only Arab Spring country to achieve this so far. The elections were free and inclusive and a coalition of secular and religious parties are now in government.
However, many factors are straining Tunisian society. The economy is weak, wages are low and prices have risen drastically since 2011. There is high youth unemployment and a severe lack of opportunities for young people in the graduate sector.
Despite the determination of many to help build their country, frustration and disillusionment is high. Many young people want to move to Europe, others fall prey to jihadi recruiters and after a period of being groomed into identifying with an extremist form of Islam, they migrate to Iraq or Syria to fight for Daesh (the Arabic name for the ‘Islamic State’).
It is estimated that around 3,000 Tunisians are currently participating in the conflict in Iraq and Syria, however this figure does not accurately reflect the impact on Tunisian society as it does not include the vast number of young Tunisians who have already died in the conflict.
When considering the fact that Tunisia is the biggest exporter of jihadi fighters to Iraq and Syria and the recent terror attacks in Tunisia, such as the killing of 21 tourists and a policeman at Bardo museum in March 2015 and 38 tourists in Sousse on Friday 26 June, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that Tunisia is a country where violent trends of Islamic extremism are taking hold.
The phenomenon of young Tunisians being recruited by terrorist groups cannot be understood if considered as a trend in religious fanaticism.
In fact, this is not true. The truth is that Tunisia is predominantly a diverse and permissive society where expression of religion is a personal choice.
In Tunisia, a range of outward symbols of religious expression such as wearing of the hijab are practised according to people’s personal interpretation of their religion and do not mean people segregating into groups according to this choice.
For example, even within families it is not unusual for one daughter to decide to veil and the other not. This does not indicate any kind of rift and is respected as a personal choice.
It is common to see mixed groups of veiled and non-veiled girls hanging out together. Some people pray and regularly visit the mosque, some do not and still identify strongly as Muslim. Extreme forms of Islamic dress such as the niqab are new to Tunisia and are seen widely by Tunisians as being an export of the Gulf countries.
In fact, the phenomenon of young Tunisians being recruited by terrorist groups cannot be understood if considered as a trend in religious fanaticism.
The new recruits do not become more religious, rather they are brainwashed by highly experienced manipulators into being prepared to commit violence, with a set of invented religious duties being used as a framework of justification.
It is similar in its pattern to other social epidemics that sporadically affect communities such as waves of heroin addiction. Sometimes it is young people with a vulnerability who fall prey, in other cases they just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and get sucked in.
It is similar in its pattern to other social epidemics that sporadically affect communities such as waves of heroin addiction.
Some say that Tunisia is living the fruits of the religious repression that took place under the previous dictatorships, when religious symbols such as even a simple headscarf were banned in public institutions and any religious instruction was taken off of the educational curriculum.
Some claim that this has left young people open to being misinformed about the meaning of their religion, as although many strongly identify as Muslim they do not properly understand the teachings of Islam.
For example, there is repeated emphasis in the Qur’an of a Muslim’s duty to take care of his/her parents. Yet Tunisia is seeing contradictions such as young men from impoverished backgrounds leaving elderly parents to fend for themselves in a country where the state makes little to no provision for them and travelling to die in foreign conflicts in the name of religious duty.
What is certain is that the permissive and peaceful Tunisian society is facing a huge challenge. It is clear that the aim of those who ordered Friday’s attack was to seriously damage the Tunisian economy by ending the tourism industry, the wider aim being to weaken the Tunisian state and create an area of instability in which terrorist groups can gain control.
Tunisian culture itself is a rich patchwork of the different influences that have passed through this central North African, South Mediterranean country. Even the language is a vibrant mix of Arabic, French and Berber with smatterings of Italian and Spanish.
One way European governments could help in the long term struggle against this new form of terror would be to take more seriously the human rights of Muslims internationally.
Tunisia needs the solidarity of its European neighbours and cousins more than at any time in history. While people may feel apprehensive about visiting right now, buying Tunisian export products online or in-store would be good, they have fantastic dates.
One way in which European governments could help in the long term struggle against this new form of terror would be to take more seriously the human rights of Muslims internationally.
Those calling for global jihad use the examples of the ongoing persecution of the Palestinians and the massive civilian casualties caused by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan to justify their call.
These arguments are based on undeniable facts and can appeal to passionate young minds, they are likely to be key in the early attraction to such causes.
European governments could seriously undermine the appeal of organisations like Daesh and have a chance to win the ideological battle if they launch their own crusade to redress these injustices.
Picture courtesy of Steve Evans