student confronting a salafist who attempted to take down the Tunisian flag and replace it with the black salafi one, Manouba University, March 7th, 2012

Every individual is a meeting ground for many different allegiances, and sometimes these loyalties conflict with one another and confront the person who harbors them with difficult choices.Amin Maalouf, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong

Almost six years after the revolution, I find myself contemplating an extremely disturbing image of my country, Tunisia. Nationally and internationally, the media associate Tunisia with terrorism and insecurity. Foreign news outlets ask us to “get our act together,” but beyond the shock that terrorist attacks caused to Tunisian society are the significant questions they sparked. Everyone wants to understand this “new” phenomenon. But is it really new?

If you have followed how the topic echoes in Tunisia’s streets and arenas of public debate, you have probably already encountered the narrative that terrorism is an “imported” problem and has nothing to do with Tunisian society. But how accurate is this claim?

During more than half a century and more aggressively under Ben-Ali’s regime, the so-called State police controlled every citizen and prohibited any sign of affiliation with Muslim groups, let alone extremist religious groups (the prohibition of hijab, niqab, beards, Salafi attire etc.). Extremists indeed existed but they were repressed, frightened and silenced. This is another common narrative that led me like many others to ask the question: wasn’t it this same repressive State which somehow instigated the rise of extremism?

For the post-revolutionary Tunisian, the word terrorism recalls the idea of State terrorism. The violent repression of any form of political affiliation outside the ruling political party is still fresh in collective memory. Legal intimidation, horrendous physical and mental torture, censorship and violations of every constitutional and human right occurred in total harmony with the State’s administrative and judicial systems.

Today this is no longer a simple claim. As we are speaking, Tunisia is rewriting its history. Public hearing sessions held by the Truth and Dignity Commission (TDC) allowed citizens to face the raw-bloody-abhorrent truth of security force abuse under the dictatorships of Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali.

The portrait of the Tunisian State machine was like that of Hobbes’ Leviathan, a monstrous totalitarian state with a vast bureaucracy. For Ben Ali’s interior affairs ministry, such a structure was necessary in the famous war against extremism (which benefitted from the international context of the war against terrorism since September 11th, 2001). 

I would argue that fighting extremism with extremism has only given extremists more reasons to hate the “modern state,” symbol of the abuse and oppression of religious and political freedoms. This is why I can’t assume terrorism is a phenomenon that simply appeared after the revolution. I would say instead say that it found the opportune environment to thrive.

This is where I would like to share with you some insights from various conversations I’ve had with fellow citizens (of different ages and backgrounds) as well as from my own observations on what have been considered the early manifestations of extremism.

The first major terrorist attacks (in Bardo and Sousse) set off the alarm bells. The security turbulence after the revolution clearly affected our borders and enabled the smuggling of weapons. The weakness of the State also allowed extremism to take institutional form: we noticed the spread of religious preschools all over the country against all values of civil statehood and education. Seeing a three-year-old child wearing a niqab and facing massive indoctrination at such a young age is confounding for many in Tunisia.

The abundance of extremist religious books and materials is really remarkable in post-revolutionary Tunisia, whether in bookstores or clandestine markets. I find it ironic that the freedom gained after the revolution is what allowed anti-freedom culture to evolve and have a voice. For instance, the newly gained freedom of press allowed for the creation of multiple radical-Islamic TV channels that spread hate speech.

Thanks to our non-censored Internet, social networks are the number one tool for promoting extremism and recruitment. Now terrorist organizations and preachers have their own websites and forums, and use social networks to connect with their followers and to reach out to large audiences, effectively terrorizing millions at once with one live feed. We now live in the era of media/psychological terrorism, and the Islamic State is the living example.

You can see it in the little things, like in the people who have begun to refuse their “Tunisianity,” in what can only be described as an identity crisis. They hate Tunisian dialect and prefer formal Arabic, believing that dialect, this amazing mixture of Berber, Arabic and French among other languages, is a sign of dependence upon the country’s former occupiers. They would rather identify themselves with Arab Islamic civilization than Tunisian civilization. Youth are surely the most vulnerable. They have literally lived all their lives with no feeling of belonging. The “nation” has been for most of them an ugly purple propaganda machine and a forced national hymn fifteen minutes before eight o’clock on every school day. They were finally born on January 14th, 2011 and ready to belong!

If you are still wondering what ideology could justify horrible terrorist crimes, forgive my answer “for dummies,” but I would like to put it here as simply as possible: the answer is extremist Salafism, which legitimizes war against the government that doesn’t apply the law of God (Sharia). This ideology considers the government that doesn’t apply Sharia as an infidel state and the war against the government’s agencies a sacred one (Jihad). This is why most of the terrorist attacks in Tunisia target army and police forces, the protectors of the infidel state (Taghut). The question that still haunts me though and should haunt the authorities is: why has this ideology become so appealing for thousands of Tunisian youth?

What is certain: the phenomenon of terrorism is here, a deep-seated crisis for which shooting a few terrorists to death is not the solution. As more than 5,000 Tunisians are currently fighting for al Qaeda and the Islamic State, officials and parliament members today are facing the controversial question of how the country will confront “jihadis” coming back home. The answer will be in the State’s actions and will determine whether we decide to be thirty seconds to ISIS, or else to get our act together.