The Islamic State offers a false choice between dictatorship and extremism. Tunisia proves there’s a better way.
As more countries confront the question of how to counter terrorist groups like ISIS, it is clear that a short-term, reductionist approach focused largely on military force has proven ineffective. Efforts to dislodge the so-called Islamic State through bombing, and to keep it at bay by strengthening and equipping security forces in the places it operates, have so far had limited success despite their enormous financial costs.
This is because, although such efforts are critical, they are not sufficient. The rise of ISIS, and its ability to recruit from a region that just five years ago was swept by democratic hopes and aspirations, requires a global response that is informed by where the group came from. For such a response to work, I believe it must reflect five principles. These are based on Tunisia’s experience as the most successful democratic transition to emerge from the Arab uprisings, as well as my personal intellectual and political work in Tunisia and the Arab world over five decades.
First, there is no universal approach to tackling ISIS. Rather, the group can only be defeated through a variety of locally designed and targeted responses. Extremist groups like ISIS use technology and social networks to cross boundaries and attract recruits globally—but their discourse is linked to local grievances wherever they operate.
It is no accident that ISIS has had its greatest recruiting successes in societies that suffered for decades under dictatorship. The citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Libya experienced long years of endemic corruption, bad governance, and the repression of their rights and freedoms. By fueling economic, political, and social exclusion and inequality, the region’s dictatorships created a tinderbox of pent-up grievances, which have manifested themselves in various forms, from democratic protests and peaceful calls for change to violent extremism, sectarianism, chaos, and civil war.
ISIS has opportunistically exploited the Arab world’s problems to build its own image as an alternative. It tapped into Sunni resentment over Shiite sectarian repression to forge support in Iraq. In countries like Tunisia, where sectarianism is less of a factor but unemployment remains at a crushing 40 percent for those under 35, it has exploited resentment at economic exclusion to appeal to marginalized youth. In this way, ISIS superimposes its global ideological narrative onto local contexts, presenting itself as the solution to local grievances. An effective response therefore must involve addressing these local problems, which are significantly different in Iraq than in Libya, and in Egypt than in Yemen. It is local governments that must take the lead role in designing solutions, with strong support from the international community.
Second, the fight against ISIS must be not only a fight against something, but a fight for something. ISIS recruits by highlighting the shortcomings of the status quo—corruption, insecurity, poverty, discrimination, injustice—and appearing to present an alternative in the form of a fantastical utopia in which justice and order reign supreme. This vision is clearly a far cry from the reality of ISIS’s brutal and degrading rule in the territories it holds. The group’s message only works because the region offers few other models that succeed in providing economic security, social and political inclusion, and respect for human dignity. People across the Arab world need a genuine alternative, not a false choice between ISIS and the kinds of dictatorships, like Bashar al-Assad’s, that helped produce the terrorist group.
The apparent choice between Islam and democracy that ISIS insists Muslims must make is just as false. Tunisia, if it succeeds in building a politically and economically inclusive system, can offer the true alternative the region needs. It can show that democracy can work in the Arab world and that ordinary citizens can have a say in the running of their affairs. It can refute the notion promoted by dictators that security and stability can only be achieved at the expense of freedom and human rights. And this is precisely why Tunisia has become a prime target of ISIS’s violence, as well as of the group’s recruitment efforts. The country endured three horrific terrorist attacks last year, and many Tunisian youth have left to fight for ISIS. The legacy of dictatorship continues to weigh heavily on us—changing this culture of despotism to one of critical thinking and political engagement will require long-term educational reform.
Third, Tunisia’s experience demonstrates why the solution to ISIS cannot be less freedom, and why cracking down on freedom of religion is particularly likely to exacerbate extremism. Over the last few decades, moderate Islamic thought was repressed in the country, and mainstream religious institutions that had fostered moderate religious practice were closed down or severely restricted. This included the historically renowned al-Zaytuna University, which for more than a thousand years prior had produced intellectual luminaries such as Ibn Arafa, one of the greatest scholars of Islam.
Young people growing up in the era of former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia from 1987 until he was deposed during the Arab uprisings, had no reference point for moderate Islamic thought, so they turned to extreme sources instead. Countering violent extremism thus requires ensuring that people understand the true teachings of Islam, which challenge the radicals’ black-and-white views and allow for interpretations that accommodate the needs of modern life.
Fourth, countries that have made the transition to democracy need the international community’s support to ensure that democratic ideals and political inclusion translate into tangible improvements in people’s lives. Guaranteeing free elections and human rights is not sufficient. A successful democratic transition requires forging economic and social conditions in which people can enjoy opportunities, prosperity, and security. People must feel that the state protects their rights, serves their interests, safeguards their resources and, whatever its shortcomings, works for and is accountable to them.
The Tunisian revolution was precisely about these goals—reasserting people’s sovereignty, and demanding governance that involves citizens as well as economic growth that benefits them. Having successfully held two rounds of free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power, Tunisia is now focused on making bold economic reforms and investing in large-scale projects that can create jobs, build infrastructure in previously neglected areas, stimulate economic activity, and attract investments. Without the necessary economic growth and job creation, our democratic progress remains incomplete.
But this process will not be easy, as evident from the new wave of unrest in Tunisia, sparked once again by the death of a young man, this time protesting his exclusion from a list of government jobs. Undertaking massive political and economic reforms would be a challenge for any country, let alone one in Tunisia’s difficult neighborhood. The government needs international help to finance stimulus programs and create much-needed jobs, so that young people, and those in marginalized regions of the country, see the palpable fruits of democracy. Without these tangible benefits, young people remain vulnerable to extremist propaganda that democracy is no better than other alternatives. Given the regional context, Tunisia’s stability depends on its ability to meet the expectations of those who placed their trust in the revolution to improve their prospects.
Lastly, young people must be at the center of any strategy to build a brighter future in the Middle East. Youth participated in the Arab revolutions in vast numbers, defying threats and risking their lives to protest against the deprivation and repression that had shaped their experience. The Middle East and North Africa have seen unprecedented growth in the youth population, and also have the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world. In Tunisia, for example, young people make up three-quarters of the unemployed.
The same young people who fueled uprisings in Tunisia and across the Arab world are still trying to find a place within the labor market and struggling to attain the financial independence needed to lead autonomous lives. Angry and frustrated youth will more easily be drawn to angry and frustrated narratives like that of ISIS—indeed it is youth who make up a large proportion of ISIS’s foreign recruits. We must give young people hope and tangible change, and restore their trust in a new system of inclusive governance that puts them at its heart.
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