Democratic freedom fires up young Tunisians to fight for Islamic State

Greater free speech has helped militants swell their ranks in Iraq and Syria

Nearly four years after the Arab Spring revolt, Tunisia remains its lone success as chaos engulfs much of the region. But that is not its only distinction: Tunisia has also contributed more foreign fighters to the extremist group that calls itself Islamic State, in Iraq and Syria.

And throughout the working-class suburbs of the capital, young men are eager to talk about why. “Don’t you see it as a source of pride?” challenged Sufian Abbas (31), a student sitting at a street cafe in the densely packed Ettadhamen district with a half dozen like-minded friends.

Tunisians have approved a new constitution by a broad consensus and a second free election is to take place this weekend. The country has the advantage of one of the Arab world’s most educated and cosmopolitan populations, numbering just 11 million, and it has some of the most alluring Mediterranean beaches.

But instead of sapping the appeal of militant extremism, the new freedom that came with the Arab Spring revolt has allowed militants to preach and recruit more openly than ever before. At the same time, many young Tunisians say that the new freedoms and elections have done little to improve their daily life, create jobs or rein in a brutal police force that many here still refer to as “the ruler” or, among ultraconservative Islamists, “the tyrant”.

Impatience and scepticism 

Although Tunisia’s steps toward democracy have enabled young people to express their dissident views, impatience and scepticism have evidently led a disgruntled minority to embrace the Islamic State’s radically theocratic alternative. Tunisian officials say that at least 2,400 Tunisians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join the IS group – other studies say as many as 3,000 – while thousands more were blocked in the attempt.

“The Islamic State is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful,” said Ahmed, a young supporter of the IS who did not want to give his family name for fear of the police. “It is action, not theory, and it will topple the whole game.”

While only a minority of Tunisians have expressed support for the militants, it seemed that everyone under 30 knew someone who had travelled to fight in Syria or Iraq, or someone who had died there. In interviews at cafés across Ettadhamen, dozens of young unemployed or working-class men expressed support for the extremists or saw the appeal of joining their ranks – convinced that it could offer a higher standard of living, a chance to erase arbitrary borders that have divided the Arab world for a century, or perhaps even the fulfilment of Koranic prophecies that Armageddon will begin with a battle in Syria.

“There are lots of signs that the end will be soon, according to the Koran,” said Aymen (24), who was relaxing with friends at another cafe.

Proper Islamic State

Bilal, an office worker at another cafe, applauded the Islamic State as the divine vehicle that finally would undo the Arab borders drawn by Britain and France at the end of the first World War. "The division of the countries is European," said Bilal (27). "We want to make the region a proper Islamic State, and Syria is where it will start."

Mourad (28), who said he held a master’s degree in technology but could find work only in construction, called the Islamic State the only hope for “social justice”, because he said it would absorb the oil-rich Persian Gulf monarchies and redistribute their wealth. “It is the only way to give the people back their true rights, by giving the natural resources back to the people,” he said. “It is an obligation for every Muslim.”

Many insisted that friends who had joined the IS had sent back reports over the internet of their homes, salaries and even wives. “They live better than us!” said Walid (24).

Wissam said a friend who left four months ago told him that “he is leading a truly nice comfortable life” under Islamic State. “I said, ‘Are there some pretty girls? Maybe I will go there and settle down,’” he recalled.

Leaders of Ennahda, the mainstream Islamist party that leads the Tunisian parliament, said they overestimated the power of democracy alone to tame violent extremism. Said Ferjani, an Ennahda leader who has often cited his own evolution from youthful militancy to peaceful politics, said in an interview he now believed economic development would be just as important. “Without social development, I don’t think the democracy could survive,” he said.

Revolutionary afterglow

He also acknowledged that in the afterglow of the revolution, Ennahda had put too much hope in winning over young extremists and too little emphasis on security measures to control them. The Ennahda government “did not get the mix right”, Ferjani said. “But since then, from our end, it is zero tolerance.”

Imen Triki, a lawyer at a nonprofit organisation that has represented more than 70 returning Tunisians, described the thinking of many young ultraconservative Islamists – known as Salafis: “If I am going to get arrested and beaten here anyway, I might as well go where I can have an impact.”

Tunisian officials say that as many as 400 Tunisians have returned from Syria or Iraq and many have been arrested. Lawyers who represent them say many testify they had been tricked into going. Triki estimated that as many as 60 per cent of those who come back profess disappointment at the strife between the IS and its former partner, the Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Syrian rebel group. "They never thought there would be a fight between Muslims," she said. "They find that they have been deceived and sold like mercenaries."

Charfeddine Hasni (30), an information technology worker who said he supported the Islamic State, acknowledged that friends had returned dismayed. “They thought it would be like joining the side of the Prophet Muhammad but they found it was divided into these small groups with a lot of transgressions they did not expect, like forcing people to fight,” he said, recalling one friend killed by his own fellows in the Nusra Front. “But they are not a real army so they are hard to control, and these are personal mistakes,” he added.

Unemployed college graduates – a large group in Tunisia, where education is inexpensive but jobs remain scarce – are prime candidates for jihad, their friends and Tunisian analysts say. But there are also accounts of affluent MBA students or peasants going as well. Almost all have now gravitated from other factions to join the Islamic State, according to their friends and the statements of Tunisian officials.

Some families approve. Chiheb Eddine Chaouachi (24), a medical student, said both he and his family supported the decision of his brother Bilal (29), a Salafi theologian, to move with his wife to the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa, Syria, even though the brothers’ personal lifestyles differed widely.

“Sometimes I pray, and sometimes I don’t,” Chiheb Eddine said. “I am very social.”

Beheadings and atrocities

But, like many Tunisians whose practices sometimes seem to contradict their piety, he nonetheless said he hoped the Islamic State would “win”. “Maybe when the war is over we will all be in an Islamic State, for all practising Muslims, under Shariah,” he said, adding he had asked his brother about the Islamic State beheadings and other atrocities. “He said, ‘Don’t believe it,’ and I trust my brother.”

Indeed, in dozens of conversations with young Tunisians, almost no one – whether sympathiser or critic – believed the news reports of the Islamic State’s mass killings or beheadings. “It is made up,” echoed Amar Msalmi, a taxi driver. “All of this is manufactured in the West; they are the ones trying to ruin Islam.”

All dismissed the existing Arab governments as corrupt and dictatorial, and all held a dim view of Ennahda. Most struggled to name a credible Muslim institute or scholar uncorrupted by service to some earthly power. But some noted that a dearth of scholars could also be another sign of the coming apocalypse, along with the declaration of a new caliphate. Many cited predictions about the restoration of the caliphate and a battle in Syria. – (New York Times service)