Responding to terror attack in Tunisia


Sir, – In attempting to sustain its democratic momentum and improving international reputation, Tunisia has also had to contend with an inherent weakness of all democratic systems – namely their vulnerability to the abuse of increased freedom of speech, movement and association of their citizens. This has had the effect of emboldening radical clerics sympathetic to the theocratically inspired havoc of Islamic State. Their words, falling on the ears of a generally well educated but underemployed male youth, has led to a situation in which north Africa’s most democratic and socially progressive country is now providing the most fighters to Islamic State and the various anti-Assad insurrectionists in Syria. Indeed, this Arab Spring has borne some strange fruit.

One of the most dispiriting side-effects of legal reform in the wake of terrorist attacks such as at the Bardo museum, even in a comparatively stable Muslim nation such as Tunisia, is that there is invariably an enforced infantilisation of the electorate. A concern is that Tunisia, which could act as a template of peaceful political reform and inter-faith comity for their more theocratically inclined neighbours, may approach counter-terrorism through the same means that many countries in the West have – increasingly intrusive and capricious personal surveillance, a loss of judicial understanding of the distinction between privacy and secrecy and increasingly belligerent quasi-military policing. These regressions are usually presented as a necessary inoculation against future terrorist attacks but the Tunisians, more than most, will be aware of the dangers of defining and defending civil liberties under the rubric of “national security” after over half a century of autocratic rule. The hope is that, in consolidating security, they won’t have two choose between the two most dangerous of fascisms – Islamic and bureaucratic.

It is worth bearing in mind that Tunisia is the sole successful example of meaningful democratic reform from the lamentably wasted opportunity that was the Arab Spring. Its own so-called Jasmine Revolution of 2011 still managed to retain a broadly peaceful, secular-minded and internationally orientated democratic movement. It must now ensure that it continues this moral example.

Fighting the Salafist epidemic plaguing north Africa and the Middle East will require nullifying domestic inclinations to fundamentalism – part of which means ensuring there is a provision of worthwhile jobs in a growing economy.

The 17 tourists who were murdered in the Bardo museum are representative of the varied demographic of international holidaymakers who see Tunisia as a worthwhile destination, and the international community, not simply the Tunisian authorities, must ensure that this continues to be the case. Tunisia, amidst a desert of mayhem and massacres is truly something of an oasis.

All fundamentalisms display a grotesque theocratic pedantry as well as militant cultural philistinism which perceives cultural expression through art, literature or dance as indicative of evil. The tourists and the sector they were helping support were clearly viewed by these Islamists as a gambit in a wider campaign of disruption and fear-mongering. But it was not just the tourists’ “western” identity which aroused their ire but the site of the attacks itself. The destruction of the Buddha statues in Bamiyan and of the Assyrian replicas in Mosul are only some of the intolerable crimes against artistic endeavour of which they stand guilty – we stand to lose not only our democratic institutions but our heritage also.

Protection of human life trumps protection of artefacts, but that same artistic heritage which helps construct human identity – giving rare access to meaning and transcendence – deserves special shielding also.

In response to the attacks, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi asserted that, “democracy will win and it will survive”. One hopes that this war against terrorism ensures that defending democratic principles, ethics and wider human history isn’t held as subservient to extinguishing those who seek to destroy them. – Yours, etc,


School of Philosophy,

University College Dublin,


Dublin 4.