Tunisia’s War on Islam
Is overzealous prosecution of the war on terror contributing to radicalization?
Tunisia’ new constitution — passed with great fanfare by the country’s first democratically elected government in 2014 — guarantees freedom of religion (though it also makes explicit reference to Islam as the national faith). So you’d be forgiven for thinking that the country would be an easy place to be a Muslim. But if you’re young and you take your religion seriously, it may not be so simple. Take the case of Noureddine Ayari, a devout young man who occasionally wears traditional Islamic clothing, keeps a short beard, and prays regularly at a mosque near his work.
One December day in 2015, while at work in a marble workshop in Meghira, a southern suburb of Tunis, he was approached by a policeman inquiring about a suspect who worked in the same place. Ayari said no, but the officer insisted that he come to the station anyway.
Ayari had no ties to terrorist groups. But it soon became clear that his appearance had turned him into a suspect in his own right. He was charged with terrorism, detained for several days, and savagely beaten. “The police officer spat in my face and beat me,” the 29-year-old Ayari told me later. “My face was bruised, my mouth was bleeding. A beard and traditional clothing mean ‘terrorism’ for security forces in Tunisia. That’s the bitter reality.”
Ayari is just one of thousands of victims of the arbitrary and often violent methods the country’s police employ against conservative young men and women. A joint report on torture in Tunisia submitted by several local and international NGOs to the United Nations was unequivocal: “Torture is widespread, in all its manifestations,” it reads, “and its practice tends to increase after each terrorist attack.”
It’s all part of an ongoing crackdown that has followed a spate of terror attacks in the past few years. Two high-profile political assassinations in 2013, followed by last year’s mass shootings at tourist sites in Bardo and Sousse, have made Tunisians especially sensitive to the threat of jihadist violence. Along the way, the intensification of Tunisia’s “war on terror” has also given the country’s security forces a free hand to return to many repressive practices used by the deposed Ben Ali regime.
“Today there’s a sort of trivialization of torture, especially in terrorism cases,” said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia director of Human Rights Watch. “When we speak up about the torture of terror suspects, we risk being considered traitors in the holy war against terrorism — and if we denounce torture, we’re considered pro-terrorist.”
Rafik Ghaki, a lawyer who has defended dozens of suspects accused of terrorism-related charges, is certain that the abuses have not only infringed upon Tunisians’ human rights, but have also hampered the efforts to fight terror through their reliance on scattershot and ineffective techniques. “The security service is weak and antiquated, still relying on the despotic methods of Ben Ali, like obtaining confessions through torture,” said Ghaki. “In Tunisia, the police end up creating terrorism, not fighting it.”
In a sign of how ineffective their approach has been, 70 percent of those charged with terrorism-related offenses have their charges dropped for lack of evidence, by Ghaki’s estimate. But that doesn’t mean their troubles are over.
Such was the case with Ayari. Though no evidence was found and the charges against him were dropped, his name was put on a central terrorism watch list that has led to constant harassment. Apart from having to endure continuous phone calls and questioning by police, Ayari said that he is frequently stopped and arrested at the checkpoints that dot nearly every major road in Tunisia. “It’s almost like house arrest,” he said. “I’d like to get out of this country as soon as I can because of the way they’re oppressing me. I feel like I’m not a Tunisian citizen.”
Inclusion in the terrorism list also prevents people from obtaining copies of their criminal records. Since these have to be included with job applications, this amounts to an employment blacklist as well. This procedure means that hundreds, if not thousands, of Tunisians, most of whom are already from the most vulnerable segments of society, are subject to economic discrimination.
Ghaki explained that all of this has led to a sort of social persecution of men and women who look religious — something that could further exacerbate Tunisia’s terrorism problem. Alienation pushes these people to the margins of society, making them psychologically fragile and more receptive to radical discourse targeted against the state. “How do you expect people to feel when they’ve been subjected to this sort of treatment?” said Ghaki. “They’ll feel hatred and a desire for vengeance.”
This is consistent with recent research on radicalization. A 2015 study of Muslims in America found a significant correlation between feelings of marginalization stemming from religious identity and sympathy towards fundamentalist groups.
“A loss of significance stemming from personal trauma, shame, humiliation, and perceived maltreatment is associated with increased support for radicalism. Experiences of discrimination exacerbate this process,” wrote the authors of the study.
Though the research was about Muslims in the United States, conservative Tunisians would undoubtedly empathize with its conclusions.
Chaima, a woman in her 30s who did not want to use her real name, told me that she experiences frequent harassment by police and security personnel because she wears a face veil, the niqab. She said she once had to wait 45 minutes before she was allowed into a hospital. Though she offered to show her face and allow the security personnel to check her identity, she said they made sure to humiliate her before letting her go inside to visit her ailing relative.
This kind of treatment of Tunisia’s most religious citizens was not uncommon under the Ben Ali regime. If anything, it was worse back then. Even women with simple headscarves, far less conservative than the face-covering niqab, were subject to official discrimination and harassment. They were prohibited from accessing schools and other public institutions, such as hospitals, municipalities, and police stations. At the time, the regime framed these practices as a defense of Tunisia’s secularism against what it saw as an increasing religious obscurantism. In reality the regime was targeting Islamists, its main political rivals.
The wave of freedom that followed the January 2011 uprising, and the electoral victory of a moderate Islamist party, led to a decline in these abuses — at least at first. But that respite came to an end once the threat of terrorism became more serious. In addition to the assassinations and attacks on civilians and security forces the country witnessed in the last few years, Tunisia has also become a wellspring of foreign fighters joining extremist groups in Syria and Libya, with some estimates placing Tunisia as the single most prolific source of jihadists.
While people have gotten used to seeing women wearing the hijab in Tunisia’s streets, niqabi women and bearded men are the country’s new scapegoats. Chaima said that she was once called a terrorist by a group of people in a passing car. “It’s not easy to be who we are in Tunisia,” she said. “Some people want to let us know that we have no place here.”
In fact, some people in Tunisia want to outlaw the niqab altogether. This March, only a few weeks after a group of militants crossed from Libya and tried to capture the southern town of Ben Guerdane, a group of lawmakers tried to exploit the rising fear of terrorism by proposing a law that would make it illegal for women to cover their faces in public. The draft law drew comparisons to a controversial 2010 law passed in France under president Nicolas Sarkozy. This is no coincidence. France is Tunisia’s former colonial power, and French law, culture, and values have had a profound impact on modern Tunisian society, particularly among the upper classes.
The many examples of the harassment show that it’s not just Tunisia’s government and security apparatus, but society itself that is pushing its most religious citizens to the margins. Decades of forced secularization under the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes made people less accustomed to the sight of traditional clothing and long beards. Displays of conservative religiosity are less common than in other countries in the region, and thus tend to draw scrutiny.
Being stereotyped as a terrorist because of your religious clothing, or because you attend a certain mosque, or even because of the people you’re related to, is not just a matter of inconvenience. It can drive you to the edge of your sanity.
On February 2, 2015, 10-year-old Adam and his 8-year-old brother Azer tried to commit suicide by overdosing on their uncle’s neurological medication. The children, who are the nephews of fugitive terror suspect Tarek Sellimi, could no longer stand the constant police harassment and continuous night raids their family was subject to.
“They said, ‘we would rather kill ourselves than be killed by [the police]’,” said Mona Sellimi, the boys’ mother. Her brother Tarek has not been seen since mid-2013, when he decided to run away after hearing that police were looking for him. The authorities accuse Tarek of having joined a terrorist cell hidden in a nearby mountain. His family say they’ve had only one phone call from him since then and have no idea of his whereabouts.
When I visited the Selimi family in early July in the northwestern city of Kef, they said that they’d had an unwanted visit by the security forces just two days before. The police didn’t knock on the door — they broke it down and entered by force. Several family members said that the police took them out to the courtyard and made them lie face down on the ground with guns pointed at their heads.
This kind of treatment inevitably contributes to the alienation and sense of exclusion felt by many of Tunisia’s most vulnerable people. It should be no surprise if some of them actually end up joining the terrorists who society has already classed them with. Sometimes it seems that the security forces aren’t even trying.
Ahmed Sellimi, another of Mona and Tarek’s brothers, went to a police station one day to try to convince them to stop the harassment. “Why are you here?” asked the agent he addressed. “Why don’t you just go the mountains with the rest of the terrorists?”
FATHI NASRI/AFP/Getty Images
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Trouble in the Wild East: The border town of Ben Guerdane is a haven for smugglers. Locals would like to keep it that way.
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