Why Jihadists Fight
Tunisia is supposed to be the success story of the Arab Spring — so why are so many of its young men flocking to the Islamic State?
It is easy to get excited about Tunisia. Despite deep ideological conflict, the democratic transition has survived, flawed yet intact. With every passing day — as Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen imploded — Tunisia looks all the better.
Yet in Tunisia there are darker undercurrents, if you know where to look. Ideological divides haven’t been resolved, only postponed. But there is something else, and it confounds analysts and activists alike. As the democratic transition sputters along, a disproportionately large number of Tunisians looked elsewhere for hope and inspiration. More than 3,000 Tunisians have found that inspiration on the battlefields of Syria, forming a shockingly high percentage of the more than 25,000 foreign fighters who have traveled there.
This is a different world, shrouded in silence and mystery, in the back alleys of an otherwise bustling capital city. One could spend days in Tunis and not see a single sign of it, except perhaps a fleeting mention or a muffled conversation. But if you are a young Tunisian, you almost certainly know friends, acquaintances, and perhaps even family members who had gone to fight, or at least got stopped trying.
For the average Westerner, the idea of knowing an Islamic State fighter — or knowing the brother, father, or sister of an Islamic State fighter — is the height of the exotic. For many young Tunisians, it has become the new normal. It is just something that (some) people did. Friends and family of foreign fighters spoke to me matter-of-factly, sometimes nonchalantly, about it. They might as well have been talking about a relative who had gone to backpack in Europe or study in the United States. Then again, was there ever a “right” way to speak of someone you knew, and even loved, going to fight for a terrorist group?
I met Yassine in a quiet coffee shop in the Bardo neighborhood, near the Tunisian Parliament. We found a seat tucked away in the corner. Like all coffee shops in Tunisia, the air was layered with smoke, billowing up to the ceiling, creating a vaporous cloud above our heads. I have to admit that I was in somewhat new territory. I asked my friend and fixer, Jihed: What was the appropriate thing to say to someone whose son had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria?
Yassine’s son, a student at Manouba University whom I will call Hichem, had been killed in August 2013.
“It happened all at once,” Yassine recalled. Hichem began spending a lot of time at the mosque and going to the fajr, or dawn prayer. He grew a short beard and started wearing a thawb, the telltale dress of Salafis hoping to replicate the unadorned desert garb of seventh-century Arabia. “I told him this isn’t how we Tunisians dress, and he took it off. But he got a passport without telling us. He would tell his mother everything, except this one thing. One day, it was a Sunday, he didn’t come home. He called to say he was staying with a friend, although that’s not something he ever did.”
Of course, Yassine told me, he was surprised. Clearly, their son was becoming more conservative. He was keeping to himself, spending a lot of time on the computer, but it never occurred to them that he might want to travel to Syria, first joining the Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate, before moving on to the Islamic State.
It was this puzzle that intrigued me. How did a father, or anyone else for that matter, make sense of such a tragedy? Yassine had a number of hypotheses, ranging from the lure of jihadist forums on the internet to a Salafi preacher at the local mosque who “brainwashed” his son.
In what would be a recurring theme, Yassine said that his son and other young Tunisians were initially attracted to Syria because of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Watching the slaughter of their Syrian brethren at the hands of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, they were moved to act. The groups that were most hospitable to foreign fighters tended to be the Islamist rebel factions, the most powerful of which was the Nusra Front. Far from the usual al Qaeda franchise, Nusra, directing its fire against Assad and fighting alongside mainstream Free Syrian Army factions, enjoyed considerable legitimacy among Islamist and non-Islamist Syrians alike. After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, in an attempt to wrest control of Nusra away from the local leadership there, Hichem defected to the new organization.
Hichem’s views hardened. “In those final months, he was asking his mother to pray for him to join the ranks of the martyrs,” Yassine recalls.
The hope has always been that democratization and political participation would offer disaffected citizens peaceful outlets to express economic and political grievances. This notion — that the only way to effectively undermine Middle East terrorism is to promote democratic openings — was the animating premise behind President George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda in the 2000s. A growing body of evidence suggests that this is at least partly true in the long run. But Tunisia hasn’t, and won’t, reach the long run anytime soon.
Democracy is no easy fix, and there tends to be a short-term trade-off. The fall of a dictator — and the euphoria of long-awaited regime change — raises expectations, yet institutions are too weak to meet rising popular demands.
In conversations with young Tunisians who have friends or relatives who went to fight in Syria, I would often point out that Tunisia, unlike its neighbors, is relatively democratic and provided channels for participation within the system. My claims were often met with skepticism and cries of “What democracy?”
When I met with the Tunisian rapper DJ Costa in a run-down district of Manouba, I suggested it is something of a paradox that Tunisia, the Arab world’s democratic “model,” could produce so many foreign fighters. He scoffed: “You, because you live outside, you feel that it’s a contradiction, but we know that we don’t have democracy in Tunisia. It’s like a man whose skin is dirty. For months he hasn’t washed himself, and then, one day, he puts on nice, expensive clothes. But you know him, who he really is.”
DJ Costa’s brother, Youssef, had gone to fight in Syria but quickly became disillusioned by growing rebel infighting. He managed to return to Tunisia, but discovered that there was no place for someone like him. After constant police harassment, he went back to Syria, where he was killed in an airstrike. “Even after he died, they’re still harassing our family,” Costa told me.
In the city of Kairouan, a Salafi “stronghold,” I unexpectedly met a young Tunisian filmmaker whose cousin was, as of writing, in Syria fighting with the Islamic State. “I am against his decision, but I respect it,” he told me over a bottle of Tunisian beer and a seemingly unlimited supply of cigarettes.
I asked him if he thought that going to fight for the Islamic State was normal. It seemed to me like a big deal. “You’re living in America, habibi, not in Tunisia,” he said. “But if you lived in Tunisia and you’re experiencing daily subjugation and injustice, and you have ideas, and you have principles, and you have objectives, and you have a vision for the future, and if you live in a state that doesn’t embrace you, then it’s the opposite. It’s very normal.”
By the time we were winding down the conversation, he was on his fourth or fifth bottle. The seriousness of the conversation had given way to something lighter, if only because that was the easier way, maybe the only way to live with it. There were three of us at the table, and we all knew it. This was their reality, and what could they do but laugh at the absurdity? “Normal? What’s normal?” he asked me playfully. “A woman walks in the street wearing a bikini. Here, it’s not normal. In America, it’s normal.”
Democracy as an abstract concept is well and good, but for many Tunisians, the democratic transition hasn’t translated into positive changes on the ground. The economy continues to struggle, and those on the fringes — secular revolutionaries and Salafi radicals alike — feel that the political process, moving slowly because of polarization and gridlock, stifles the dramatic change that was necessary.
As DJ Costa and the Tunisian filmmaker well knew, history didn’t begin in 2011. Tunisia was the only country in the Arab world that experienced both forced secularization and brutal authoritarian rule, a particularly noxious combination. Under Ben Ali, the secret police would grow suspicious if they saw an apartment with the lights turned on every morning. This could only mean one thing — that someone was waking up early for the fajr prayer, a sign of particular piety.
For decades, Tunisia had little space for overt expressions of religion. This has had a distorting effect on the social fabric in ways that are difﬁcult to measure. If we want to understand why this country has a seemingly exceptional problem with young men ﬁghting abroad, this unusual context — which no other country in the region shares — is at least part of the story.
Despite winning by a landslide in the country’s first ever democratic elections, Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda party, because of overwhelming secular opposition, wasn’t able to include a mere mention of the word “sharia” anywhere in the constitution. When it came to incorporating ultraconservative Salafists in the political mainstream, the task was even harder: The things that Salafists wanted simply weren’t on the table. If anything, the example of Ennahda was a cautionary tale of how political compromises could undermine the Islamic identity of Islamists.
Like so many of its mainstream Islamist counterparts across the region, Ennahda’s successes have highlighted its failures. It has succeeded in being and becoming a “normal” actor. That is a kind of victory for a movement that wants nothing more than to be accepted as part of political life. But, for those of a more radical bent, being and becoming normal isn’t nearly enough.
The Islamic State “model”
What, exactly, could Ennahda offer someone like Hichem? There was a time when mainstream Islamist groups had quite a lot going for them. They eschewed revolution and direct confrontation with the state, which meant that joining Muslim Brotherhood-inspired groups was risky, but not nearly so risky as some of the other options. Perhaps more important, these movements took pride in their pragmatism (mawdu‘iyya) and their grasp of the domestic and international realities, however unsavory.
One way of understanding Islamism is as an effort to apply Islam. This is what makes it both important and relevant. But this also makes it vulnerable to charges of impotence. Applied Islam must be able to move beyond the wages of self-improvement and spirituality. It needs to be practical, which raises the question of what happens when efforts to apply Islam in the realm of law and governance fail, and fail repeatedly?
The rise of the Islamic State, then, is a new kind of threat, fundamentally different from what had come before. Since its abolition in 1924, there had never been a serious, sustained attempt to reestablish the caliphate. Now, the Islamic State — and its branches in Libya, the Sinai, and Nigeria — can claim to have been the first. Its model of governance might be terrifying in any number of ways, but it is a distinctive model nonetheless. The Islamic State and its ilk, in stark contrast to the Brotherhood and other mainstream Islamists, had little interest in existing state structures. These, to them, were precisely the problem.
The Islamic State offers a vision for what the new Islamic caliphate could actually mean in practice. Unlike the Brotherhood, which believes in accepting the existing state and “Islamizing” it, the Islamic State believes in building on top of an entirely different foundation. To achieve fidelity to the text, the logic goes, one has to start from scratch, since whenever Islamism and the modern state attempted to reconcile, it has always been at the expense of the former.
Even if the Islamic State is defeated tomorrow, the damage cannot be undone. The Islamic State has set a new standard for extremist groups, demonstrating that capturing and holding large swaths of territory is possible and that it can be achieved without the benefit of widespread popular support. This, in addition to the terror and barbarism, is what the Islamic State means. And what the Islamic State means is ultimately more important than what the organization is or what it does. The Islamic State succeeded in establishing a recognizably “religious” state — something that nearly every mainstream Islamist group before it had failed to do. Moreover, its image of a caliphate, however much it distorted the spirit and intent of Islam, aroused the imagination of a small but significant number of Muslims.
Mainstream Islamist movements like the Brotherhood in Egypt, Tunisia’s Ennahda, or Morocco’s Justice and Development Party hope to accommodate Islam and Islamic law within the modern nation-state, accepting many if not most of the state’s basic assumptions. They have grown comfortable using terms like “civil state,” “popular sovereignty,” “women’s rights,” and “citizenship.” This doesn’t mean they are liberals—there is, after all, quite a gap between believing in women’s rights and gender equality—but they are keen to be recognized as legitimate and “normal” actors in the international system.
The model of the Islamic State is to ignore, dismiss, or supersede all such considerations entirely. Not only that, the group revels in its disregard for modern norms.
At the heart of debates over the future of the Islamic State is a set of questions about what we, as human beings, really want and what we really crave. In 1940, before the full severity of Adolf Hitler’s crimes had become apparent, George Orwell reviewed Hitler’s Mein Kampf. He captured what to many of us today seems unfathomable: that Hitler came to understand something deep, unsettling, and ultimately terrifying about human nature. In the parlance of Islamists, he understood a powerful element of the fitra — the innate character, or instinct, of men. Orwell wrote:
“[Hitler] has grasped the falsity of the hedonistic attitude to life. Nearly all western thought since the last war, certainly all ‘progressive’ thought, has assumed tacitly that human beings desire nothing beyond ease, security, and avoidance of pain…. The Socialist who finds his children playing with soldiers is usually upset, but he is never able to think of a substitute for the tin soldiers; tin pacifists somehow won’t do …
“….Whereas Socialism, and even capitalism in a grudging way, have said to people ‘I offer you a good time,’ Hitler has said to them ‘I offer you struggle, danger and death,’ and as a result a whole nation flings itself at his feet.”
I will always struggle to understand this, whatever this is. Although I believe in certain things, and believe in them passionately, I have never longed to join an army, militia, or rebel force. But more than 25,000 foreigners from outside Syria have flowed into the country to fight for a cause they clearly believe in.
The Islamic State revels in death. Alongside news of its imposition of sharia law and its military victories on the field, the Islamic State’s public relations team publishes celebratory photos of its own soldiers: young men, bloodied, slumped over their weaponry, dead. I sincerely hope that the desire to kill, destroy, and die for something greater than ourselves dissipates. But I am well aware that, although those desires can be mitigated, constrained, and channeled more constructively, they won’t — and cannot — disappear.
This article is adapted from Shadi Hamid’s new book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.
Fadi al-Halabi/AFP/Getty Images