Christian Caryl

Why Does Tunisia Produce So Many Terrorists?

The success story of the Arab Spring has made room for moderate secularists to flourish. But that’s a double-edged sword.

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We still don’t have all the details, but it would appear that the man behind the horrific terrorist attack in Nice, France, was Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel, a 31-year-old deliveryman and petty criminal. Bouhlel, who was killed by police at the scene, was a French citizen. But the detail that many terrorism experts immediately zeroed in on was his country of origin: Tunisia. That’s right: The country that is often hailed as “the success story of the Arab Spring” because it has actually managed to stick with democracy since the downfall of its dictator in 2011.

That Bouhel is Tunisian once again raises the question: Why is liberal Tunisia, of all places, producing so many terrorists?

The experts have long since determined that Tunisia is a disproportionate source of recruits for radical Islamist causes. Despite the country’s relatively small population of 11 million, Tunisians are conspicuously over-represented among the fighters of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. According to recent estimates, 7,000 Tunisians have joined the cause — more than any other country, including much larger ones such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are also, according to numerous reports, thousands of Tunisians training and fighting for jihad in Libya, Tunisia’s next-door neighbor, which has a strong Islamic State presence. (Indeed, the Tunisian authorities have boasted that they’ve prevented some 12,000 other potential jihadists from leaving the country for Syria since 2013 — a statistic hardly as comforting as they apparently would like it to be.)

But Tunisian jihadists haven’t only been active overseas. Over the past few years they’ve staged several high-profile attacks on their own country. Since 2013, terrorists have assassinated secular politicians, targeted popular tourist sites (virtually shutting down an industry on which much of the economy depends), and engaged in myriad clashes with the police. In March, Libyan-based jihadists, presumably of Tunisian origin, staged a full-scale assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane. Though local security forces coped pretty effectively with the attack, ultimately winning the battle, it was a worrying sign of the jihadists’ ambitions and aggressiveness.

All of this, needless to say, stands in rather stark contrast to Tunisia’s remarkable progress at establishing democratic institutions. The country has held several rounds of free and fair elections, and it now boasts a vibrant range of free media and civil society groups. When I visited a few weeks ago, I heard plenty of theories that attempted to explain why these new freedoms have coincided with so much extremist violence.

Some Tunisians told me that the collapse of the dictatorship in the 2011 revolution and the establishment of democratic institutions that followed had given jihadists new freedom to organize, travel, and share information. Religious radicals, it was pointed out, can now openly watch satellite broadcasts of hard-line clerics streamed in from the Gulf. Others I spoke with, including some government officials, worry that the security apparatus was fatally weakened by post-revolutionary reforms — though that argument seems somewhat diluted by the government’s competent response to the Ben Guerdane attacks in the spring. Still others mentioned the failure of democratically elected leaders to address the country’s persistent economic malaise. Though the official unemployment rate is around 15 percent, it’s estimated to be double that for young people, who see correspondingly few opportunities for bettering their lives.

One thing that struck me the most about Tunisia, however, is just how secular and Western the country looks and feels — in ways that long predate the 2011 revolution. The country’s first post-independence leader, President Habib Bourguiba, who took power in 1956, was a staunch admirer of Turkey’s legendary Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Like Ataturk, he was a radical secularist who imposed a modernizing agenda, including women’s rights and Western-style education, while ruthlessly suppressing the forces of traditional religion. He was notorious for expressing his contempt for the veil, which he called that “odious rag.” Even today one rarely sees men or women in traditional Islamic clothing in Tunis and many other parts of the country — a striking contrast to neighboring Libya, where hijab-wearing women are a common sight.

The problem, of course, is that pushing traditional religion to the side doesn’t mean that everyone is going to agree. Aggressive modernization almost always incites a backlash — and so it has gone in Tunisia, where those with an inclination to traditional Islam have often ended up feeling marginalized in their own country.

A very similar dynamic took hold in Turkey, under Ataturk and his heirs. There, though, a gradual opening of the political landscape in the late 20th century allowed Islamists to channel their ambitions into electoral politics, embodied by the rise of current President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Bourguiba and his successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, allowed for no such expression of alternative opinions; the organizers of Tunisia’s leading Islamist party, Ennahdha, returned from exile only after the 2011 revolution. Other Tunisians who gravitated to Islamist politics sought more radical outlets. Some joined al Qaeda, while others assumed prominent roles in the war in Iraq.

It was one of those veterans of the Iraqi jihad, a man named Boubaker al-Hakim, who later played a key role in organizing the attacks on the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Like Bouhlel, the attacker in Nice, he was also a French citizen — a reflection of the darker side of Tunisians’ long and intimate obsession with their former colonizer. For elite Tunisians, France is the country of their aspirations. For less privileged Tunisian migrants, stuck in menial jobs and relegated to the fringes of society, France is the place that constantly reminds them of their second-class status — symbolized by its institutionalized contempt for their “backward” religion.

In the case of such people, it’s easy to see how recourse to radical Islam is as much a matter of identity politics as it is of religion. Indeed, judging by the reports coming in from Bouhlel’s acquaintances and neighbors, he appears to have been motivated as much by a generalized sense of frustration and rage as by ideology.

In short, Tunisia’s paradox — the jarring dichotomy between burgeoning liberalization and brewing jihad — should remind us once again that the plague of Islamist terror isn’t reducible to simple causes. The fact that Tunisians have been dominated by strongly secularizing regimes for the past 60 years might well help to explain why democracy has taken root with such surprising success since 2011. But it also seems clear that that same modernizing trend has fueled an intense backlash among traditionalist Muslims, often to radical effect. The fate of Tunisia, and its much-lauded democracy, will now depend on how well the country can figure out how to bridge the gap.

In the photo, people gather around flowers placed on the Promenade des Anglais on July 15 in Nice, France, after a terrorist attack the previous day.

Photo credit: CARL COURT/Getty Images

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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