On September 10th, 2016, CSID hosted a round-table meeting with Excellency Ambassador of Canada, Carol McQueen, Mr Herman Deparice-Okamba, Director of the the Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, in Montreal,representatives of the Canadian Embassy in Tunis and a group if Tunisian imams, entitled “Mechanisms for Addressing Radicalism” at CSID headquarters. The meeting centered around an exchange of experiences especially from Tunisian imams on how to adequately address radicalism.
The moderator of the event framed the topic and encouraged all participants to contribute to the discussion, each from his own expertise. Ambassador McQueen started the debate by expressing her appreciation of the work CSID did in curbing violent extremism and stated the commitment of Canada to sustain the cooperation with the center by funding a new project of the same scope. The initial part of the discussion was initiated by Mr Deparice-Okamba, where he expressed in his early remarks his enthusiasm to learn from Tunisian experience in countering the worrisom prospects of radicalism.
As director of Centre for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, Mr Deparice-Okam stated that his role consists in the rehabilitation of radicalized people and those in the process of radicalization. Part of his work rests on awareness and education on the causes that lead youth to travel to conflict zones for Jihad. “For us”, he said, “if one person goes to Syria that means we have failed”. In such a context, one of the root problems he argued is unlicensed imams. In his reasoning, these out of law preachers have manipulated and brainwashed young men to a point where they instilled in their minds the idea that living in Canada is contrary to Islam because this country is a “misbeliever”.
The second intervention was commenced by his colleague who dwelled on the reasons that motivate youth to take the road of jihad in Syria. He articulated his initial point by underlining that, despite being educated and coming from well-to-do families, there are young people who take up the flag of jihad. His work centers on prevention more than countering radicalism in a way that eschew cornering youth in the legal context and keep them in the social dimension. Around 1000 cases, he stated, were intercepted with which many were dealt with by raising awareness while in other in extreme cases were left to the authorities to stop them. Part of the trouble, however, is that unlicensed preachers methodically lure youth with lectures such as “Why the West Hate sIslam” mixing it with lectures on how prophet Mohamed practiced jihad and crowning it with a lecture that says that the “The future of the Islamic World is in the Hands of Youth”. This pattern of indoctrination is telescoped regularly on an audience that most of the time has little knowledge of the religion and of Arabic language.
An intervention from an Imam casted the blame on the west for their history of colonization in the Arab world and the violation of Palestinian lands that left the Umma with grievances. In his words, “we feel oppressed, violated and invaded economically, culturally and on a civilizational level.” He furthermore argued that the label of radicalism is no longer restricted to Arabs as it is now spread on a global level, particularly the West. On a positive note, he thinks that Tunisian imams are doing a relevant job as they address their communities concerns and are academically well-educated.
More into the substance of the discussion, another imam indicated that his role in ensuring the right understanding of Islam, consists in part of identifying individuals who exhibits radical comprehension of the religion. “We opt for a method of cooperation not confrontation” he indicated. In his thinking, Friday sermons are arguably the right timing in trying to convince radicalized youth, he asserted, to “avoid the phenomenon of violent extremism”. In his closing remarks, he reminded the audience that radical ideology is alien to the Tunisian society and that it is triggered by some foreign and domestic causes.
Addressing the issue requires historic, cultural, economic and political explanations according to another imam intervening during the discussion. That is why it is difficult to pin down a clear-cut answer. Whatever angle is chosen, it is still problematic to propose a sermon on radicalism on Fridays given the discrepancy in the level of education of the audience or in their socio-economic position in their communities.
Most importantly, stated another imam, the core problem has to do with the gulf that separates imams from youth. “Imams should be closer to their communities, and especially youth, in order for their discourse to have a deeper impact”. Adding more quandaries to imams’ role, the relationship of media with imams is also an ambivalent one. According to him, imams are generally excluded from the medias, but when they do take part in discussions to talk about the ills of society and concerns of people, most of the time the T.V or Radio emissions have their own agendas and political views they want to vehicle to society. This places imams at a disadvantage insofar as their discourse relates to the masses. In his analysis, he firmly criticized the attitude of the civil society which has ostracized imams from reaching out to Youth. “We want civil society to get closer to imams”, he said. At the end of his intervention, he raised the double standard that exists within the religious spheres in Tunisia. In his words, “Imams are judged according to their appearances”, thus a more measured attitude should be the linchpin of imams among themselves. He summed up his sentiment in the words of Socrates “Speak, so that I may see you.”
According to another imam, “looking at poverty or education or similar reasons is an attempt to mislead us from the real reasons considering that there are doctors, lawyers… who are radicalized.” He thus blamed the origin of the threat of terrorism on the west and their double-standards. Recalling the not-so distant past, he reminded the audience that the West did not budge when Islamists were being persecuted in Arab countries. In a similar vein, he referred to the Egyptian coup that deposed former President Morsi. From his point of view, the silence of the West on dictatorships and it silence on State terrorism is what created terrorism.
Another imam opted for a more understanding approach vis-à-vis youth. Imams, he argues, should take youth out of mosques to talk to them, reason them with and befriends them in places other than those of worship, such as cinemas or theaters. “My job” he said,” is to take youth from the mosque to a more spacious circle where they can live theirlives and express their inner thoughts”. More in line with the foregoing, another imam reiterated the need to talk to youths in order to understand their psychology, and hence, know what approach to follow to reason them out of radical inclinations.