The round of discussions held at the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) entitled “Preventing Youths from Violent Extremism” comes in the framework of a series of workshops previously organized by the Center in Kasserine and Kairouan with the aim of tackling the root causes of violent extremism and addressing the adequate mechanisms to curb the spread of radicalization. In this spirit, these workshops were structured in such a way as to bring about a number of consensus-driven recommendations based upon key note speeches by a number of well-respected guest speakers and pursuant round-table discussions.
The workshop was opened by event moderator Mr. Salem Brahem, who underscored the need for the inclusion of Imams in civil society so that their message does not remain solely within the confines of the mosque. After a short introduction of the speakers, Mrs. Meherzia Laabidi and Dr. Hmida Ennaifer, Laabidi began by framing the essence of her argument known as “Peace Education”. From her perspective, a heavy responsibility falls on the shoulders of Imams in Peace Education. Recalling her experience in France where she worked for years with young people, Imams, and Priests on combatting extremism, Laabidi explained that prevention is best approached through the lens of religious values, placing Imams and other religious leaders at the epicenter of this mission.
Laabidi underpinned the distinct role Imams play in his community, whether in his Friday sermons or his daily interaction with the public. This means that Imams must produce new and compelling messages to convey to young Tunisians. Perhaps most importantly, based on her experiences, she proposed thirteen causes of radicalization and are categorized in educational, psychological, societal and economic dimensions. Among these, are family fragmentation and absence of parental guidance, environmental influences such as the sense of belonging to a group, marginalized and crowded neighborhoods, lack of social activities, broken relationships between professors and students, feelings of frustration and alienation, and glorification of violence in media.
The sum of these factors predisposes young people to be easy targets to the violent and extremist religious discourse, and thereby paves the way to radicalization. Throughout this process, texts from the Holy Qur’an and the body of Hadiths are stripped from their contexts, poorly interpreted, and used to entice young people to support and join violent extremist groups. The crux of the matter, Laabidi emphasized, is that the mere citation of religious texts gives the speaker the veneer of indisputable truth, thereby misleading already impressionable youth. In her closing remarks, Laabidi underlined the need for a religious discourse that emphasizes community and active citizenship that is attractive and convincing to young people.
Speaking after Laabidi, Dr. Ennaifer spoke about his experience promoting Christian-Muslim dialogue and stressed the necessity to build bridges of understanding between peoples with different creeds, ideological orientations, and cultural backgrounds. His time as an Imam in Bab Souika has engrained in him a sense of “knowing how to communicate in such a manner that allows you to get to the concerns and hearts of every individual.
Citing an experience of an Orientalist who visited the region of North Africa in the 19th century, Ennaifer argued that this region still suffers from a deep fatalism. This is why, he explained, it is so imperative today for mosques to produce a “new intelligence” that breaks with this fatalist and defeatist way of thinking. The core problem, Ennaifer argued, is that some people are so naïve and simple that they can be made to believe anything and blindly follow along a course that might seem intriguing.
Building upon the remarks of the two speakers, the floor was then opened for general discussion and Q&A, which quickly fixated on the issue of developing a compelling religious discourse. If anything, the attention of Imams should be on rethinking their communication outreach efforts and adapting their speeches to appeal to a wider audience. In this same vein, a participant contended that Imams should do more to interact with citizens and step outside of their comfort zones. Other participants expressed their concerns and frustration over the role of Shia groups and Christian missionaries in attracting and converting Tunisian youth.
Ridha Bel Haj, an Imam from Bizerte, suggested that much more work needs to be done to reach marginalized youth in impoverished areas like Dawar Hichir. There must be a shift away from a theoretical, Tunis-centered approach to a more decentralized, grassroots one to widen the sphere of influence and cooperation. Another Imam challenged the widely-held assumption that poverty is the main cause that drives youth to the precipice of violent extremism, suggesting that the problem goes much deeper. Sharing his insights, he lucidly argued that youth prone to extremism today aspire to “self-realization.” In his stream of thought, he asked: “What did we give to our youths so that they discover their selves, their potentials and capacities?” Youth are lost. Some channeled their disorientation in drug trafficking while others in terrorism”.
Another participating Imam complained of the precarious legal and material situation which his colleagues endure. Reflecting an even more worrisome situation, he expressed great concern about the systematic marginalization of imams, where, in his words, “They are hired and fired at the stroke of a pen.”