British charity turns young Tunisians from jihad to map-making

More Muslims join Isis from the north African country than anywhere else. Michael Binyon visits a project orientating them in their community.

Even political Islamists agree that only jobs, education, better living conditions and more social justice can counter the lure of Islamic State. Tunisia, the only country to emerge relatively unscathed from the Arab Spring, has seen more young men join Isis fighters in Syria and Iraq than any other Arab country — with at least 5,000 joining the militants in Mosul and Raqqa.

Yet Tunisia is fairly prosperous, its youth is well educated and its new democratic government has made huge efforts to redress past grievances. A truth and dignity commission has begun public hearings to uncover the abuses of Ben Ali’s dictatorship. An estimated 17,000 non-governmental organisations are trying to improve social conditions in the country. Why are its young men vulnerable? Why have the extremists made such inroads into a stable and homogenous society? What are mainstream Muslims to make of it?

Muhammad Bedawi, a leading Islamist from the Ennahda Party, had no doubt what should be done in Ettadhamen, the poor and overcrowded suburb of Tunis that has gained a reputation as a hotbed of extremism. He pointed to the conditions just outside his party office: teeming streets, potholed roads, small, cramped houses of migrants from the countryside, no space for sport or nursery schools or social amenities.

All this, he said, must change if there is to be hope for the school drop-outs, the drug takers, the unemployed and the bored, alienated young men. Unlike the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, however, he does not simplistically proclaim “Islam is the answer” — although his party, one of the winners from the Arab Spring, is overtly Islamist. He saw the challenge as one for government and civil society. “We are happy to welcome them,” he said of the NGOs, including those from abroad. “They can help us. They can help the young people find their voice.”

And what of the mosques and religious leadership? He paid brief and half-hearted tribute to them. “Yes, they are helping, together with the NGOs. We are happy to co-operate with everyone.”

In contrast to Egypt, Tunisia’s Muslim establishment is relatively weak and unimportant. It is also, in the eyes of many young people, deeply compromised. Tunisia, since independence from France in 1956, has had a strongly secular and socialist tradition, but the Ben Ali dictatorship co-opted every independent voice and authority. The clergy went along with the old regime. And now, faced with the anger of radicalised Salafist (the ultra-conversative branch of Sunni Islam) young men, the mosques have no reply to Isis propaganda. Their denunciations of extremism do not reach the vulnerable who are lured to the Isis cause.

Others have found more effective ways to engage the young. International Alert, the British peace-building charity that operates in more than 20 conflict zones, has had remarkable success with projects across Tunisia aimed at the poor, the marginalised and those who have suffered political discrimination against their communities.

In Jendouba, a run-down town near the Algerian border, long neglected because of its strong political opposition to the former president Habib Bourguiba, International Alert runs women’s workshops, compiles statistics and surveys to give local government the evidence for what needs doing, develops arts and crafts associations and lobbies for more small grants for women entrepreneurs.

In the more dangerous border areas in the south, where the Libyan crisis is spilling across into rural Tunisian communities, International Alert is working to protect the rights of villagers who are suffering from a blunt military response to the incursions.

Its most spectacular success is in Ettadhamen, five miles from the heart of the capital. Local International Alert organisers teamed up school-leavers and student activists, to map, in minute detail, the entire densely populated neighbourhood. It took more than 30 young men and women, working in four teams, several months to walk down every street, finding out the names of those with no markings, asking about schools, doctors, pharmacies and property divisions. Overcoming homeowners’ mistrust, they have drawn up a map that the local authorities can use for decision-making, instead of blurred maps more than 20 years old that give almost no record of what is there today.

“They wondered what we were doing at first,” one of the map-makers said. “Now they all support us. We have something that you could never find on Google maps. And we now know the people in our neighbourhood and they know us.”

The map, however, has led to bigger things. They have formed their own organisation, I-Change. Meeting in rooms above a police station burnt out during the 2011 revolution (the rent is paid by the NGO), the group is drawing up a development plan based on what local people said they most wanted: street lighting, rubbish collection, landscaping, fixing the roads. Public meetings have won over the sceptical local authorities. The I-Change group has led the process of citizens having the final say over half the entire local budget — about £260,000 worth of projects — and this month tenders have gone out for the first contracts. “We are recognised now in the street,” one young man said. “Of course, if we don’t now deliver the projects, we’ll be killed,” he added, with a laugh.

Young women, wearing hijabs, saw the opportunity also for greater recognition of their rights. None of the group was yet talking about going into politics — “We prefer community work together or in association,” one said — but peer pressure for change was clearly raising aspirations, pride and dignity in a suburb stigmatised by richer Tunisians in the fashionable villas on the coast.

The project, however, vindicates the charity’s insistence that terrorism is defeated only by tackling alienation, frustration and inequality at the core. One young university student is a street artist who has enjoyed painting “peace” in big, pink letters on local buildings. He had spirited encounters with peers who were falling prey to extremism.

“One man said his cousin had joined Isis and he was proud of him. I told him that our religion doesn’t allow killing, violence doesn’t work and that we had a better way, working in our neighbourhood. And now he’s joined our group.”

No amount of preaching by an imam would have had this effect. And even Tunisia’s Islamist parties, which have criminalised membership of Isis, admit that only young people can persuade their peers that violence and executions are not the future for Tunisia or any Muslim country.

Michael Binyon, OBE, is a former foreign correspondent and leader writer for The Times

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