Fighting terror in Tunisia

In 2011, Tunisians sparked what become known as the Arab Spring. Young and old, men and women, they flowed into their cities’ streets, calling for the end of dictatorship. In subsequent years the struggle to foster democracy, justice, dignity and freedom has been laced with oppression and rising levels of extremism. From the start of the Syrian conflict, roughly 6,000 Tunisians – mostly young men but also many women – have left home to join the ranks of Daesh. Tunisia is amongst the highest per capita exporters of extremists in the world.

Photo: Ahlem Nasraoui

But Tunisia’s youth are also rising to the challenge. Ahlem Nasraoui, who was selected as one of the top ten people working in peace by the U.S. State Department, believes that young people will bring about positive change in the country.

Can you tell us more about your work combatting violent extremism?

I believe young people were oblivious to what was going on in Tunisia before 2011 because of the former regime’s corruption, censorship, and the silencing of the voices of activists and women. After the 2011 revolution, it became a sort of cacophony: there were a lot of people claiming that they knew how to fix this country.

At the Young Leaders Entrepreneurs Association we chose to push for the economic empowerment of young men and women, giving opportunities to those people who were suffering from unemployment, losing out on opportunities due to nepotism, and dealing with the after-effects of the long era of rigid censorship. We believe that spreading entrepreneurship, especially social entrepreneurship, will enable these young people not only to access opportunities, but also to gain confidence and security, which will increase their resilience to extremist indoctrination. We started several initiatives. One is a mobile school teaching young people, mostly graduates, about start-up culture, and how to seek out opportunities outside their circles. We encourage graduates to open up, to travel, and to aspire to succeed and achieve within their communities. We believe in ideas. We transform them into business plans, not just to make money – but to create a social impact.

In 2014, we introduced the One Billion Rising campaign. This is an international movement involving more than 200 countries. People gather to celebrate women’s rights and fight against the escalation of violence, whether verbal or nonverbal, against women. The movement brought together five thousand men and women in Tunisia. They danced to ‘Break the Chain’ in the most famous avenue in our city, and called for support for women so that they could reach higher positions of decision-making.

We also started capacity-building programs to bridge differences in understanding between generations, and to encourage the younger generations to participate in the political scene. We spread awareness about voting and playing an active role in civil society and local government. We push for sustainable peace within our communities through social entrepreneurship, activism, and human rights.

Where does the rise of violent extremism come into the mix?

Violent extremism is about spreading fear. I remember waking up in horror when my bedroom window exploded due to a terrorist attack which occurred close to my family’s house in west Tunisia. This is something new to us. Our country is known for safety and peace. We have only recently started to face such security challenges. For my community, extremism is a challenge to democracy, peace, and the country as a whole.

Can you share a success story?

Fighting extremism is new to Tunisia, although I believe that radicalisation was going on before the revolution. A lot of terror attacks took place, but the media was silent about them. The issues surfaced after the revolution, when we started to face up to the social, economic and political diseases that had been hidden and which have now become visible.

I come from a remote area in Tunisia. I have worked face-to-face with people related to ex-fighters or people who have gone to fight with ISIS. Some of their relatives had been killed. We did not want to push them to talk about it, or impose anything on them. We put together strategies such as using art, dialogue, and music to create a safe space for them to talk about their trauma. They would discuss how hard it is to have someone in your life fall victim to indoctrination and radicalisation. They started to open up and talk. Some were experiencing emotional crises. We conveyed the message that it was not their fault that a member of their family had been radicalised. We focused on helping them to consider how they could protect the rest of their family. Their individual stories raise awareness of the dangers of radicalisation in their community. It’s a form of peer-to-peer education.

We tell young men that violence is not a means of demonstrating masculinity or power. We talk about how peace can be more powerful. We also talk about how poverty should not be a route to extremism and getting dragged into a cycle of violence. We provided many alternatives to violence: participating in forums, painting, dance and other ways to celebrate life. We wanted to show how ISIS and other terrorist groups celebrate death, whereas we are celebrating life. We want people to choose the right side.

Tell us about the project that was nominated for the UN/BMW award?

We launched a one-year project called the Unleash Tunisia Venture Bus. The bus toured the country, providing a platform for training in different skills such as management, social media and marketing. The participants get to know each other and explore each other’s regions. They delve into opportunities, describe the visions they have for Tunisia, and talk about their challenges and the best ways to overcome them. Many projects developed out of the Bus, from recycling programmes to stimulating ecological tourism, fashion and craftsmanship, to developing platforms for connecting youth and decision-makers, as well as enabling personal development and digital innovation.

Through the ‘Unleash Tunisia’ programme we enable young people to bridge what they have learned at schools with the market realities and skills they need to deal with Tunisia’s high rate of unemployment: skills such as networking, public speaking skills, creating professional CVs and writing cover letters.

Recent graduates from almost 20 governorates in Tunisia, from the north to the south, took part in five tours covering the entire country. We made sure they all met at the closing ceremony. Our work has helped bring together regional debates over issues like peace, extremism, and radicalisation through combining social and economic approaches. This is central to our theory of change. We believe in building bridges between the public and private sectors to get the best of both worlds, and to develop a larger picture of the future that we aspire towards.

What is missing from current approaches to radicalisation?

I work with young people and for young people. Standard awareness campaigns are okay, but I want something deeper, which has more insight into the communication and manipulation tools used by extremist groups, as well as security challenges, and how to bridge gaps between the public and governmental agencies like the Ministry of Defence and the Interior Ministry. I have a strategy to invite officials to come and talk to young people, even children, about their struggles. It is really important to create empathy between communities. Academic research and outreach should not be separate from each other. They work together to unite our powers and defeat extremism.