Third, Tunisia’s experience demonstrates why the solution to ISIS cannot be less freedom, and why cracking down on freedom of religion is particularly likely to exacerbate extremism. Over the last few decades, moderate Islamic thought was repressed in the country, and mainstream religious institutions that had fostered moderate religious practice were closed down or severely restricted. This included the historically renowned al-Zaytuna University, which for more than a thousand years prior had produced intellectual luminaries such as Ibn Arafa, one of the greatest scholars of Islam.
Young people growing up in the era of former dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia from 1987 until he was deposed during the Arab uprisings, had no reference point for moderate Islamic thought, so they turned to extreme sources instead. Countering violent extremism thus requires ensuring that people understand the true teachings of Islam, which challenge the radicals’ black-and-white views and allow for interpretations that accommodate the needs of modern life.
Fourth, countries that have made the transition to democracy need the international community’s support to ensure that democratic ideals and political inclusion translate into tangible improvements in people’s lives. Guaranteeing free elections and human rights is not sufficient. A successful democratic transition requires forging economic and social conditions in which people can enjoy opportunities, prosperity, and security. People must feel that the state protects their rights, serves their interests, safeguards their resources and, whatever its shortcomings, works for and is accountable to them.
The Tunisian revolution was precisely about these goals—reasserting people’s sovereignty, and demanding governance that involves citizens as well as economic growth that benefits them. Having successfully held two rounds of free and fair elections and peaceful transfers of power, Tunisia is now focused on making bold economic reforms and investing in large-scale projects that can create jobs, build infrastructure in previously neglected areas, stimulate economic activity, and attract investments. Without the necessary economic growth and job creation, our democratic progress remains incomplete.
But this process will not be easy, as evident from the new wave of unrest in Tunisia, sparked once again by the death of a young man, this time protesting his exclusion from a list of government jobs. Undertaking massive political and economic reforms would be a challenge for any country, let alone one in Tunisia’s difficult neighborhood. The government needs international help to finance stimulus programs and create much-needed jobs, so that young people, and those in marginalized regions of the country, see the palpable fruits of democracy. Without these tangible benefits, young people remain vulnerable to extremist propaganda that democracy is no better than other alternatives. Given the regional context, Tunisia’s stability depends on its ability to meet the expectations of those who placed their trust in the revolution to improve their prospects.