THE BLOG
10/23/2014 03:42 pm ET Updated Dec 23, 2014

Don't Blame New Freedoms for Violent Religious Extremism

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Dictatorships do a great deal more to create and maintain violent religious extremism than liberalization has done or will ever do, contrary to the headline on David Kirkpatrick's New York Times report from Tunisia claiming that "new freedoms in Tunisia drive support for ISIS."

It's an uncomfortable fact that Tunisians make up a disproportionately large number of ISIS fighters. But demographic, geographic, and political particularities say more about the reasons for this than the freedoms that have come to Tunisia since the overthrow of the dictator, President ben Ali, in January 2011.

Tunisia has a large well educated but underemployed youth sector, which means it has a big constituency of discontented young men who are prime candidates for Jihadi recruiters. Of course, there are masses of unemployed young men all over North Africa. But in Egypt and Morocco, for example, many more of them are extremely poor, uneducated, and even illiterate. Their main focus is scraping a marginal living in the black economy, not traveling to Syria.

Geographically, Tunisia is a relatively small country. Unlike Libya, Algeria, or Egypt, it does not have large areas of ungoverned or loosely governed territory where domestic militant extremists can operate beyond the reach of the central authorities. For a Tunisian to join an organized violent religious extremist group it is necessary for him to leave Tunisia.

Politically, as the Times article notes, the mainstream political party An-Nahda was initially too indulgent of Salafi extremists. The attempt to incorporate Salafis into the an-Nahda project broke down after some high profile violent incidents, especially the attack on the U.S. embassy and school in September 2012. The Tunisian authorities are now tough on Salafism, which has had the unintended consequence of driving some Salafis out of Tunisia to fight with ISIS. The economic pull-factor of well-funded Salafi groups, backed by money from U.S. allies in the Gulf, is a major draw for unemployed young men with few prospects.

Ultimately, however, support for violent religious extremism in Tunisia is primarily a legacy of decades of rule by an authoritarian regime, which stifled non-violent political dissent and sought to exploit violent religious extremism to its own political advantage.

Salafis were relatively tolerated in Tunisia by the ben Ali dictatorship because they were seen as less of a political threat than the more moderate al-Nahda party. Like many dictators in in the Arab region, it suited ben Ali (just as it suits Bashar al-Assad in Syria, and it suited Mubarak in Egypt) to shape his Islamist opposition to be as extreme as possible. Thereby, the dictator can argue more plausibly that the alternative to his tyranny would be far worse, and thus exploit fear to gain support from his own people and from the international community.

It's moderate non-violent political Islamic groups, such as the al-Nahda movement in Tunisia, which are willing to participate in the political process and to compromise with other political groups that have long suffered severe repression across the Arab region.

The support provided to re-empowered authoritarians -- like Egypt's President Sisi or the al-Khalifa monarchy in Bahrain -- who are committed to reversing and blocking the freedoms sought by Arab spring protesters in 2011 shows that religious extremism and political repression are mutually supportive. They are the real drivers of violent religious extremists like ISIS and al-Qa'eda.

If the United States and its allies cannot find a way to counter violent religious extremism while promoting and protecting human rights then everyone will lose. There are no quick fixes to the damage inflicted on Arab societies by decades of dictatorship. Gradual progress towards representative government based on political compromise, tolerance, and legal protections for human rights that Tunisia has demonstrated over the past three years offers by far the best way forward.