Tunisia Holds the Key to Defeating ISIS

6 minute read

Rached Ghannouchi is the co-founder and president of Ennahdha, the Tunisian moderate Islamist party.

Five years after the fall of the first dictator in the Arab Spring, the world has realized that the painstaking process of democratic transformation is slower and more delicate than expected. After a spark of people power that captured the world’s imagination with its potential, we see the region now embroiled in conflict, with hopes for change left unfulfilled. The turmoil generated by authoritarian regimes refusing to make way for peaceful change has created a space in which ISIS has emerged, presenting a political vision that stands for nothing but violence and death.

Yet amidst the difficulties, Tunisia, where the Arab Spring began, remains the shining light of the region. Although our country’s democratic project is still in its infancy—with the protests of last week serving as a reminder of the challenges we still face—there are countless reasons to be positive. Tunisia’s progress provides the best response to extremist groups’ claims that Islam and democracy are incompatible. We have held multiple free and fair elections, women are actively involved in government and political life, and we have a constitution that enshrines the rule of law, separation of powers and respect for human rights including freedom of conscience and expression.

While Tunisia traverses the bridge towards stable democracy, many of our neighbors have fallen off. History has repeatedly shown us that countries in a state of political transition are fragile and can quickly descend into chaos once groups start to put their own interests above those of the country. Our party, Ennahdha, understood this, and has sought to achieve political consensus with various political parties, business leaders and civil society organizations in Tunisia for the best interests of the country. It was clear that one party should not govern alone in a time of transition. That is why we reached out to other parties to create the Troika coalition government after the revolution and then stepped down in 2014. We had a majority, but we realized that building a strong democracy requires more than majority rule—it requires consensus around fundamental principles. The radical moderation and inclusivity adopted in Tunisia has ensured political and social stability, and maintained the momentum for democratic reform.

The wider region desperately needs this brand of radical political moderation. Stability requires reconciliation between polarized factions through achieving dialogue and coexistence between the diverse components of society. Only through respect for pluralism and agreement on guarantees for the rights of all can the specters of sectarianism, extremism and political monopolization be addressed. Political inclusion, as demonstrated in Tunisia today, holds the key to the future of this region.

However, in an interconnected world and turbulent region, Tunisia cannot complete the journey to a stable democracy alone. Security remains a critical factor in our democratic transition. The recent attacks by ISIS in our country were likely targeted at destroying Tunisia’s progress and its ability to chart a moderate course away from chaos and towards democratic stability. Chaos and the absence of legitimate political authority are the lifeblood of ISIS. Its discourse seeks to undermine support for democracy and, like all extremist groups around the world, its members put forward simplistic solutions to complex problems and attract supporters by stoking up fear and hatred.

Decision makers around the world must recognize that there are no easy solutions to complex problems. Yes, we need to combat this threat through better policing and better training and equipment for our security forces. However, a sophisticated strategy to counter extremism is needed that specifically looks at the drivers of support for extremism. Often, extremist groups gain support through playing on people’s fears for the future and by providing economic opportunities to the most vulnerable. Local development strategies are needed that address local grievances, create much-needed jobs and economic opportunities, particularly for young people. The protests of last week stem from frustration at unemployment and emphasize the importance and urgency of offering a more prosperous future to Tunisians.

A hard security approach will not create the hope and opportunity desperately needed. A consistent and persuasive counter-narrative to extremism is also needed to counter the propaganda spread by extremist groups through multiple channels. Support for democracy and political pluralism as the best way to solve society’s challenges is central to this counter-narrative. This means that all parties and international actors must respect the democratic process, regardless of whether they agree with electoral outcomes.

ISIS and other extremist groups exploit religious discourse to justify their quest for political domination. An effective counter-narrative must confront this discourse head on and present an interpretation that is true to the spirit of Islam as lived and practiced by over a billion people on earth—a religion of mercy, respect, solidarity and coexistence. As a party of Muslim democrats, Ennahdha believe that sound readings of Islam are the best way to defeat ISIS and their distorted interpretations.

It is far too early to say whether the dreams of the Arab revolutions are on their way to being realized. In Europe, change took more than a hundred years following often turbulent and violent uprisings. The Arab world has entered a new phase of democratic change that might take 10 or 20 years to bear fruit. In a region of immense ethnic, cultural and religious diversity as well as significant geostrategic importance, the path to democratic transition is always paved with pitfalls.

That is why it is so important that we remain united in the face of these challenges. Tunisia has shown that radical moderation—insisting on political dialogue as the only way to overcome conflict—is a strong basis for gradual, sustainable change. Tunisians are now working together across political and social divides to ensure that an empowering vision that affirms freedom, human dignity and equality guides our democratic transition. Political dialogue and acceptance of inclusion are the only solutions to the conflicts we see in Syria, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere in the region.

Change is not easy—reform always engenders resistance and opposition. Tunisia’s coalition government is now working on economic reforms to address the economic and social grievances highlighted by the revolution, with job creation and alleviation of poverty as the key goals. The support of friends and allies is critical for Tunisia, as a bridge to the Arab world, a mediator for peaceful change and an example of dialogue, consensus and reform. Our democratic journey continues.

Rached Ghannouchi is the co-founder and president of Ennahdha, the Tunisian moderate Islamist party. He was named one of the TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2012, was awarded the Chatham House Prize in 2012 and the International Crisis Group Prize in 2012.

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