Tunisian young people insist that recent violence does not reflect the values that launched the Arab Spring
Sarah L. Forman is a senior at Brown University studying religious minorities and the democratization process in Tunisia
SIDI BOU SAID, Tunisia -- In many ways, young people were the backbone of the revolution in Tunisia last year. They took to the streets in massive numbers, ousting long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and sparking an Arab Spring that eventually swept across North Africa and the Middle East.
I’ve spent several weeks here in Tunis working with Tunisian college students and doing research on religious minorities, and I’ve had the chance to meet dozens of young people — most no older than myself — who put themselves at risk to bring a new order to Tunisia.
Though many of these young revolutionaries later voted to bring an Islamist government to Tunisia — and some even consider themselves conservative Salafists — all of the students I’ve met have rebuked last week’s violent response to the inflammatory anti-Islamic film that has led to demonstrations across the Muslim world. On Friday, Salafist demonstrators breached the American embassy compound and attacked an affiliated school, leading to four deaths and massive property damage.
“All the people around me, they say they condemn this act,” said 25-year-old Lamjed, a student at the Airline Flight Academy. Indeed, he believes that foreign influences were behind the attack, and finds it hard to believe that the Tunisians he knows could have attacked the U.S. in this way.
“We are the first Muslim country to abolish the slaves, create constitutions, abolish polygamy,” he said. “For the majority of Tunisians [this response] is not our culture, not our traditions.”
Lamjed’s reaction seems to be the norm among his peers. In the days following the attack, I was amazed by how many strangers spontaneously apologized to me upon finding out that I was American, telling me that they could not believe that such aggression would come out of their country.
Amine, a 21-year-old business student, said he not only denounces the violence, but also thinks it was a less effective strategy than peaceful demonstrations might have been.
“This kind of reaction hurts Muslims all over the world,” Amine said, explaining that he was deeply offended by the film, but wishes people had responded by making other movies showcasing the peaceful, beneficent qualities of Islam or sharing information on Facebook,. By acting violently and impulsively, the protesters “hurt our Prophet in the same way the maker of the film did.”
Amine received an invitation to join the demonstration at the embassy, but he said he chose not to go because he worried it would devolve into violence. He was proud to walk through tear gas and join the protests against Ben Ali last January, but this felt different. Indeed, in many ways Amine has lost faith in much of the political and government systems here; he is not even sure if he will vote in the next elections. Last year he supported the victorious Islamist party, Ennahda, but so far he has not been impressed with the direction the country is moving.
Yassine Jridi, also 21, agrees that Tunisia has lost its way.
The self-proclaimed Salafist says that after the actions of some extremists, he feels like he has lost the ability to speak and share his ideas — the rights young people like him fought to attain last year.
“Being a Salafist is not being a terrorist,” he said, explaining that he uses the term to explain his commitment to respect his religious obligations, not to suggest that he wants to impose his religious beliefs on others. He feels he is unable to share his comparatively moderate ideas because some extremists have made Salafism seem so frightening and aggressive.
Jridi and Amine were quick to point out that though they reject the violent outcome of Friday’s demonstration, they think people were right to protest the film at the embassy at some level.
“It is unacceptable to insult the Prophet in this way,” Amine said. So long as people stay peaceful, “we have the right to be angry."To learn how to contribute to Passport, email Patricia Nealon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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