The Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy organized a seminar on violent extremism and its roots on Thursday June 8, 2017 at the Center’s headquarters in Montplaisir, Tunis.

The event forms part of the Center’s work to combat violent extremist discourse and the spread of Salafi Jihadi ideology.

The seminar, chaired by Mr. Salaheddine Jourchi, featured four speakers – Mr. Hmida Enneifer, President of the Tunisian Association for Culture and Pluralism, Mr. Abdelmajid Najjar, President of the International Center for Scientific Research, Mr. Mohammed Haj Salem, researcher in religious and political anthropology, and Mr. Sami Brahem, researcher at the Centre for Economic and Social Research

After welcoming the audience, Mr. Salaheddine Jourchi highlighted three key points.

First, Muslims face an intellectual religious dilemma that has direct repercussions on the political, economic and social spheres. This predicament was not plotted from outside the Islamic world, as often supposed, but is an internal dilemma that has deep cultural roots. The cultural experience in this part of the world is important to understanding and explaining this predicament, which involved intervention by external forces seeking to achieve their ownfar-reaching strategic objectives.  

Secondly, the term “extremism” is a vague term with no clear mechanisms or definition. It is therefore essential to define the nature of extremism in order to build our analysis and work on a solid foundation so that we can achieve concrete results on which we can all agree and that we can all develop.

Thirdly, Mr. Jourchi raised the issue of the extent to which extremism can be linked to the context of political isolation and tyranny, which is still a powerful factor in Tunisian society.

Mr. Hmida Enneifer noted that the phenomenon of violent extremism expresses a state of alienation and rupture in the understanding of religion in Arab and Muslim societies, through which young people are attracted and lured towards radicalism. He also referred to two features that characterize religious thought in the past century.

First, religious issues are viewed through a fragmented historical approach, where religion is understood as mere principles, values and concepts, without fitting them into a historical context with specific circumstances, thus failing to present a multi-dimensional contemporary reading.

Secondly, the religious phenomenon is viewed as an old historical phenomenon, which can be said to be “historically-bound”, embodied in institutions that are closely tied to social and economic factors, within the framework of a sociological and anthropological phenomenon. Mr. Enneifer considered that the problem lies in how Muslims deal with the religious phenomenon, which is an arrogant and selective way of dealing with religion as an ancient, decaying body.

Muslims have not yet determined how to produce religious thought for this globalized era, which requires a re-reading of the self. To view religion as a mere set of values is not enough because the new context requires a new formulation of religious consciousness and a rationalization of the Islamic religion in harmony with this century and beyond. Religion, as he put it, is “an expression of divine wisdom in its manifestations and its permanent presence, which makes it a belief in the destiny of man.”

At the end of his paper, Mr. Enneifer stressed the need for consistency between anthropological knowledge and religious concepts, between the changing external world and the physical world in order to understand religious phenomena and the phenomenon of violent extremism.

Abdelmajid Najjar addressed the issue of the role of education in the spread of extremism, which he considered the real factor behind the embrace by some Muslims of the path of radicalism. He referred to two levels of imbalance.

First, the poor standard of religious education programs in Tunisian schools and the failure to address sensitive issues such as questions of disbelief and faith, as well as the drying up of religious sources, have led to a deficit in religious thought. Even after the revolution, there was a natural desire among many youth to become religious and to deepen their knowledge of religion but they did not find a reliable source of religious education to teach them religion properly.

They turned to other sources that were able to fill their minds with false concepts concerning kufr (disbelief) and al-walaa w al-baraa (loyalty and disavowal), and that the Islamic religion is the religion of the hereafter and not of this world.

Secondly, at the quantitative level, the education that is available is based on rote learning and adopts a text-based and literalist approach. It is devoid of any comparative or critical approaches and lacks auxiliary topics related to religious sciences such as usul al-fiqh (jurisprudence), fiqh al-waaqi’ (jurisprudence of reality), fiqh al-tanzeel (jurisprudence of applying texts to specific contexts) and ‘ilm al-ikhtilaf (difference of opinions).

This led to the spread of religious thought that is very textual, literalist and dhahiri (focused on the manifest meaning of the text). At the end of his presentation, he pointed out that the way out of the impasse is to not limit ourselves to security and legal solutions to violent extremism but also to review religious education and give young people a religious education in which Islam is a religion for both this world and the hereafter

 In an attempt to shed light on the phenomenon of extremism from a sociological point of view, Mr. Mohammed Haj Salem presented three related concepts – ideology, social movements and jihadist ideology. Ideology is “the sum of the opinions, ideas and representations embodied in a social movement with a political purpose or linked to a political body”.

A social movement is “a collective act and mobilization intended to achieve a clear project within the logic of demanding and defending a material interest or cause.”

Mr. Haj Salem stressed that the two first concepts lead directly to jihadist ideology, which is characterized bya denseideological approach that focuseson a central idea or two central ideas such asal-nafeer, jihad and ghurba (alienation), as well as granting divine legitimacy to ideology.

Jihadi ideology pushes for a separation from contemporary culture (other than its technical applications) and social relations in return for adherence to the Qur’an and Sunnah and the practices of the righteous salaf (companions of the Prophet and those who followed them) in order to impose the correct ‘aqeeda (religious doctrine or Orthodoxie) and proper conduct (Orthopraxie) through jihad.

Jihadi ideology is characterized by three principles:

First is the principle of tamaayuz (differentiation), meaning the lack of possibility to diverge from the consensus of the group in terms of thinking and analysis.

Second is the principle of self-sufficiency, which is based on establishing boundaries between the internal and the external, and dispensing with all psychological, cultural and financial resources from outside the group.

Third is the principle of a division between the internal and the external, by setting variable limits that extend and retract according to circumstances, for fear of being infiltrated or influences by external forcesor the outside environment.

At the end of his paper, Mr. Haj Salem pointed out that poor neighborhoods are an incubator for nurturing radical youth because of the lack of infrastructure and limited role of young people, prompting the state to accelerate the development of a national project to develop future generations