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Middle East and Africa

Inside the jihadist paradox, between expansion and nihilism

The attacks at the Bard raise several questions about the nature and the goals of the jihadist extremism, so indistinct and so dramatically real at the same time. Answering is difficult, but it is also on the answers that the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism depends.

Extremism and terrorism should be fought against. Everybody apparently agrees on this. But what this fight should consist of and how terrorism could be really battled against is currently all but clear. From this point of view, the Tunisian case raises more than one question.



First of all there is a question that is not only addressed to Tunisia but to all the actors who have to manage the jihadist threat. It concerns the way terrorist operations such as the one of the Bardo are interpreted and decoded. Is it a revenge against the only successful case of post-revolutionary transition? Or is it an attack mainly directed to the West, hit in the person of its tourists? And who are its real instigators? Answering is hard, but it is also on the answers given to these questions that the effectiveness of the fight against terrorism depends. Jihadist terrorism, particularly the one related to ISIS, is currently acting at two levels, though linked, are to be considered separately.



On the one hand there is the stabilization and the territorial expansion of the self-declared caliphate. In this case, the moves of the Islamic State depend on targets which have a tangible usefulness (strategic locations, oil wells, lanes, airports, etc.). On the other hand it performs a sort of “tension strategy”, or, as the Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi said by quoting one of the reference texts of the jihadist galaxy, “the management of barbarity”, something that the Islamic state generates or simply appropriates, as might have happened in Tunisia. The actions do not have an immediate strategic meaning here, but they depend on the symbolic value of the hit targets, whose function is only metaphorical or metonymic (as evidenced by the public announcement with which the Islamic state has claimed responsibility for the attacks): the European retiree on vacation becomes a crusader, the local tourist guide an apostate, the Libyan city of Derna the southern outskirts of Rome, as well as the editorial staff of a newspaper represented the blasphemous impiety of the West and a kosher supermarket the entire Jewish world.



Since the Islamic state has imposed itself, these two logics operate simultaneously, creating a deadly game of mirrors in which it is hard to measure the exact proportions of the individual phenomenon and the individual event. Furthermore, there is a paradox that Olivier Roy already noticed in the early 90s and that the State claims of Isis do not make less true. It is the fact that in the jihadist militancy the “rationality” of the institutional construction is consumed in the nihilistic irrationality of the individual deed of he who is ready to destroy himself in order to cancel the intolerable existence of the other. Geopolitics and political analysis are needed to understand the first level. In order to penetrate the second one it could be more useful to read what Camus wrote in 1951 about the nihilist murder: “Nihilism confuses the creator and the creatures in the same fury. By suppressing every principle of hope, it refuses all limits and, in the blindness of an indignation that does not even perceive its own reasons anymore, it ends up judging that it makes no difference to kill what is already doomed to death”.



Precisely because it “does not even perceive its own reasons anymore”, terrorism strikes indiscriminately and the multiplicity of its targets - the West, “apostates” Muslims, Christians, Shiites, democracy, tourism, etc. - dissolves into the indistinction of the murderous act. In the Tunisian context, this infernal mechanism has very concrete repercussions, because it threatens to destabilise the young and still unstable democracy and to harshly hit the economy. Actually the Tunisian society has already shown to possess the energy needed to reject the sabotage attempts of its personal spring. But the fact remains that its politicians are now at the time of their high school examination and are confronted with some very complex issues.



The first is related to the country's safety. Bardo’s attacks were not a bolt from the blue, but brought the danger of a substantial jihadist presence, aggravated by the return of the fighters who left for Syria and Iraq and by the infiltrations made possible by the chaos in Libya and the porosity of the borders with Algeria, to light.



Another, more political point is the freedom-safety dilemma. The appeals asking the government not to use the terrorist threat to limit the freedom conquered with difficulty during the 2010-2011 Revolution have multiplied in the last few days. But the problem is not easy to solve. Take for example the case of the Salafis, who have multiplied exponentially (they are currently tens of thousands of people) after the Revolution. The Salafis have a strict vision of Islam incompatible with the rights and freedom on which democracy is established. However, many Salafis believe that their mission is limited to peaceful preaching (da'wa), and that is does not involve any use of armed jihad, even if the passages from quietist Puritanism to violent practice are far from uncommon. Furthermore, their presence constitutes a useful area of dialogue between the government and the most radical Islamist fringes and a privileged birth area of jihadist militancy at the same time. How should public authorities behave towards them? Will they have to maintain a conciliatory attitude in the name of liberal-democratic guarantees, hitting them only in case their activities effectively became dangerous, or will they have to pass to the iron hand right away, even at the expenses of the full respect of the rule of law?



It is a thorny issue on which, among other things, an important political match has already been played in Tunisia. Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist party an-Nahda, had always claimed that extremism and terrorism were a product of tyranny. Based on this assumption, in the two years an-Nahda was ruling the executive in Tunisia, the Salafis groups were allowed great freedom of action. The basic idea was that their integration into the public Tunisian sphere would have domesticated and lead them to an assumption of responsibility. But this just didn't happen. The more space the Salafis were granted, the more insecurity, intimidations and violence increased in the Country. Starting from the demonstrations against film shows and art exhibitions considered blasphemous to the political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, and passing through the occupation of the Manouba University, the 2012-2013 was a catastrophic two-year period, which, among other things, cost an-Nahda the resignation from the Country government and the defeat in the last elections.



The situation had improved in the last year: the opening of a “national dialogue”, the development of a technical government and the approval of the new Constitution had given the country some political stability back. Meanwhile, Ghannouchi has probably meditated on his party's mistakes and has passed from the Islamic identity rhetoric to the invocation of the construction of a consensual democracy and of the fight against terrorism. The change was evident on the evening of March 18th, when the Islamist leader has accused the Bardo bombers of having exploited the freedom situation in force in Tunisia since 2011. The moves of an-Nahda and Nidaa Tunis' decision to accept an alliance with the Islamists had the important effect of repairing the dangerous rift that was being created in the country between “seculars” and “Islamists”, thus preventing the union of the latter with the most extreme fringes. Today, the watchword in Tunisia is “national unity”. All that glitters may not be gold, but not betting on this process while part of the Middle East is likely to simply collapse would be a serious mistake.