Secularism and Terrorism: How France and Tunisia are linked together

A ghost is haunting the world, the ghost of terrorism. Nations all over the world entered a holy alliance to exorcise this ghost. The West, North Africa and the Middle East are at their wits because all the spells and magic potions didn’t help to expel this spectre. More than a decade of invading countries and bombing them to the ground were not effective to combat terrorism. On the contrary, it only encouraged feelings of frustration, which is the ideal breeding ground for terrorism. We saw again the result of this war on terror two weeks ago in France, Tunisia and Kuwait. So when is the world going to realise that it is time for a different approach?

France and Tunisia: different countries with the same struggle

The terrorist attacks in France and Tunisia didn’t come out of the blue. If you look closely, you will notice that the two countries have some similarities when it comes to terrorism. The two countries recently faced two terrorist attacks. In France, we witnessed the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the attack on the gas plant in Lyon. Tunisia on the other also had to deal with terrorist attacks in March on the Bardot museum and on Friday in Sousse.

It was just a matter of time when the next attack would occur in these two countries. The numbers don’t lie. It is estimated that at least half of the foreign fighters in Syria that are from Europe are French (1,200). But Tunisia ranks number one in the world with 3000 foreign fighters. Many reasons can be given to explain why these countries have such high numbers of foreign fighters. I think the explanation must be sought in the interpretation that is given to secularism in these countries.

The strict implementation of secularism or laïcité in France has led to many frustrations among Muslims. Manifestation of religious belief in the public domain is prohibited. As a result, women are not allowed to wear a headscarf in schools or public buildings. Sometimes it takes ridiculous proportions, even so that wearing a long skirt is seen as an expression of religiosity. A more relaxed attitude from the authorities is required towards religious people. In order to enhance mutual understanding, the state should tolerate religious manifestations in public space as long as it respects the civil legislation. France should therefore follow the example of the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Tunisia shared the same vision on secularism as France in the past. It all began under the rule of Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first president. He is often compared to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk for his authoritarian rule when it comes to the implementation of secular legislation. This continued under the regime of the former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, where religion played a very limited role in public life. During much of his presidency it was forbidden for women to wear a headscarf in public and men were not allowed to grow an overtly Islamic beard. Changes imposed by force will never achieve the desired outcome. On the contrary, it has produced just the opposite through the rise in popularity of Islamic parties during the Arab Spring.

Notorious double standards

Another thing that might eliminate the breeding ground of terrorism is being credible when fighting terrorism. How do you want to gain support for your war on terror if your allies use the same cruelties as your enemies? If we look at the current coalition against ISIS, we see that the West is allied to countries which propagated sectarianism for decades that led to the emergence of ISIS. Selectively condemning a crime is something that the West is good at. But hey, as long as our economic interests prevail, we’re prepared to turn a blind eye, aren’t we?

Written by Moussa Radi

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Moussa Radi studies Political Communication. His main interests lie in the interaction between media, politics and public.