France and Tunisia's war or terror: An introduction

France and Tunisia's war or terror: An introduction
5 min read
16 Apr, 2018
Comment: 'How do we define terrorism?' and who should be classed as a 'terrorist'? Warda Mohammed introduces this special series on responses to terrorism in France and Tunisia.
Tunisians mark the anniversary of attacks that killed 20 people in 2016 [AFP]
Tunisia - a north African Muslim country, and France - a secular, European one. 

These countries have different histories and different political systems, but both have found themselves the target of terrorism, and their citizens have been among the most involved in the Islamic State group (IS).

The theme of this special series may seem surprising, but Orient XXI, in collaboration with the French NGO CCFD Terre-Solidaire, thought it appropriate, in light of the similarities between the two countries, to compare the "wars against terrorism" led by France and Tunisia.

The series of articles highlights what the situation in a north African country, and that of a western European country have in common, while taking into account the differences and power imbalances. Our cross-analysis allows us to leave behind simplistic, binary conclusions in comparing the two. 

Such an analysis is complicated by the fact that few sources and figures are available, though they are more necessary now than ever. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon and it has more than one face. Since 11 September 2001, the world has been involved in an endless "war against terror" led by the West in response to terror attacks perpetrated by organisations promoting a certain interpretation of Islam and claiming to be responding to western policies and attacks…

Those terror attacks have been over-represented in the media and over-exploited in politics while, so far, the world war against terrorism has been a failure.

One of the most significant episodes was the 2003 war launched by the United States against its former-ally-turned-"terrorist", Saddam Hussein, just as Osama bin Laden once was an ally against the Soviets.

Afghans, Iraqis and Yemenis, for instance, have been living in fear since 11 September, but have not been considered as victims

This intervention resulted, among other things, in al-Qaeda putting down roots in Iraq and later in the creation of the Islamic State organisation. Since then attacks have multiplied, forcing European populations to learn to live in a perpetual state of fear.

This fear was already familiar to many Arabic and/or Islamic countries: Afghans, Iraqis and Yemenis, for instance, have been living in fear since 11 September, but have not been considered as victims or attracted much sympathy or solidarity because of the association made between them and the terrorists.

And yet in 2015, a study by a group of Nobel-prize wining physicians revealed that the "war on terror" had killed a million Iraqi civilians, 220,000 Afghans and 80,000 Pakistanis (these numbers do not account for the victims of drones or of the First Gulf War).

The same year, several attacks happened in France for which supporters or members of IS claimed responsibility. Unlike Norway, which had chosen a path of openness and unity after the attack by white supremacist Anders Breivik, France opted for division and a strategy of total security, like the United States.

Governments have exploited the fight against terrorism to address completely different issues

The dominant ideology claimed terrorists were guilty of being angry against France's values, and it discredited the argument that French interventions in the Middle-East and in Africa were a cause for the attacks. 

But how can we explain the fact that most attacks take place in Muslim countries - such as Tunisia - which was at the forefront of Arab revolts as its authoritarian regime came to an end? Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's regime was supported by successive French presidents because he was supposed to be pushing back against terrorism, when in fact he was perhaps encouraging it.

French and Tunisian governments have consistently insisted on applying solutions that have proved to be ill-adapted, in place of devising and enforcing efficient measures in the long term. NGOs such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have also denounced the way in which governments have exploited the fight against terrorism to address completely different issues.

Read more: Tunisians refuse to back down as protesters demand government reverse austerity measures

In the first article of this series, Zohra el-Mokhtari questions the concept of terrorism itself. "Terrorism", along with "radicalisation", "Salafism" and other words are constantly used but not explained. 

What is the definition of terrorism in France, Tunisia and the rest of the world? Who is a "terrorist" and who is a "resister"?

France opted for division and a strategy of total security, like the United States

Why are attacks by far right supporters not considered terrorism when those by people identified as Muslims almost always are? Since the term is not clearly defined by the law, how is it possible to fight against it?

Tunisia is grappling with this question, now that it too has become the targets of terrorist attacks. Tunisia is alleged to have contributed the highest contingent of IS fighters, but France is not far behind. What drives Tunisian and French citizens to make such a decision? Malek Lakhal and Yassine Nabli try to find an explanation. Where are fighters recruited?

Given that prisons are said to be prime recruiting grounds, Jeremy Felkowsky explains how imprisonment policies has led to incarcerated petty criminals and terrorists sharing the same space. 

Despite criticism of this policy and other security measures, the response has always been harsher laws and repression that threaten fundamental liberties.

On 24 November, France went as far as warning the European Court of Human Rights of its intention to ignore rights guaranteed by the European Convention (ECHR) and the UN. As for Tunisia, we saw the quartet in charge of the national dialogue win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015 for "its support to the democratic transition" four months after the attacks in Sousse and despite an intensification of the repression.

Hassina Mechai has looked into how both countries have used and abused the state of emergency policy, first put in place by France in Algeria in 1955 during the colonisation to repress the resistance movements, and in Tunisia in 1978 during a period of strikes.

What is the reaction of the civilian population to such a context? Cyril Lemba reports on the measures taken by those societies battling unemployment, social instability and other inequalities which some studies claim are all aggravating factors for terrorism, but which governments have not  yet addressed efficiently.

This special series was edited by Warda Mohamed for Orient XXI, in collaboration with CCFD Terre-Solidaire, Nawaat and The New Arab. It is also available in French on Orient XXI, and in Arabic on Nawaat. We would like to thank all those involved.

Warda Mohamed is a Paris-based journalist and head of editorial projects at Orient XXI. 

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.