The goal of these violent extremists is not political participation; it is to create chaos. We should not forget that before attacking American symbols, these extremists had degraded Tunisian symbols, like the flag and national anthem.
Despite their small numbers, the danger they pose cannot be dismissed. Tunisia’s economy depends on the millions of foreign tourists who visit each year. If Salafi extremists were to attack just two or three foreigners in Tunisia, it would destroy our tourism industry and ruin our country’s peaceful reputation. As a democratic government, we support the Salafis’ freedom of expression, but advocating violence is a red line. Those who cross it will be arrested.
The strength and importance of extremist groups have been unduly amplified by the news media. Images of angry Muslim mobs, like the one featured on a recent cover of Newsweek magazine, once again revived the old Orientalist trope of a backward and hysterical Muslim world, unable to engage in civilized and rational debate or undertake peaceful negotiations — in other words, incapable of conducting political affairs.
However, that image is a distorted fantasy; it does not represent any sociological or political reality. Arguing that the groups who have recently staged violent demonstrations represent the entire Arab population is as absurd as claiming that white supremacist groups represent the American people or that the Norwegian right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is representative of Europeans.
The demonstrations that took place against the anti-Islamic video “Innocence of Muslims” involved small numbers of extremists; there were only about 3,000 in Tunisia. Counterprotests denouncing the violence also took place in Benghazi, Libya, after the killing of Ambassador Stevens; numerous Muslim leaders have implored believers not to respond to provocations; and no demonstration occurred last Friday, after a French newspaper published demeaning caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.
The attempts by journalists and anti-Islamic filmmakers to stage a sequel to the Danish cartoon controversy of 2006 are in vain. Most Tunisians firmly condemn the violence that took place against the United States embassies, even if they were personally offended by anti-Islamic provocations emanating from the United States and Europe.
They are frustrated by how this unnecessary uproar has made the struggle for what matters most to them more arduous: building new democratic institutions, creating jobs and halting the exodus of Tunisian boat people seeking a better life in Europe.
These are difficult tasks for any country, and the challenge is even greater for new democracies in the post-revolutionary Arab world. We are in a race against poverty. At this crucial moment, the West must not abandon us. It must continue to aid Tunisia in strengthening democracy and the rule of law, securing our borders to stop arms from reaching extremists, and creating economic opportunities that give our citizens hope.
Moncef Marzouki is Tunisia’s president.
(Source: The New York Times, September27, 2012)