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Radical Islam on the Rise in Tunisia

Tunisia is the poster child for the Arab Spring in many ways. Not only is it the country where the revolts against authoritarianism began; it has also long been considered among the most Westernized and secularized of the Arab countries. When Islamists were defeated in the country’s first free elections, Tunisia looked like a place where something Europeans and North Americans might easily recognize as a democracy could take hold.

But even in Tunisia, radical Islam seems to be making gains. The New York Times reports that Salafist groups promoting an extreme, fundamentalist version of Islam have taken control of more than 500 mosques, sparking a prolonged conflict between radical Islamists and the new Tunisian state:

Revolution freed the country’s estimated 5,000 officially sanctioned mosques from the rigid controls of the previous government, which appointed every prayer leader and issued lists of acceptable topics for their Friday sermons.

That system pushed a moderate, apolitical model of Islam that avoided confronting a dictator. When the system collapsed last year, ultraconservative Salafis seized control of up to 500 mosques by government estimates. The government, a proponent of a more temperate political Islam, says it has since wrested back control of all but 70 of the mosques, but acknowledges it has not yet routed the extremists nor thwarted their agenda.

This poses a serious challenge for the Tunisian government, but the roots of the problem lie elsewhere. One problem for any moderate government in the region, Islamist or secular, is that the economic outlook is not good. Europe is stuck on a low-growth track. Competition in manufactured goods from East Asia is tough, and few think any Arab country can prosper as a manufacturing powerhouse the way so many countries in Asia have done. For countries that don’t have a lot of oil and gas, the options are few. Tourism can be helpful, but tourism cannot serve as the only healthy industry for a national economy.

The core problem in the Middle East is a rising population for which no jobs or opportunities exist. As long as that remains true, moderates will struggle to stay in power.

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