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Panel 2: The Quest for Social Justice in Jihadist Online Propaganda: The Case of Tunisia by Clara-Auguste Süß

 those countries that experienced the so-called Arab uprisings of 2010/11, Tunisia is the only one that has been called a ‘shining example’ of a successfully initiated transition to democracy. Yet at the same time, numerous violent groups have emerged and Islamist radicalization has been on the rise. This becomes apparent at two level of analysis: On the one hand, radicalization can be observed at the individual level, evident by the relatively high number of people joining violent Islamist groups in Tunisia as well as Tunisians traveling abroad to fight (as so-called foreign terrorist fighters). Furthermore, they often have played leading roles in jihadist networks in Europe or have been among the highest ranks of the so-called Islamic State (IS). On the other hand, radicalization also takes place at the group level. This includes Islamist groups that turn violent and/or change their repertoire of action, as well as Islamist groups that already use violent tactics, but are gaining members, supporters or importance. 

All this happened at a moment when Tunisia went through a fundamental shift concerning the relationship between politics and religion and the integration of Islamist actors into the political system. Salafist groups as well as the ‘moderate’ Islamist party al-Nahda were completely excluded from the political sphere during the Ben Ali era (1987-2011), whereas the new political context after the uprisings was characterized by openness and related participation opportunities. Islamist actors took the greatest advantage of these new opportunities: Al-Nahda came into power via democratic elections and became a key protagonist in Tunisia’s democratization, marking a shift from political exclusion to inclusion of Islamist actors. At the same time, militant Salafists promoted violent jihad and radical Islamist preachers openly called for a violent struggle against the existing order. 

While some scholars argue that democratizing states are especially prone to (violent) conflicts, other parts of academia suggest that this political opening should have led to a moderation of Islamist actors now being able to communicate dissent via participation in the political system, 

sometimes even considering democracy promotion and democratization as counterterrorism strategies. To make sense of these (at least at first glance) puzzling dynamics post-2011, persisting marginalization and its link to radicalization needs to be systematically taken into account, this paper argues: Tunisia faces high (youth) unemployment, extensive informal economies, and the neglect of areas such as the Tunisian-Libyan and Tunisian-Algerian border region. Socioeconomic grievances and perceptions of injustice have already been the main reasons for Tunisians to take to the streets in 2010/2011 – and despite the overthrow of the old regime, multidimensional marginalization persists. 

Overall, and taken the special context of democratization aside, most scholars agree that political, religious and socioeconomic marginalization presents a background against which radicalization in the MENA1 region and beyond may be more likely to occur. Several empirical observations further suggest a link between socioeconomic factors and Islamist radicalization: First, radical Islamist groups are dominant mostly in socioeconomically marginalized regions; second, most Islamist groups, including those who are willing to resort to violent means, combine their political actions with welfare activities and/or a rhetoric of social justice; and third, questions of social justice have always played an important role in the ideology and propaganda of Islamists. Given this long history of a social justice discourse in the context of (violent) Islamism, one could assume that a focus on framing processes would make an important contribution to explaining the mobilization of Islamist groups. 

Consequently, considering and comparatively analyzing the radical actors’ online activism via a frame analysis serves as a first step to shed light on the dynamics illustrated above. The respective groups’ online propaganda provides information about their ideas and perceptions on the role of grievances and the state in (internal) collective action frames, mobilization and recruitment activities. Besides examining and analyzing the transported narratives and frames in general, the paper thereby focuses on the radical groups’ discursive referrals to the Tunisian state, the current political transition, and marginalization in their online output. (How) Do the radical actors themselves deliberatively link social (in)equality and related grievances to their actions? Drawing on the rich research literature on radicalization, mobilization, and social movement theory, the paper thus aims at providing insights into online material, mainly originating from Tunisian jihadist groups. 

While doing so, the paper is based on a broad understanding of marginalization (i.e., objectively identifiable and perceived marginalization) and a narrow definition of radicalization that focuses on violent forms of Islamist radicalization (e.g., leaving for combat zones, supporting and joining jihadist groups, and changes/intensification in the groups’ repertoires of actions). 

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