Tunisian Professor Empowers Youth to Protect Them

  • Tunisian professor Mongia Nefzi Souahi participated in a recent Carter Center workshop on preventing violent extremism. (Photo: The Carter Center/A. Tardy)

    Tunisian professor Mongia Nefzi Souahi participated in a recent Carter Center workshop on preventing violent extremism. (Photo: The Carter Center/A. Tardy)

Mongia Nefzi Souahi, a professor at Zitouna University in Tunisia, knows what draws young people to violent extremism.

She spent much of the past year trying to insulate 100 at-risk young people in the town of Kasserine – which CNN has called “the Tunisian town where ISIS makes militants” – from the lure of jihadis.

The effort was an outgrowth of the Carter Center’s Inclusive Approaches to Preventing Violent Extremism project.

“The workshops have given me tools to know how to deal with young people who are prone to radicalization,” Souahi said. “I am an expert in terrorism and have been a professor dealing with these issues for 36 years, but the Carter Center experience has been a pioneering one. It has helped me develop my work.”

Souahi and two other professors started by giving a questionnaire to 300 young people identified by local advisors and choosing the 100 they deemed in most danger of radicalization.

Then they held interactive workshops on a variety of subjects: They taught them about Islamic civilization, about diversity, about cooperation and collaboration, about what the Quran says about coexistence and respect for others’ religious beliefs, about their roles and responsibilities in their families and communities.

They also introduced them to what Souahi called “the beautiful life” that many had never experienced by taking them to the beach, museums, and nice restaurants.

One of Souahi’s interventions involved theater. She gave them prompts – for example, “your sister has been recruited by extremists and you must change her mind” – and had them write and perform short plays with these themes.

“I empower the young people so that they can also be agents of change in their own families,” she said.

The project produced many success stories.

A young man who on the first day had told her that he was her enemy came to her at the end, kissed her forehead, and said she had saved him.

Two brothers, aged 19 and 20, who were on a path to radicalization turned their lives around after six months of working with Souahi – one became a carpenter and the other joined the Tunisian army.

A third young man – one she described as a thief and a terrorist – became a musician. At the project’s closing celebration earlier this year, he played the oud and sang a song about freedom that brought tears to her eyes.

Souahi has other projects in the pipeline, some working with young people and others with women. There is much to do. But she is confident that the grassroots approach that The Carter Center supports will pay big dividends.

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