Salafi Youth in Tunisia – De-radicalisation from Within as the Only Way Out

In Tunisia true diversity within political Islamism exists. While some followers, such as Salafists, may hold puritanical views that date back to the practices of early historical Muslims, others support the idea of a moderate Islamic State – where Islam influences the law, but does not literally dictate it. Salafism is a conservative offshoot of Islam that is continuing to gain momentum in Tunisia. Most Salafists believe that a modern Islamic state should still follow strict Sharia law. However, followers of Salafism differ on their beliefs of how one should go about accomplishing this.

Under Ben Ali’s regime the Tunisian government had violently repressed Islamists. In particular, Ben Ali’s anti-terrorism law of 2003 led to thousands of arrests and cases of torture. In addition, Ben Ali’s neoliberal policies had created high rates of unemployment and poverty, especially among the youth who became disaffected with the political authorities, refusing any participation in politics. After the fall of Ben Ali, with the objective of reclaiming their identity, many young Tunisians, men and women, became radicalised through self-investigating their previous experiences of subjugation by the old regime. In other words, instead of legitimising the existing identity imposed on them by the dictator Ben Ali, many Tunisians decided for themselves what image they wanted to identify with and consequently defend. Hence, paradoxically, by continuously repressing Islam in the political as well as public sectors, the Tunisian government fostered the creation of a new and more extreme form of Islamism.

Able to freely articulate their Salafi identity and not yet having generated enough experience to question the validity and the applicability of their new ethical truth, radical youth became very concerned with the stylisation as well as the practical implementation of their new identity. Thus, while men raised beards and changed their praying methods, women started wearing the Niqab and stopped shaking hands with men.

However, by late 2013 and early 2014, Salafis once again became the target of security forces, and were subject to unlawful persecution and imprisonment. Freedom of public engagement and activism became increasingly restricted. As a response to state repression and interpersonal experiences within the Salafi community, many young Tunisians started to question their radical Salafi identity. Not only did they question the role of the state and its security apparatuses in inflaming violence; they also questioned the dangers of the jihadi strategy itself. They started to challenge the trustworthiness of Jihadis and criticised the negative effects jihadi strategy had on their Salafi identity.

Dr. Aitemad Muhanna-Matar conducted research into the radicalization and de-radicalization experiences of Salafi Youth in Tunisia through a series of interviews. Notably, it was not a change in government policy nor help from NGOs that resulted in their de-radicalization, but rather from their own involvement with jihadi groups. One male interviewee stated that he started to rethink the politics of Salafism after he felt threatened from within jihadi organizations as a result of his unwillingness to engage in violence. A female interviewee who was arrested for supporting jihadists began to distance herself from Salafis when they failed to support her on her return from prison.

What is important to note is that the de-radicalization of Salafi youth in Tunisia came from within. Only from personal reflection on their participation with other radicalized individuals and their engagement with radical ideas could they de-radicalize. However, this reflection was not a purely individualistic task – it was deeply connected with other radical Salafis, and was dependent on the changing social and political context.

State-led rehabilitation is often the chosen approach by governments for de-radicalization. Such efforts often fail given the reliance on faulty assumptions, just as in the case of Saudi Arabia’s. Erroneous generalizations that radical youth are vulnerable and incapable of thinking rationally leads to an ineffective strategy of state intervention. Radicalized youth can circumvent state rehabilitation to get released. State intervention instead drives radicalized groups underground, leading to the opposite outcome. Fear of government crackdowns against those that do not adhere to a state sponsored interpretation and vision of Islam stifles the freedom to experiment with alternative means of political engagement.

Instead of state-led rehabilitation, a more effective strategy for rehabilitation into society is to avoid isolation and promote engagement with the public. This can be done by encouraging de-radicalized Salafists to be involved in public activism. There should be a balance of power in the religious sphere that allows all non-violent religious actors a voice, including de-radicalized Salafis. In turn, these de-radicalized Salafis can share their experience of de-radicalization with others through state and non-governmental platforms. The coordination of both government and NGO actors can ensure a more cooperative approach to counter extremism that includes the knowledge and understanding of individuals who were previously involved in radical groups. By moving away from the wrongful assumptions that radicalized youth are vulnerable and incapable, they can be provided with the opportunities to critically reflect on their Islamic identity.

Anne Siebenaler and Marina Zabelina are editors of the Education Policy Centre at King’s Think Tank.

The Personal Challenge of Female Genital Mutilation in Practice

We should all be anti-FGM activists, but our activism needs to be in the community not in our consultations.

The issue of female genital mutilation (FGM) has been one that has risen in the public consciousness over recent years. The Serious Crimes Act 2015, consolidated and extended previous legislation targeting the practice; placing an obligation on healthcare professionals, social workers and teachers to notify police if they believe children under their care are vulnerable to FGM.1 Within healthcare, what does the law require from professionals and how should healthcare workers be expected to handle such cases?

Firstly, a brief overview of what FGM is. In short, any procedure to remove part of or all of the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons is classified as FGM. There are many assumptions and prejudices that are common in discourse surrounding FGM and it is important to address these.

The ‘non-medical’ aspect of FGM is vital as it has no health benefits whatsoever (I will come back to this shortly).2 Labels such as ‘female circumcision’, although more palatable than ‘mutilation’, are incorrect as circumcision suggests potential health gains, which in the case of FGM there are emphatically none. Furthermore, the label ‘circumcision’ has a sanitising effect which is damaging. Language is powerful, and unless we make an effort to call it what it is, how can we effectively demonstrate that this is an assault on young women? Traditionally the practice was carried out by prominent local community members however, in recent years there has been an alarming rise in the number of medical professionals around the world who perform the procedure.3 Not only is this worrying with regards to Hippocratic non-maleficence, but undoubtedly this only serves to further legitimise the practice amongst those who seek it.

There is also an assumption that FGM not only has a cultural basis but a religious one also. This too is incorrect, with no religious canon sanctioning it. Although FGM is practiced in parts of the world where Islam is prevalent, it is not an Islamic custom. FGM is common amongst Christians also. While FGM does not originate from faith, many faith leaders promote it in the parts of the world where it is common, to devastating effect.3, 4 Particularly in today’s climate, as health professionals it is important to make this distinction between eastern faith and eastern cultural practices. FGM is cultural.

Advocates of FGM suggest that it prepares girls for marriage and protects them from sexual promiscuity. Indeed, in some cultures men refuse to marry women who have not been mutilated (I know it’s not easy to read that word, but again, language is important in our advocacy) believing it to be an indication that she may not be a virgin or be unclean.5 Although this practice historically has origins in authoritative patriarchy, women are often advocates of FGM with many mother’s insisting that their daughters be mutilated, even though they bear the physical and mental scars of having been mutilated themselves.4 This epitomises how deep the cultural roots of FGM are and the significance it holds amongst its supporters. People genuinely believe that this practice is in the interests of the people they love. Despite the trauma it may cause and the trauma it caused them themselves, as based on their value system they feel duty bound to ensure that their daughters are mutilated because, they believe it to be of the upmost benefit. Families do not do this to their children out of malice but paradoxically out of love. This is important to be aware of when encountering families who are supportive of FGM.

The original questions of what the law requires and how health professionals should be expected to handle cases of suspected FGM, is an issue which needs further examination.

 FGM for many health professionals, in parts of the world where FGM is culturally alien, is a very emotionally provocative issue. And indeed in a previous post Rani Chowdhary eloquently presented a call to arms to address this on a community level. What I suggest now may be uncomfortable for some, but I believe that it is important in how within a health context, we address this practice amongst our patients effectively. I encourage us all to become active anti-FGM campaigners, let us just remember that our personal views, emotions and activism has no place in the consultation room. Our patients require our professional services and our humanity. A distinction needs to be made between the cultural practice and the patient in front of us. When dealing with a victim of FGM in our clinics, surgeries, hospitals and schools we should have one concern and one concern only: the girl or woman’s health.

When treating our patients who have suffered from FGM, what is required of us is to attend to the patient’s medical (physical and mental) needs that arise out of this non-medical procedure.6 Let us attend to the patient medically, remembering that she does not need to be burdened with our horror at what has happened to her. Remembering she too may sincerely believe that what has happened to her was both important and necessary. Remembering that there is a vast social web surrounding this event and the people responsible for what happened are likely to be the people she cares most about.

I would like to stress that I am not advocating shedding safeguarding responsibilities. If your patient is a child, this is a criminal offence and the case must always be referred to the police and social services,1 and the department of health has a clear algorithm on how to escalate the situation.7 For the women we encounter we need to do our utmost to ensure that she has access to all the support that is available. As healthcare professionals though, the extent to which we need to deal with the criminal aspect is by making that referral.  As healthcare professionals what our patient requires of us is our expertise to treat her medically. If we feel moved towards activism for changes on a social level, all the better. But that can only start when she leaves the consultation room.

John Bartoli-Abdou is a research pharmacist and PhD candidate in the Institute of Pharmaceutical Science. His research focusses on adherence to medication. He has a special interest in global health and development and has previously spent time working in Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria


  1. Mandatory Reporting of Female Genital Mutilation – procedural information [Internet]; c2016 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:
  2. Sunday-Adeoye I, Serour G. Management of health outcomes of female genital mutilation: Systematic reviews and evidence syntheses. Int J Gynaecol Obstet 2017 Feb;136 Suppl 1:1-2.
  3. Global strategy to stop health-care providers from performing female genital mutilation [Internet]; c2010 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:
  4. Female Genital Mutilation: Caring for patients and safeguarding children. Guidance from the British Medical Association [Internet]; c2011 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:
  5. Men’s and women’s perceptions of the relationship between female genital mutilation and women’s sexuality in three communities in Egypt: Social science policy brief [Internet]; c2010 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:
  6. WHO guidelines on the management of health complications from female genital mutilation [Internet]; c2016 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:
  7. FGM mandatory reporting duty: guidance for healthcare professionals [Internet]; c2017 [cited 2017 02/28]. Available from:


Say it like it is: The Sun and last year’s prison riots

On 16th December last year, rioting broke out in HMP Birmingham. The incident, ‘which lasted for more than 12 hours’, is one of a spate of riots in other prisons across the country, with similar disruption occurring at HMP Swaleside on 22/12/16 and HMP Bedford last November.[1] Amongst a fairly balanced assessment of these events across all other major news publications, The Sun’s sensationalist coverage of disorder in UK prisons in December last year encourages popular support for a failing and needlessly punitive prison estate, perpetuating grave inadequacies in our justice system. Such reportage achieves this by extricating the Ministry of Justice of blame for prison disorder and unfairly vilifying the prison population.

Reporting on riot at HMP Birmingham, The Sun described the prison as ‘LOUT OF CONTROL’, referring to rioting prisoners as ‘tooled-up lags’.[2] The same The Sun headline flippantly states that the riot took place because of a ‘broken telly’.[3]

By focusing solely on the immediate causes of this riot and using pejorative terms such as ‘lout’ and ‘lag’, The Sun have presented their readership with a grave misunderstanding of the deeper-lying causes of last December’s disorder. Instead of putting the riot down to the mindless violence of ‘louts’ angry about a ‘broken telly’, The Sun should investigate the chronic underfunding and overcrowding of UK prisons, which is widely known to be the root cause of the riots. Due to lack of staff and rocketing prison numbers, prisoners have little opportunity to engage in meaningful activity such as academic study or training during their sentences, with many locked in overpopulated cells for 23 hours a day. In The Telegraph, Diane Abbott went so far as to say that such conditions made such rioting inevitable, describing the British prison system as ‘a timebomb’.[4]

Such irresponsible journalism fuels misconceptions of UK’s prisons and prisoners to the public. Despite a brief mention of understaffing and the very end of the article, one need look no further than the comments section to see the pernicious effects of how The Sun has framed the riot, with some readers calling for a return of the death penalty and deeming the UK’s prisons ‘holiday camps’.[5]

This climate of hostility towards prisoners generated by sensationalist journalism serves to fuel the political will to lock more and more people up in understaffed UK prisons, as well as garnering public support for a more punitive criminal justice system. Shami Chakrabarti, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General, has dubbed UK prison policy a longstanding ‘authoritarian arms race’ between Labour and Conservatives; each party trying, until Chakrabarti’s statement, to be “tougher” on crime than the other.[6] This shift toward a punitive prison system in recent decades has seen the prison population increase beyond the means of its facilities and has made prisons unsafe, with rates of violence towards prison staff, prisoners and suicides high and rising. These effects bring about the most salient causes of rioting.

The power of “fake news” to shape public opinion in the US presidential election has shown us that the need for responsible and measured journalism has never been greater. It is high time that the public learned the unadulterated truth about the state of the country’s prisons. A better-informed public would work to put an end to the shameful conditions that precipitated these riots instead of encouraging punitive justice policies.

William Farmer studies MA Conflict, Security and Development at KCL. He writes about criminal justice policy and African politics.




[3] Ibid.




Feature image from:

Notes from a Participant: Future of Bioscience? Post-Brexit Reality

The event hosted jointly by King’s Think Tank and KCL Bioscience Student’s Association entitled “Future of Biosciences? – Post-Brexit Reality” invited two expert panellists from distinct fields within the Biosciences to share with the audience about how they perceive the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU.

The first panellist, Sir Robert Lechler, Vice President and Executive Director of King’s Health Partners, spoke from the point of view of academia. After presenting about the current excellence of the UK in the Biosciences, he summarised his  concerns under “4Ps”. Dr Virginia Acha, Executive Director Research, Medical and Innovation at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, introduced current actions taken to address these upcoming issues.

Their opinion on the challenges of Brexit often converged, borrowing the “4Ps” from Sir Robert Lechler:

  • Pound (money, trade and funding): funding for research, but also the supply chain for patients and medicine could be affected.
  • Permission (Regulations): the relationship between the EMA and the UK Regulatory bodies will be altered, with most probably alignment.
  • Partnerships (Research): a key point is how to maintain partnerships in research with potentially new borders.
  • People: access to talents was presented as the most important issue from both panellists.

Both panellists gave a clear picture of the context and current state of affairs from each of their fields, which allowed constructive discussion when it came to questions. The inputs from the audience were indeed stimulating for both the panellists, and highlighted different perspectives on Brexit for everyone in the venue.

The fact that concerns surrounding Brexit are similar for both academics and practitioners in the industry is interesting, and the discussion today made us realise how close the two are in the Biosciences. Participants were made aware that access to academia does have a strong impact on industry, particularly through partnerships in Bioscience research. For students (especially those from the EU), this challenge also sheds new light on their future career prospects.

Sophie-Asako Xerri is an undergraduate student at the School of Bioscience Education, King’s College London.