Meet the Imam using art to challenge violent extremism Find out how religious leaders are playing a powerful role in combating violent extremism in Tunisia

Mohamed Bessi Ibrahim walks into Al-Zitouna Mosque. Wearing a well-fitted blue suit and a big wristwatch, his confidence takes over the room.

He is 37 years old, a teacher and an informatics expert. He has also been a religious scholar for almost 13 years. His main concern is engaging, as a religious leader, with the youth.

"Unfortunately, some religious institutions outside Tunisia put a lot of money and effort into propagating a religious discourse that incites hate, sectarianism, and extremism. Young people in Tunisia open their Facebook page and Youtube accounts and directly encounter this propaganda,” says Mohamed.

Mohamed says that the problem in Tunisia is that outside the Mosques, there is only a narrow space in the media available for religious leaders like me, and we lack effective channels to deliver our message.

As an Imam, he has seen the dangers of the radicalization of young people first hand. Between 2012 and 2015, Tunisia was witnessing radicalization throughout the country. In this period Mohamed was an Imam in a marginalized neighborhood of the capital.

"Two young men asked me if they should go to Syria for Jihad. After prayer, I sat with them and debated on the legitimacy of individual Jihad. I explained that what's happening in Syria is not Jihad and there's no religious legitimacy for war”.

The Government of Tunisia estimated that at least 3,000 nationals left to join terrorist groups abroad, 600 of which have returned to Tunisia and 800 have been killed while fighting. Most of them went to join Daesh in Syria, Libya and Iraq. To Mohamed's relief, the two young men didn’t go. Now they are in their early 30s and he still has a good relationship with both of them. “I follow and support their lives, and they are becoming successful in their studies, one got married and has kids”, says Mohamed Bessi.

But he keeps wondering “What if I had given them the wrong advice? What if I had been afraid to tell them not to go to Syria, and kept silent? What would have happened to these two young people? Who would have been responsible for their death, their tragic destiny?”, Mohamed explains.

Mohamed has an unstoppable will to spread a positive message of tolerance to young people. He uses art as his main tool. He has a theater club and does rap songs that he shares on YouTube. He challenges traditional ways of preaching but stands his ground.

“There are a lot of religious leaders in Tunisia that despise and oppose the arts. That’s very unfortunate because art can serve as an effective channel to deliver positive messages. Religious leaders should renew and renovate their messages to engage young people in Tunisia.”
“We must reform and renew how we communicate. If we just stick with old ways, like only the Friday prayer, we won't reach all the young people who need us.”

Mohammed joined 44 other religious leaders from 24 governorates to attend training on strategic communications and campaigning by Hedayah, the International Center of Excellence for Countering Violent Extremism.

Excited, Mohamed Bessi gave a teaser of his new campaign: “The core idea is to spread awareness amongst Tunisian students about the threats of violent extremism and how to deal with them. We will use rap, theatrical performances, and TEDx speeches." Watch this space.


Images by Paula González