Syria’s conflict is rich fodder for anti-Islamist propaganda

Hassan Hassan writes: Tunisia has recently required Syrians to obtain visas before they travel to Tunis. The reason for this change of policy has not been made public.

But according to Tunisian officials, the reason is related to Tunisian jihadis in Syria. Sources say that Damascus has refused to hand over the bodies of Tunisian fighters who died in battles against the Syrian regime. Damascus wants Tunis, in exchange for handing over the bodies, to reopen diplomatic channels with Syria, including the Syrian embassy there which was shut down by Tunisian authorities in February. Earlier this month, foreign ministry officials in Tunis publicly said they intend to hand over the closed embassy to the Syrian opposition’s National Coalition, clearly to pressure Damascus.

There are of course deeper issues involved. No country has dedicated more media coverage to the issue of jihadis flowing out of their region than Tunisia, where television channels host jihadi returnees almost on a weekly basis. Live on television they engage in intense discussions and interactions with the public. This has given the impression that Tunisians make up a majority of Syria’s foreign fighters.

There have also been media reports claiming that religious clerics from Tunisia had issued a fatwa permitting Muslim women to perform “sex jihad” in Syria. It claims that Muslim fighters in Syria could engage in sexual acts with consenting Muslim women to raise morale.

This fatwa turned out to be bogus; media first attributed it to the celebrity cleric Mohammed Al Arefe from Saudi Arabia, but he denied that. Reports then claimed the clerics who issued the fatwas were anonymous but “they are among those who are influenced by Saudi clerics”.

Yet even after the fatwa was disavowed, people still believed in it. At least 13 Tunisian female teenagers were reported to have travelled to Syria to perform religious duties. One television channel reported that a man divorced his wife after he decided to fight in Syria to enable her to perform her own jihad there.

It is understandable if media outlets loyal to the Syrian regime would try to portray the fight against it as driven by fanaticism and lust. But why would Tunisian media carry such clearly fabricated reports?

As elsewhere in the region, the opposition in Tunisia is increasingly using the Syrian uprising to settle scores at home. Reviewing the media reports that carried the fatwa shows that there is a clear focus on Tunisian Islamists who play a role in radicalising young people.

Aaron Zelin, an expert on jihadi groups at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the maximum number of foreign fighters to have fought in Syria over the course of the entire conflict is estimated to be 5,500 – but the numbers are probably lower.

Tunisian media, meanwhile, has reported that over 3,500 fighters from Tunisia have gone to Syria, driven by fatwas by Tunisian extremists. Clearly this figure is exaggerated. But the media focus on Tunisian radicals in Syria is meant to undermine the Islamist government at home more than anything else. [Continue reading…]

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