Why ISIS cannot win

March 25, 2016

On March 18th one year ago Tunisians were glued to their television sets watching the unfolding drama at the Bardo National Museum. Just next to the parliament building, Islamic State (ISIS) terrorists were randomly shooting foreign tour­ists.

Since then, the museum — renowned for one of the largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world — has reopened to visitors.

On the first anniversary of the massacre, a large mosaic stood defiantly in the same place where the motionless bodies of murdered tourists had lain in pools of blood. The new fresco immortalises the names and faces of the 23 victims of the attack — 21 tourists, one police officer and Akil, the police dog that bravely chased the terrorists.

The artistic memorial goes a long way towards showcasing the power of art and culture to illustrate the resilience of civilisation in the face of nihilistic terror.

ISIS, also known as Daesh, has a particular problem with museums and ancient monuments. In February 2015, it targeted for destruction artefacts of Iraq’s Mosul museum.

The terror group is intolerant of anything that does not conform to its narrow vision of the world, whether pre-Islamic churches and temples or Muslim mosques and Sufi shrines. Salafist radicals claim such monuments promote idolatry and contradict their supposedly puritanical vision of the faith. So their followers have consistently wrought havoc on archaeo­logical sites in Syria’s Palmyra and Raqqa and elsewhere.

ISIS cannot compete with the creative spirit of mankind. It underestimates the yearning of the Arab world for modernity and pride in its historical roots. As an advocate of conflict of civilisations, it cannot fathom the desire of young Arabs to engage the world.

A repaired and reopened museum that continues to promote a universal vision of history and attract visitors from all over the world is both the Arab world’s and humanity’s best response to terror. And it is ISIS’s worst nightmare.

Jihadist groups assume they can channel the frustrations of young people, deprived of hope, jobs and a sense of belonging, towards the evil ends of their nihilistic endeavour.

As a force of destruction, ISIS in particular thrives on exploiting divisions and conflicts within society. It carries out its plans when there is a propitious climate of civil strife amplified by deep fraying of authority.

In Ben Guerdane, a small town in southern Tunisian, it might have met the antithesis of that climate. Instead of supporting ISIS assailants when they attacked on March 7th, local inhabit­ants joined the police and army in hunting the Daesh fugitives. Without concern for their own safety, they stayed in the streets, helping security forces and cheering them on through­out the clashes. They used social media to relay messages rejecting ISIS.

Ben Guerdane’s inhabitants belied Daesh’s expectations. They showed they had a stake in the peace and security of their hometown and that economic hardship and marginalisa­tion do not prevent citizens from defending their country when barbarians are at the gates.

The fearless support Ben Guerdane’s men and women lent to their country’s security forces needs not be an exception in the Arab world.

When government troops show a will to stand up to the enemy and fight, they can expect their people to be on their side. And that can make a difference.