Tunisia closes mosques 'spreading venom:' Will that stop terrorist attacks?

Prime Minister Habib Essid said 80 mosques will be shut down within a week following Friday's terrorist attack at a beachside hotel.

Darko Vojinovic/AP
Flowers at the scene of a shooting in Sousse, Tunisia on Saturday, June 27, 2015.

Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid announced a security clampdown on mosques Saturday after a terrorist attack at a beachside hotel killed 38 people, including eight British tourists. 

The tragedy follows a mass shooting earlier this year, in which two gunmen stormed the country’s Bardo National Museum and killed 22 people. The Islamic State (aka ISIS) claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Prime Minister Essid accused some mosques of “spreading venom” and said about 80 will be shut down within a week, reports the BBC. He also called for the examination of funding of organizations suspected of promoting radicalism.

As part of tighter security measures, Army reservists will be deployed to Tunisia's archaeological sites and resorts.        

Essid said the aim of extremists was to damage the economy and derail Tunisia’s democratic transition. Revenue from the tourism industry comprises 15.2 percent of the nation’s GDP.

According to the BBC, many Tunisians are asking why stricter security measures had not already been put in place following the museum attack in March.

How effective is Tunisia's move to close mosques likely to be?

Other nations, including Egypt, have taken similar steps. But most experts say that simply muzzling extremist imams isn't enough. Closing mosques must be part of a broader strategy that may include such steps as enlisting the help of Muslims to reject violence and alert authorities to those who would kill innocents in the name of Islam.

This year, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi closed down 27,000 mosques, upholding the Ministry of Religious Endowments’ 2013 decision to eliminate neighborhood mosques of less than 80 square meters.

According to Foreign Policy, Sisi thought unsupervised Mosques run by the Muslim Brotherhood had allowed the group to thrive and promote extremism.

Intellectuals who believed mosques outside the state’s purview threatened national security welcomed the measure. But some said that it was short-sighted because larger existing mosques couldn’t accommodate additional Friday worshippers. 

Egypt also issued about 400 permits to Salafists, who promised not to use Friday prayers for political purposes. A follow-up committee was formed to oversee new Imams during Friday prayers and cancel their permits should they divert from government regulations.

Georges Fami, a research fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said such an expansive law would be difficult to enforce.

“You will have a parallel religious sphere where people don’t go to the mosques because they think the mosques only tell us what the state would like us to hear, so they go to private meetings,” Fahmi said. “Once you have this parallel market, radical ideas can spread much more quickly, because you have no control.”

Earlier this year, British Prime Minister David Cameron, also revealed new anti-terrorism measures, which included state powers to close mosques used by extremists.

On Wednesday, the French parliament adopted a controversial surveillance law to seek out terrorism suspects.

The American Civil Liberties Union notes “wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing a beard,” abstaining from alcohol” and “becoming involved in social activism” is enough to warrant surveillance in the US.

This government response, the ACLU finds, leads to stigma and community fear.

The Brookings Institution argues the global effort to end terrorism must work with Muslims to “convince potential terrorists that Islam requires them to reject terrorism.” It also highlights community-based approaches, which include Muslim organizations treating violent extremism as a public health matter.

Safe Spaces, a program by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, relies on prevention through healthy communities, intervention, similar to counseling, and notifying law enforcement – should the first two options fail. 

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