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Could Unions Help Defeat ISIS?

A study looking at two very similar Tunisian towns, one with union activity and one without, has yielded an interesting idea.

Workers at a May Day rally in Tunis (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s the best way to fight terrorism? As the United States withdraws from Afghanistan and Syria, shifting from the unending War on Terror to the no less unending “Great Power competition” with China and Russia, a definitive answer to that question remains as elusive as it was when the U.S. dropped its first advance team north of Kabul in 2001. 

Countries in the Middle East, however, continue to suffer more terrorist attacks each year than any other region. And from gender norms to organized crime, researchers have begun identifying a host of seemingly unlikely factors influencing terror networks’ growth. 

This month, a new study from Michael Marcusa in CUNY’s Comparative Politics journal suggested a particularly unusual area to focus on: labor unions. Marcusa looked at two towns in Tunisia that both appear to be perfect recruiting grounds for extremism, but have seen dramatically different outcomes.

On the surface, the towns of Métlaoui and Sidi Bouzid are much the same. Both have sizable populations for Tunisian towns: 38,129 and 48,284 people, respectively. Both have high unemployment levels: 21.72 percent in Sidi Bouzid and 35.48 percent in Métlaoui. Most worryingly from a counter-terror perspective, people between 20 and 40 years old make up over 80 percent of the unemployed in both towns. Despite these similarities, they have taken remarkably different trajectories.

After the Arab Spring, sparked by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid, jihadist-salafists were successful in taking over the mosques of the town, installing imams who helped spread an extremist ideology with real-world impact. Sidi Bouzid became a prominent exporter of Tunisian terrorist recruits: An analysis of Islamic State border documents by Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy found 23 of the Islamic State’s foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria originated in Sidi Bouzid, with only one coming from Métlaoui. Of those killed in Syria, Zelin found 12 fighters came from Sidi Bouzid, and none from Métlaoui.

In Métlaoui, despite bleak economic prospects, the ideological revolution that took place in Sidi Bouzid failed to materialize. Extremists existed in the town, but the local population mostly didn’t find their ideology appealing: When jihadi-salafists tried to take over a large mosque in the town, Marcusa found, they were seen off by a posse of sword-brandishing residents. So what makes Métlaoui special?

Métlaoui has been a mining town ever since large phosphate deposits, commonly used in fertilizer, were discovered there in 1896. Following the breakdown of Tunisia’s tribal system under French colonial land reforms, the new mine rebound the old clans around their shared interest in the jobs the state-owned mine could generate. And that, in turn, led to what Marcusa thinks may have been a pivotal development: Over time, Métlaoui workers created unions and syndicates to represent their interests—effectively developing systems of opposition that challenged authority in a way that wasn’t possible in Sibid Bouzid. Unlike other towns, where resistance to colonial authority meant violence and banditry, Métlaoui’s residents developed a more restrained approach—using negotiation and strategy to seek concessions. A 1930s folk poem from Métlaoui lauds this approach with the line “Oh how sweet the strike is, for we’ve come and taken our right with it!” Productive and peaceful modes of rebellion which yield concrete results, Marcusa told me, make all the difference: “The fundamental thing which seems to stem the tide of jihadism is the idea of trying to go directly for securing material benefits rather than more symbolic benefits.”

In the present day, the memory of Métlaoui’s organizing history has led to nonviolent forms of resistance, despite a high unemployment rate. In 2018, dozens of unemployed youth blockaded the phosphate mine, demanding jobs and voicing frustration with the mine’s hiring practices. The protestors shut down production for six weeks which led the Tunisian government to suspend 1,700 prospective hires in an attempt to ease tensions. These “strikes,” according to Marcusa, are influenced by the same activism these young people had seen their parents engage in.

“You have to understand that you’re talking to someone who’s looking for a fight,” Marcusa said. “One way they can fight is through the jihadi way and one way they can fight is through actually organizing, putting out demands, and negotiating and trying to actually do something productive. So the challenge is helping them have the conflict in the most productive way, for both them and society.”

To show a clear trend, Marcusa would ideally want to find towns to compare the Métlaoui/Sidi Bouzid divergence to outside Tunisia. But that’s difficult to do in other areas struggling with Jihadi-Salafism, as the labor movement has traditionally been repressed in those countries. Unlike Tunisia, where 670,000 workers went on strike just last week, other countries across the Middle East do not have the same unbroken history of labor activism.

In oil-rich Iraq, the country that in 2017 suffered more terrorist attacks than any other nation, one would expect to find many Métlaoui-type towns: Iraq has a long labor history, with union support instrumental to its independence in 1958. However, the labor movement there is only recently showing signs of strength and rebirth after a long period of suppression under Saddam Hussein, as well as the flood of corruption and mismanagement that followed the U.S. invasion in 2003. 

Iraq’s sweeping changes to its labor laws in 2015, including the country’s first sexual harassment protections and reinstating the formerly banned right to strike, represent progress. But Saddam’s shadow remains–the continued prohibition of unionizing among civil servants means it’s still not living up to the International Labor Organization standards of freedom of association it ratified in June 2018. Considering that Iraq’s public sector employs over 40 percent of the country’s working age population, that represents a significant number of silenced voices.

Labor unions’ effectiveness in Iraq can be illustrated by the enemies they have made. Soon after the invasion of Iraq, Hadi Saleh, the head of the newly-formed Iraqi Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU)–its largest union federation–was murdered by insurgents in his home. When ISIS invaded Mosul in 2014, they stormed IFTU offices. Years of U.S. State Department Human Rights reports show the labor movement sounding the alarm on the Iraqi state’s deep corruption. The same reports show multiple instances of the state interfering with union work and in many cases raiding union offices.

“[Iraq’s unions] are used to shouting—not in a bad way, but loudly—in order to inform the government: We are your friends. We are not your enemy. We want to work with you in order to build democracy, in order to have proper industries that work for everybody,” said Abdullah Muhsin, an activist in Iraq’s post-war labor movement who is now an international officer for the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) in the UK.

To Muhsin, the nonsectarian nature of union organizing is a clear antidote to the divisions that have riven the country. The government’s anti-union stance is, among other things, an obstacle in fighting extremism. “If unions were allowed to do their job and be considered as a partner,” Muhsin told me, “we would not have seen these problems. Because unions are working from below, they are workers, they are in factories, in schools, in communities, they have eyes everywhere.”

Muhsin isn’t alone in thinking strong civic organizations can make a difference fighting extremism. During the Obama Administration, a core pillar of “Countering Violent Extremism” or CVE, (the catch-all term for addressing terrorism’s root causes) was the need to strengthen civil society, from women’s groups to marginalized communities and organized labor. The term “civil society” has cropped up in  every president’s national security strategy post 9/11. What the term lacks is specificity—where exactly to focus in civil society. And that’s the gap studies like Marcusa’s seek to fill.

Heba El-Shazli, a professor at George Mason University’s School of Policy, Government and International Affairs (SPGIA) said that the lack of attention to unions today differs from policy in previous decades, citing U.S. support for the Solidarity movement in Poland during the Cold War. A 28-year veteran of international labor issues, El-Shazli lamented unionism’s relative absence from today’s foreign policy debate, “It’s really outrageous that it’s just not on the radar. It really is.” She wonders whether the overall decline of unions as a power in American society today means that policymakers no longer consider their strengths overseas. If so, however, that’s “short-sighted,” she told me.

It’s too simplistic to say that more union activity will vanquish extremism in the Middle East, but there’s ample evidence at this point that this and similar approaches might help. Inserting these findings into foreign policy is a matter of politics. Republican administrations have not traditionally been strong union supporters, but such recent research might interest the ascendant and vocal progressive wing of the Democratic party, who have previously been criticized for being insufficiently focused on international affairs.

Encouraging countries explicitly to support their unions might seem to some like a pie in the sky idea. But after almost $6 trillion spent on an unwinnable war, and with ever-decreasing appetite in the United States for military solutions, surely it’s worth trying something new.