Adapted from the broadcast audio segment; use the audio player to listen to the story in its entirety.
Last month's tragedies in Libya and Tunisia underscore that the spread of weapons in a culture of violence makes for a lethal cocktail. Some North African youth want to fight this rising trend, not by force, but through education and cultural change.
A day of rage against the United States in the Muslim world as fury mounts over an American film that insults the prophet Muhammad. In Tunisia, at least three people are killed after police opened fire near the US embassy...Outside Washington, US president Barack Obama attended a somber ceremony. The bodies of Americans killed in Libya were returned home.
Amid riots region-wide, on FM radio in Tunisia, a voice of reason.
"Those extremists who are using violence to protest the anti-Islamic film, they are the ones who vilify Islam through their own vile example," says Hazem Sqouri.
Hazem Skouri is referring to the anti-islamic YouTube film that ignited passions across the Arab world. He’s founder of the “Free Tunisia Association,” a non-profit that aims to stem the roots of war and terrorism by promoting a culture of nonviolence.
Hazem Sqouri says: "Even during the period of the prophet Muhammad himself, peace and blessings be upon him, his opponents already were trying to incite against him, to vilify him. This phenomenon is nothing new for us. But, we should be strong enough today to wage a strong response -- and a strong response is not to resort to violence, but to express ourselves peacefully. To come together as Muslims and share what we love about the prophet Muhammad with the rest of the world.
At a recent convention for non-profit groups in Tunis, Hazem and his staff of seven volunteer twenty-somethings work the crowd, passing out business cards.
They look like any other crew of savvy Arab youth activists, but their somber mission of combating weapons proliferation stands out somehow in the hall full of charity groups, job trainers, and women’s empowerment initiatives. Hazem is different -- because Hazem is haunted.
Hazem is haunted by the death of his closest friends last year to the gunfire of an ex-dictator’s police force. 219 protesters died before the fall of Tunisian ex-President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011 -- 219 more than Hazem could bare.
Hazem Skouri says: "It was a watershed moment in my life to see many of my closest friends wounded and some killed. I watched them falling to the ground without reason, without any moral reckoning. And though, certainly, the regime fell too, we knew that a different kind of danger was on its way as weapons were spreading freely throughout the country.
Sqouri’s fears bucked the trend of euphoria on Arab streets and around the world, which Americans remember from TV news coverage of the Arab spring.
Hazem Skouri says: "It’s our dream that Tunisia be free -- but just the fall of a regime doesn’t get us the democracy Tunisians want. We’re the generation that has to struggle for it.
Skouri founded his group within within weeks of the Ben Ali regime’s fall. Even as it was was getting started, new regimes were falling, and the challenge of stemming violence in North Africa was growing.
Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafiq Hariri Center for the Middle East, says: "The weapons that people stole out of stockpiles in Libya during the chaos of the uprising and revolution there have found their way into a number of other countries. Tunisia and Egypt have been extremely concerned. The security forces there turned their attention away from the borders and into the cities, and it’s been a major challenge for them to control arms.
In Egypt, as well as Tunisia, the months after the revolution saw a spike in violent crime, and the formation of new armed Islamist groups. Many Tunisians, especially those opposed to Islamism, began calling for a new security crackdown as the crime wave spiked. But, not Hazem Sqouri. He says: "I worked as a defense attorney before the revolution, on a large number of counter-terrorism cases. On some cases, we would work late into the night. Looking at the files, you might see for example that a client was accused of involvement with terrorism just for having prayed in a certain place, and maybe he would spend 15 years in prison for it. Yet, you were supposed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The Atlantic Council’s Michele Dunne says: "I think the lawyers who would undertake these defenses would face an extremely frustrating situation, and would themselves be considered enemies of the government and fall under pressure.
Sqouri’s unusual background insulated him from false nostalgia about Tunisia’s dictatorial past. The freedom he has been calling for instead is one in which political and religious leaders restrain themselves from enabling violence -- and Sqouri’s organization convenes educational sessions to teach them how to do it.
Hazem Sqouri says: "Our goal is to move people from the logic of hostility to the logic of rivalry -- not to destroy your enemy but rather to outdo your competitor in a civil marketplace of ideas. We convene large and small groups -- sometimes students, sometimes members of the security services themselves -- and talk through how to negotiate difference. It should never be acceptable to kill someone, as some Tunisians have, just because of their identification with a certain political stream. We ask people to champion this principle, to spread it. This summer, we had members of the ruling party participate, and the discussion has generated attention in the media"
Sqouri’s all-volunteer organization is one of many post-Arab spring non-profits that are barely known outside their home countries because their staffers do not communicate in English. Their lack of funding is an obvious hindrance to their growth in that Hazem, for example, still works full-time as a defense attorney to provide for his family.
Hazem Sqouri says: "I won’t hide from you that we have tried to apply for financial support from the United States but so far not succeeded."
Michele Dunne says: "The United States has offered very limited support so far to the Arab countries that are in transition. Admittedly, it’s a confusing political situation, a changing constellation of political players in countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya. There are some limited programs to extend advice and assistance and so forth, but to be honest with you, I really don’t think it’s up to the magnitude of the challenge."
Financial issues notwithstanding, Hazem Sqouri envisions his organization eventually growing into a kind of North African anti-armament lobby as well as an educational base for political and social leaders across the region. Young people always aim high, to be sure -- but, it’s a safe bet that this determined activist, who bucked conventional wisdom in starting his group then braved a mob mentality in standing up for it, will press on.
– Reported by Joseph Braude for America Abroad