Zied Kanoun

The Death of a Tunisian Innocent

YoutubeGuy 2
Like Zied Kanoun, many people used social media to call for more freedom of speech.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The story of how one Tunisian revolutionary became radicalized, disillusioned with politics in the Middle East after the Arab Spring, gives us a glimpse into the generation that freed Tunisia from its dictator.

  • Facts


    • The wave of protests and pro-democracy demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa starting in December 2010 came to be known as the Arab Spring.
    • Protesters made extensive use of social media in their push to raise awareness of repression and Internet censorship.
    • Reportedly Tunisia sends the highest number of foreigners to fight for ISIS in Syria.
  • Audio


  • Pdf

My friend, Zied Kanoun, has died. Only 33 years old, he lost his life in the fight against the Syrian army.

Zied was a Tunisian revolutionary and a jihadist. Two years ago, he left his wife, Betty, and their baby to fight Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad.

Unsure which side to join, Zied wandered about, trying out the Islamic State, al-Nusra (an al-Qaeda offshoot) and others.

“For more than two years, he searched for people in Syria who shared his convictions (whether they were wrong or right, only God knows what was in his heart),” Betty wrote to me. “But he never found what he was looking for.”

She added: “He drove a small truck transporting injured people to the border so they could be taken care of in Turkey. He even did a first-aid course for that. He used to drive all night – eventually he could have driven the route with his eyes closed, he knew every street.”

One time, Zied told Betty on the phone that he could never get over what IS had done.

“Right up to his last day, he avoided any conflict with innocent Muslims, whether Sunnites or Shiites; he was fighting against rapists, child murderers and criminals,” Betty said.

To understand the young man, you need to know his background. Knowing that, you learn a lot about the generation that freed Tunisia from its dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Zied was a computer scientist. He met his wife through the two passions they shared: Computer games and heavy metal.

Then there was Facebook, a world of communication and the exchange of thoughts and ideas. Under a dictatorship, that almost automatically meant a subculture, counterculture, opposition.

In the fall of 2010, Zied was one of the brave young people who broke through the enforced conformity online by telling the truth about the regime, making videos and organizing protests such as flash mobs.

By January 2011, Zied was part of the revolution. He wanted to live in truth. But then the politicking began. Power had to be newly defined, as after every revolution, and thus began the time of coalitions and compromises.

Zied and tens of thousands of other revolutionaries remained on the attack, supported by the poverty in cities and towns. They besieged the seat of government in Tunis and ousted several consecutive interim governments before the election of constitutional assembly on October 23, 2011.

The moderate Islamists of the Ennahda party won Tunisia’s first free elections.

Zied was excited. He viewed political Islam as an alternative to the morally corrupt former regime. But even then he noticed – like many others of his generation – that Ennahda was also playing the political game, reaching out to former enemies. We discussed this several times; I welcomed the development, he was outraged. And he became more radical.

When we met for the last time in November 2012, I was shocked at how things had developed.

Zied had become a jihadist and was preparing to take up arms against al-Assad, “in defense of Muslims,” as he put it.

He was still the same elegant, good-looking, lanky guy, in western clothes and without a beard, interested in all arguments.

He was even respectful in his debates with me, though I was an outspoken atheist and according to his Salafist interpretation of the Quran, strictly speaking I might rightfully burn in hell for all eternity.

For months, we kept on arguing and discussing topics on Facebook, even after he was in Syria. We could barely agree on anything anymore. Not on Israel, not on Sharia, not on freedom of opinion or on art. What united us was our contempt for kleptocracies and police states – and the quest for truth and the right way to live.

Now his friends are missing him.


This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: diezeit@zeit.de

We hope you enjoyed this article

Make sure to sign up for our free newsletters too!