Liberals, Islamists Struggle Over the Future of Tunisian Society

On October 7, 2011, the private Tunisian satellite TV channel Nessma aired the award-winning French animated film Persepolis, which is based on Iranian-born illustrator Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel and tells of the challenges she faced growing up in Iran during the 1979 revolution. The airing of the film, which was dubbed into Tunisian Arabic, was followed by a 90-minute  debate on religious fundamentalism that focused on the similarity between the situation in Iran in 1979 and what might happen in Tunisia if an Islamist party won the Tunisian Constituent Assembly election set for October 23, 2011.

Shortly after the film aired, members of Salafist movements in Tunisia took to the streets in several cities to protest against the broadcast, saying that it was a provocation against Islam. In response, advocates of liberal civil society did likewise, to reassert the principles of personal liberties and human rights.

This was not the first time since the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia that the Salafists demonstrated against the airing of a film they considered blasphemous. In June 2011, some 100 Islamists, carrying Salafist banners, attacked the Cinema Afric’Art in central Tunis, where the film Neither God Nor Master, directed by the France-based Tunisian director Nadia Feni, was playing.[1] Also, a day after Persepolis was aired and as Salafists were protesting against Nessma TV, on October 8, Tunisian Salafists stormed Sousse University, causing panic among students, professors and staff, after the university refused to enrol a woman wearing the niqab (full-face veil).[2]

The ousting of Tunisian president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali marked the end of a dictatorial regime that had ruled Tunisia for decades. The Jasmine Revolution ushered in a new era of hope for freedom and democracy, which brought the country to its first free and pluralistic political election. However, the battle for Tunisia’s future is taking place not only on the political and electoral level but also on the popular one. Social movements are struggling to increase awareness to the danger of the Salafists, who aim to establish an Islamist state in Tunisia and are threatening the instatement of human rights, individual liberties, justice and the rule of law.

This report reviews one of these cultural-political struggles in the new, post-revolutionary Tunisia – the struggle surrounding Nessma TV and its airing of Persepolis.

Online Campaign Against Nessma TV

Protests from Islamists broke out as soon as the channel advertised its intention to broadcast Persepolis (which, incidentally, was screened in Tunisia at a 2008 film festival without arousing objections). Islamists consider the movie offensive and even blasphemous because it contains a depiction of God, which is strictly forbidden in Islam (He is shown as a kindly bearded old man, as Satrapi imagined Him in her youth), and also because the protagonist is seen drinking alcohol, taking drugs and having relationships with boys. The protests started on Facebook: Messages appeared calling for demonstrations against the broadcast and for torching the TV channel’s main offices in Tunis. Several anti-Nessma Facebook pages were some launched referring to the channel as Neqma (“curse”), describing it as a “Zionist propaganda machine in the Maghreb,” adding a Star of David to its logo, and calling for boycotting it. Nessma director Nebil Karoui and of its correspondents were threatened on Facebook and by email.

A blogger on the Tunisian website Nawaat wrote: “By what right does ‘Neqma’ dare to show scenes depicting the image of God, when this is forbidden by Islam, and what message is meant to be conveyed by airing this movie on such a TV channel 15 days before the elections? The goal can only be to frighten the people who are not yet sick of the Islamic parties, and to brainwash them…”[3]

Online Campaign Turns to Violent Protests in the Streets

But the protests did not stop at criticism and verbal attacks online. On October 9, about 300 Salafists, some armed with clubs and knives, tried to storm and torch Nessma’s main offices on Mohamed V Avenue in Tunis, but were stopped by security forces. The protesters set out from a mosque in the Ras Ettabia suburb that had been shut down by authorities in 2002 but had reopened after the fall of the former regime. The violence erupted after the police searched the mosque for the protest organizers. A hundred demonstrators were arrested but released shortly afterwards.[4]

Protests against the channel, which escalated into violent clashes with the security forces, also erupted in some of Tunis’s working class neighborhoods, such as Cité Romana, Jebel Lahmar, Ras Ettabia and Cité Ibn Khaldoun. Youths burned tires and set fire to garbage containers, threw stones at police, and attempted to attack a police station. When police tried to disperse them using tear gas, which also seeped into homes in the area, residents joined the protesters in attacking police.[5]

Other demonstrations were held elsewhere in Tunisia. In the Sidi Bouzid governorate, birthplace of the Jasmine Revolution, hundreds of bearded men and niqab-clad women demonstrated for several days, chanting slogans against Nessma TV and burning American and Israeli flags.[6] In the northern city of Nabeul, several dozen people protested in front of the governor’s office, calling for the channel to be closed down and its administrators to be prosecuted.[7] Demonstrations were also held in the cities of Bizerte, in the north,and Gabes, in the south.

Islamist Lawyers File a Complaint

On October 10, a group of 131 layers and 14 citizens filed a complaint against Nessma director Nabil Karoui for airing Persepolis, which they characterized as a “flagrant violation of the sanctity of Islam… and of icons held sacred by the majority of Tunisians.” The complaint was filed under Articles 44 and 48 of the old media law (since there is as yet no new media law), under which insulting the religion is an offense punishable by imprisonment, and also under Article 226(b) of the Tunisian Criminal Code, which states that offenses against “public decency” are punishable by up to six months in prison and by 48-dinar fine. The complaint stated that airing Persepolis was “a deliberate provocation against Muslims” and had “jeopardized national security.”[8]

The complaints and protests escalated into physical attacks on the channel’s director and employees. On the night of October 11, unknown persons started a fire near Karoui’s home, burning two neighbors’ cars and the entrance hall of a neighbor’s house. On the same day, two individuals reportedly entered the TV station’s offices and threatened to kill employees.[9] Death threats were also made against Karoui’s family.

Nessma Apologizes

The violence led Karoui to apologize for broadcasting the film, and to promise that there would be no further such incidents. He said: “I apologize to the Tunisian people for the broadcast on Nessma TV of the French-Iranian animation film Persepolis, which is considered controversial and blasphemous, and contains a representation of the divine being. I consider this a mistake, and it will not be repeated.” He explained that the Nessma director of programming had not informed him that the movie contained a scene in which God is depicted, adding that as a Muslim, he too considered such a scene unfit for viewing by Muslim families.[10]

Despite the apology, on October 12 Karoui was brought before the First Instance Court in Tunis for a first hearing in his case, along with the Nessma director of programming and the actor who had provided the voice of the character of God in the dubbed version of the movie.[11]

The Demonstrations Peak

The protests against Nessma and the attacks on its staff came to a head on Friday, October 14. Following Friday prayers, thousands of demonstrators marched out of the El-Fatah mosque in central Tunis, waving black and white banners bearing the Muslim declaration of faith (the shahada),[12] as well as banners maligning Nessma. Similar protests were held in other cities. These demonstrations were sparked by statements made over the preceding days by Abu Ayyoub, one of the leaders of the Tunisian Salafist movement Ansar Acharia, who urged his followers to demonstrate against Nessma,[13] and even made a virulent speech calling for jihad against the channel, a video of which was posted on Facebook.[14]  

The protesters, mostly men but also women, shouted slogans such as “Allahu Akbar,” “the people are Muslim and won’t give up,” “the people want an Islamic State.” A bearded protester told Tunisia Live[15] that “this demonstration aims to make people aware of the systematic process of estranging [people from] the religion… The [Tunisian] people’s identity is in jeopardy.” Asked whether the protesters accepted Karoui’s apology, he answered with a quotation from the Koran, “Do not apologize after you have committed blasphemy.” The Tunisian online newspaper Business News reports, however, that when sympathizers of the outlawed Islamist party Hizb Al-Tahrir started to chant slogans in favor of an “Islamic caliphate,” several demonstrators expressed their objection to this slogan and left the demonstration.[16] Because of the heavy presence of the security forces, the demonstrations mostly passed without violence, with the exception of a clash between protesters and police near the Kasbah square in downtown Tunis, following which 16 people were arrested.[17]

On the same day, Karoui’s home was attacked and robbed[18] by a dozens of Salafists armed with clubs and knives.[19] Shouting “There Is No God but Allah,” they broke windows and torched cars parked in front of the house. According to some reports, firebombs were thrown at the windows. Karoui’s wife and two children managed to escape a few minutes before the attack.[20]

On October 15, Nessma called on the authorities to provide the necessary protection for its staff.[21]

Iranian Embassy Responds to Nessma Affair

On October 11, the Iranian Embassy in Tunis issued a communiqué expressing astonishment at the broadcasting of Persepolis, calling it a “heretical” film that attacks Muslim values and gives a false picture of Iranian society. The communiqué added that this French-speaking film, produced in Europe by a French-Iranian director, was just another attempt by the international media lobby to “denigrate Islam, its beliefs and its sanctity.” It also noted that before the film was aired, the Iranian Embassy had asked the Tunisian authorities to ban it, and had also appealed to Nessma itself, asking it to honor the religious beliefs of the viewers and to reconsider its decision to broadcast the film.[22]

Reactions by Islamic Party Ennahda

The leadership of the prominent Tunisian Islamic party Ennahda condemned the violence against Nessma and stressed that its members had not participated in the demonstrations against it, presumably out of concern that the recent events would jeopardize its chances in the elections. Supporting this assumption is the fact that, in August 2011, Ennahda leader Rashed Ghannouchi asked that Salafists groups not perpetrate acts of violence in order to avoid frightening the public before the elections.[23]

However, the party did express opposition to the airing of the film. Political office director Noureddine El Bhiri said in an interview that that Nessma TV had crossed a line by airing it: “We were shocked when Nessma aired such a film. This is an obvious provocation to all believers, not only Muslims.” He added that Ennahda considered Persepolis “inappropriate for an Arab audience,” and even went so far as to describe it as a form of “prostitution.”[24]

After the Friday October 14 demonstration, Ghannouchi told the press that his party was not involved in the protests, but added: “The tens of thousands of Tunisians who took to the streets today to demonstrate against the provocation launched by certain media [outlets] remain the only defenders of Islam, and they do not need any tutor.” However, he was careful to state that “our party defends freedom of speech and respects individual freedom.”[25]

Ennahda entered the electoral race without the support of the Islamist movements. In a meeting with 2,000 Salafist militants, Sheikh Abu Iyadh, an ideologue of the Tunisian Salafi-Jihadi movement and a disciple of Palestinian terrorist Abu Qatada, called to boycott the elections because they contravene the principles of Islam.[26] The online forum Ansar Al-Sharia, managed by associates of Abu Iyadh, stated that “Having chosen the path of participation in the democratic system, Ennahda is completely at odds with [the principle] of tawhid [monotheism]. Democracy and shari’a have no common ground.”[27]

Tunisian Salafist Abu Ayyoub, one of the leading organizers of the demonstration against Nessma, described the elections as heresy and claimed that Ennahda has nothing to do with Islam. The Hizb Al-Tahrir party stated that “elections are worth running in only if they are held in accordance with the Islamic shari’a.” According to the website La Tunisie Vote, Sheikh Abu Mundhir Shinqiti, member of the Fatwa Committee established by prominent Salafi-Jihadi sheikh Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi, ruled in a fatwa that “Ennahda is a secularist party which has never sought to implement the Islamic shari’a, and its leaders brazenly admit this.”[28]

The “A’taqni” Counter-Campaign for Civil Liberties and Freedom of Expression

On October 16, Tunisian activists responded to the Islamist protests with a peaceful march calling to respect individual freedom and freedom of expression. The demonstration, dubbed “A’taqni” (also spelled “A3ta9ni” and meaning “set me free”/”give me a break” in Tunisian spoken Arabic), was attended by 5,000 people. [29] The protesters stressed that they represented no political party or organization but only sought to defend the liberties of the Tunisian people.[30]

“Don’t Touch My Freedom of Expression!” [31]

This protest, too, was organized by a Facebook group, with 10,000 supporters. The A’taqni Facebook page[32] states that the protests are not just aimed at defending Nessma TV, but have the broader goal of defending individual freedoms in Tunisia, because Tunisians do not wish to be victims of a regime that pretends to act in the name of the religion. “We don’t want to transition from a police state to an Islamist dictatorship,” it says.[33]

The protest participants included students, intellectuals, journalists, and others, many of them supporters of the Modernist Democratic Pole (PDM)[34] and Afek Tounes[35] parties. In an article about the march titled “After the Beards, the Secularists Are Now Going on Parade,” the Kapitalis website noted that while the protests against Nessma TV came out of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, the participants in the “A’taqni”  protests mostly belonged to the higher socioeconomic classes. “Secularism is in Tunisia a class issue,” it said, “or, better stated, an issue of the rich.”

The “A’taqni” protesters carried signs in Arabic, English and French. One banner said: “We are all against extremism, we all want a secular state. We are artists and Muslims. Down with Islamism. We are in Tunisia, not Qatar or Saudi Arabia.” Others stated “The people want a civil state,” “No to censorship,” and “Liberty is sacred.” Demonstrators chanted “Yes to a pluralistic Tunisia” and “Stop ignorance.”

Some tension that was sparked when an Islamist activist tried to infiltrate the demonstration and was confronted by the protesters was diffused by the security forces. In another incident, protesters turned on a participant who was recognized as a member of the former regime, shouting: “Tunisia is free and the RCD [the former ruling party] is out!” Some youths from the Ennahda party participated in the demonstration to show that their party opposes the Salafist violence.[36] The demonstration was hailed by the organizers and by the media as a great success of Tunisian civil society.

The following day, a similar protest was organized in Monastir, the birthplace of former president Habib Bourguiba. Demonstrators held up banners saying “Do not confuse Tunisia with Iran” and “Free [your] minds.”[37] On October 18, 4,000 people demonstrated in the nearby city of Sousse under the slogan “Ahrar not kouffar” (We are free, not heretics).[38] Some 1,000 people also took to the streets in Bizerte, Nabeul, Mahdia, Hammamet and Sfax. In the last city, Islamists tried to infiltrate the protests in order to instigate violence and clashes, but the police managed to keep the situation under control.

The A’taqni protest movement, which has taken up the slogan “The Fight Will Continue,” is determined to return to the streets if necessary in order to defend civil liberties in Tunisia. Its Facebook page declares: “Tunisia will never be Iran… [The Islamists] will never take away my freedom to think.”[39]

 

 

*Anna Mahjar-Barducci is Research Fellow for North African Studies at MEMRI.

Endnotes:

[1] Business News (Tunisia), June 26, 2011.

[2] Tunisian News Agency, October 9, 2011.

[3] Nawaat.org, October 19, 2011.

[4] Tunisian News Agency, October 23, 2011; Aljazeera.net, October 11, 2011. 

[5] Business News (Tunisia), October 9, 2011.

[6] Tunisia-live.net, October 23, 2011.

[7] Tunisian News Agency, October 10, 2011. 

[8] Tunisia-live.net, October 10, 2011.

[9] Reporters without Borders website, October 13, 2011.  

[11] Tunisian News Agency, October 23, 2011.

[12] This flag is associated with Al-Qaeda.

[15] Tunisia-live.net, October 14, 2011.

[16] Business News (Tunisia), October 15, 2011.

[17] Tunisia-live.net, October 17, 2011.

[18] Lapresse.tn, October 23, 2011.

[20] Tunisia-live.net, October 14, 2011.

[21] Tunisian News Agency, October 15, 2011.  

[22] Tunisian News Agency, October 23, 2011.     

[26] Tunisienumerique.com, October 15, 2011.

[29] Kapitalis.com, October 16, 2011.

[30] Tunisian News Agency, October 23, 2011.

[31] Image source: Webmanagercenter.com, October 17, 2011.

[34] The PDM advocates the separation of the powers, the decentralization of power, freedom of speech and human rights (for its official website, see: http://www.pdmtunisie.org/).>

[35] Afek Tounes is a new party formed after the Jasmine Revolution. It too advocates democracy, the separation of the powers, and individual liberties. (Facebook page: http://fr-fr.facebook.com/AFEKTOUNES).>

[36] Kapitalis.com, October 16, 2011.

[37] Tunisia-live.net, October 17, 2011.

[38] Lecourrierdelatlas.com, October 23, 2011

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