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Books and art pit freedom of religion against free speech in Tunisia

The riots by ultra-conservative Muslims in Tunisia over issues of blasphemy threaten to destabilize the fledgling democracy, leading legislators to consider some limits to free speech.

By Correspondent / August 17, 2012



La Marsa, Tunisia

Before last year’s revolution, police would drop by the Librairie Mille Feuilles in this upscale Tunis suburb to look for books deemed politically deviant. The bookshop has since attracted a different kind of scrutiny. 

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Last December a strange man entered and addressed owner Lotfi El Hafi: “You have indecent books,” he said, indicating Femmes au Bain, a book about depictions of women bathing in European art. “I’m sent to warn you.” The next day he returned with a second man and threatened trouble if the book wasn’t removed.

“They were Salafis,” says Mr. El Hafi, referring to a deeply conservative brand of Islam. 

Femmes au Bain sold out quickly and no trouble materialized. But the incident highlights Tunisia's struggle to balance two gains of the revolution that seem complementary but often clash: freedom of speech and the free practice of religion. 

The debate will ultimately determine the breadth of free expression in a country that was long among the world’s most censored. It has also cast a spotlight on the leading Ennahda party, moderate Islamists who say that Islam is compatible with an open society.

The party heads a power-sharing government with two left-leaning parties and says its goal is to encourage Islamic values without imposing them. However, it is also pushing to criminalize offense to core elements of Abrahamic faiths. 

Ennahda says the move is meant to deter acts that might provoke violence – Tunisia has suffered several bouts of rioting since last year over questions of blasphemy. 

Some Tunisians think that makes sense. But others worry that limits to free speech – whatever their intent – are a step toward repression. 

One person's blasphemy is another's art

Under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, repression was near-total. Media and the Internet were tightly controlled, and dissidents from across the political spectrum were harassed, jailed, tortured, and driven into exile. Pious Muslims suffered in particular, and the Islamic headscarf was banned.

Ben Ali’s toppling in January 2011 unleashed an explosion of public discourse. Tunis’ central Avenue Habib Bourguiba became a carnival of marches and impromptu speeches. Soon Salafis, long persecuted by Mr. Ben Ali, were rallying to demand an Islamic state. 

In July 2011, dozens of men barged into a Tunis cinema, assaulting viewers of "Secularism, Inshallah" by atheist filmmaker Nadia El Fani. Last October, rioting erupted after a Tunis TV station aired the cartoon film Persepolis. Protestors called both films blasphemous.

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