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

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. 

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. 

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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.

In June, Salafis ransacked an art exhibit at the Abdellia Palace in La Marsa that they said insulted Islam, triggering days of rioting around the country. Several pieces of artwork were burned or slashed. One was Divines Créatures by Tunisian painter Henri Ducoli, a collage of humanoid figures that included a naked woman. El Hafi now keeps the piece at the back of his shop, which doubles as an art gallery. 

Other artworks, not supplied to the art exhibit by El Hafi, included a cartoonish image of a bearded Islamic radical, and the phrase subhan allah – roughly, “God is glorious” - written in a string of ants. 

Although El Hafi is against insulting religion, he opposes laws curbing freedom of expression, arguing that sometimes one person’s blasphemy is another’s art. “‘The sacred’ could be many things,” he says.

In his view, “there was nothing against religion or the sacred at the Abdellia; what happened was takfir,” he says, referring to the practice – shunned by most Muslims but espoused by some extremists – of denouncing less pious Muslims as non-believers.

When stability and freedom clash

It was such destabilizing incidents that prompted Ennahda to push for a law outlawing insulting religion, says Said Ferjani, a member of the party’s political bureau. 

“We didn’t want to resort to calling for legislation,” he says. “But when something is provocative to the public, it touches the nerve of stability and national security.” 

This month Ennahda proposed a draft law that would mandate prison terms for slurs against God, Mohammed and the other prophets, holy books, and places of worship for all Abrahamic faiths. The party wants similar language written into Tunisia’s new constitution.

Such legislation would improve on existing laws, such as one against “harming public morality," whose broad language invites abuse, Mr. Ferjani says. Ennahda wants the national assembly to agree on precise criteria for what constitutes “offending the sacred.”

That sounds reasonable to Mohamed Mhazres, a young man who has worked for six years at a newsstand on Avenue Habib Bourguiba. Like El Hafi, he was visited by Ben Ali’s police. He has also had a front-row seat to the religious fault lines exposed by the revolution. 

“For the country to work, for democracy to succeed, we need stability,” he says. 

Critics, however, say measures to outlaw offense to religion would end up targeting the wrong people.

“There’s nothing more provocative than inciting hatred,” says Ms. El Fani, the filmmaker whose film screening last year was disrupted. “When have images on a screen ever hurt anyone?” 

Much depends on Tunisia’s national assembly, which is writing a new constitution. A draft circulated this week contains both article 3.2, which would flatly criminalize “offending the sacred”, and article 26.2, which would guarantee “freedom of opinion, expression, the media, and creativity” and names legal restraints on media “to protect the rights, reputation, security and health of others” as the only potential limits.

That and other contradictions must be ironed out during the coming months, says Selma Baccar, vice president of the drafting committee on rights and freedoms, who opposes limiting free speech. 

“We spent five days debating just 26.2,” she says. Reaching a conclusion “is going to take time.”

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