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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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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