Is Tunisian culture under threat from Islamists?

 
On April 26, the main cinema in Tunisia’s capital Tunis was vandalised by a group of armed religious fundamentalists, who threatened audience members at the screening. Our Observers on the ground tell us that Tunisia’s cultural scene is increasingly coming under attack.
 
The attack happened during a cultural event organised at Tunis’ renowned CinemAfricArt cinema. The event, dubbed “Hands off our artists” was organised by the Lam Echaml Association, a collective of intellectuals and artists looking to highlight violations of freedom of expression across the country. Two films about secularism and religion were set to be screened.
 
After the incident, the country’s minister of culture issued a statement saying that “freedom of thought and creation is fundamental to a modern society and one of the important goals of the Glorious Revolution [of last January]”, he went on to state that the violence contradicted the tolerant values of Islam.
 
According to its constitution, Tunisia is a Muslim country. However, under ousted President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, any sort of religious fundamentalism was severely repressed. Tunisia is considered to be one of the most progressive countries in the Arab world – especially in terms of women’s rights.
 
 
Demonstration in front of the cinema before it was attacked. Video published by Ramzibik on YouTube on June 27.

“They came in the room threatening the viewers with death, then drew the curtains across the screen”.

Monsef N. (not his real name) works at Tunis’ CinemAfricArt theatre. He arrived at the theatre just after the attack.
 
The Lam Echaml Association organised this event due to recent assaults on people involved in the cultural scene, such as filmmaker Nouri Bouzid [last April the director was attacked by a fundamentalist student]. The idea was to project two films on the topic of freedom of expression. The screenings were to be followed by artists sharing their personal experiences as the victims of violence or intimidation, and then there would have been a concert.
 
But at 4:45pm, 15 minutes before the first film was due to start, a group gathered in front of the cinema. They were aggressive. They hurled insults and threats, and waved a flag with the inscription “Allah is great”. They smashed the front window and vandalised the box office. Some had tear gas. About ten of them eventually forced their way into the screening. They came in the room and threatened the viewers with death, and then drew the curtains across the screen.  The cinema owner was beaten and now has a black eye.
 
The police eventually managed to disperse the troublemakers, but they caused a lot of damage”. 
 
 
Video of the demonstration, posted on Facebook.
 
 

“We advocate freedom of speech and an egalitarian society, whereas they want to establish Sharia law and an Islamist regime”.

Meriem Zeghidi is an art student in Tunis and a human rights activist. She belongs to the Lam Echaml Association, which organised the event.
 
We are having difficulties identifying the attackers. However, attacks against those who advocate freedom of expression are becoming more frequent. We are certain they were Salafist religious fundamentalists.
 
Recently, a collective of artists wanted to visit the Libyan refugee camps situated in the south of Tunisia. They had organised the projection of various films. But when they arrived, a group of extremists blocked them, saying that “no sound and no images” would be allowed in the camp [Salifist beliefs forbid music and visual arts, among other things]. The extremists were in the camp to raise money and organise charity work. That is how they improve their image.
 
These days, music groups are regularly stopped from getting on stage to perform. A festival was even cancelled in the south of the country.
 
The saddest thing is that the authorities do nothing.
 
The saddest thing about the attack on the cinema is that the police did so little. The cinema is 30 metres away from the Ministry of the Interior. There were about 400 police officers in the vicinity. We asked them to do something, but in vain. We knew that things were going to turn nasty, but they waited until it became violent before reacting.
 
Since February 14 [when Ben Ali’s regime collapsed], there has been a new feeling of freedom in the country. People are expressing their points of view, but of course there are different visions for a new society. We advocate for freedom of speech and an egalitarian society, whereas they want to establish Sharia law and an Islamist regime. Before January 14, these extremists went unnoticed. They were silent, just like everyone else under the dictatorship.
 
But since the revolution they are more visible, particularly in the poorer neighbourhoods. Recently, the Tahrir Salafist Movement attempted to register as a political party. Fortunately, they were refused. The government’s dithering is worrying though. Although they were banned as a party, they still managed to obtain permission to hold a conference. The authorities have to take a clear stance consider that there is a threat to our collective freedom.
 
 When the extremists left, we watched the films and we sang and danced.
 
The Ennahda Party [an authorised Islamist politic party] said that it would write a press release on the incident [saying they condemned the violence]. But its leaders did not focus on those perpetrated the violence, but instead on how they found the intellectual’s behaviour to be provocative.
 
Some of the people in the street supported us. But some felt that the films we were going to show mocked the Muslim Prophet Mohammed, and should be banned in a Muslim country. But we held firm. After the extremists left, the event took carried on – we projected the films, then sang and danced”.
 
Billet rédigé avec la collaboration de Ségolène Malterre, journaliste à FRANCE 24.
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