String of cultural events shut down by Islamic extremists: “Where are the police?”

Screenshot of a video showing Islamic extremists setting up prayer mats in front of a theatre in Menzel Bourguiba, where the actor Lotfi Abdelli was supposed to put on a show on Tuesday.
 
Within the space of ten days, radical Islamists have shut down three different cultural events in Tunisia. The event organisers have been highly critical of the police’s passive attitude toward the increasingly violent Salafists.
 
Tunisia's hardline Islamists have grown in prominence since the revolution that toppled former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali last year. On Thursday, extremists violently attacked the organisers of a cultural event at the youth centre in Bizerte, in northwestern Tunisia. They were angered by the presence of Samir Kantar, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Front, who was taking part in the event. The Salafists accused Kantar of being a member of Lebanon’s Shia militant group, Hezbollah.
 
According to a press release from the Interior Ministry, five people were injured in the attack, including two event organisers and one police officer. The ministry said about 200 people “with Salafist tendencies” participated in the attack.
 
A video posted on YouTube on Thursday evening shows the injured receiving medical treatment in a hospital in Bizerte.
 
In the video, one of the organizers explains:

At 1’19: “We were told that a group of Salafists … were at the youth centre and that they had ripped down posters and vandalised the place. We went to the youth centre. We asked them why they were doing this. They answered: ‘You invited Samir Kantar, who is Shia.’ We responded that it was not important whether he was Shia or Sunni, what mattered was his activism against Zionists. [...] They then accused us of being Shia ourselves and started beating us. They said we were not Muslim. There were even people in the crowd who yelled, ‘Kill them, kill them, they are Shia!’”

“The police knew very well that they were going to attack us”

Imed Safaxi is a member of the Hipp Dirutus organisation, which organised the cultural event in Bizerte on Thursday evening.
 
They didn’t come to stop the show; they came to beat us up. Luckily, they came in the early evening, so there weren’t too many people yet – otherwise it would have been a bloodbath. When I saw them beat up my colleague Mongi Tayachi, I thought they were going to kill him. He is, in fact, still in the hospital. I recognised two of the perpetrators. They are well-known Salafists in Bizerte.
 
Two of the Salafists grabbed my arms while a third sprayed pepper spray in my face. Luckily, one of my attackers was hit and had to let go of my arm. This gave me an opportunity to escape.
 
The police took an hour to intervene. But they knew very well what was going to happen. Two days before the attack, Salafists were already ripping down our posters in the street. A little while before the attack, a colleague told me he saw about twenty bearded men sitting in the back of a large truck that was heading toward Bizerte. The police saw them go by and didn’t lift a finger. And Bizerte is a small city, where everyone knows everything.
 
I hold the Ministry of Interior and the ruling Ennahda party responsible for allowing the Salafists to behave this way. Their attitude is inexplicable and inexcusable.
 
The night before the incident in Bizerte, another extremist group had prevented the Iranian musical outfit Mehrab from putting on a show at the Kairouan festival (160 km south of Tunis). They assumed that the musicians, being from Iran, were Shia, which they see as being blasphemous.
 
The well-known comedian Lotfi Abdelli was also prevented from doing his “100% Halal” show on Tuesday evening in Menzel Bourguiba, in northern Tunisia. Protesters blocked the entrance to the theatre where the show was supposed to take place, calling it “un-Islamic”. However, there was no violence this time.
 
An amateur video posted on YouTube shows radical Islamists unrolling prayer mats in front of the theatre entrance. At 2’18”, a Salafist banner can be seen spread across the front of the venue. At 3’10”, a dense crowd in front of the entrance begins to pray.
 
At 0’58”, a man says: “The entire population of Menzel Bourguiba, old and young, came here on Destiny’s night [Editor’s note: Laylat al-Qadr is the 27th night of the month of Ramadan. Muslims consider it a holy night]. On this sacred night, some people who want to carry out an offence against the city of Menzel Bourguiba brought this person, whose name I don’t want to say, so that he can mock […] Allah’s verses.”

“I am not in any way criticizing religion; I am only talking about Tunisian religious practices. That’s very different”

Lotfi Abdelli is a comedian.
  
I didn’t get too close to the theatre because I did not want the situation to escalate. There is a police station close to the theatre. Security forces were there, but they didn’t intervene. They told me they had not received any orders to intervene.
 
Salafists accuse me of being blasphemous, but they haven’t even seen my show. For the last couple days, the imam of the city, in his preaching, kept calling for the boycott of my show. In fact, I am not in any way criticising religion; I am only talking about Tunisian religious practices. That’s very different.
 
I don’t really hold it against the extremists, or against the police forces. I do blame the Interior Minister, who said he would be boycotting me. Already, two weeks ago, his ministry had instructed the police not to provide any security services when I appeared at a festival in Bizerte. I performed in front of a large audience - 9,000 strong – but thankfully, everything went well. [The spokesperson for the national security bureau, Mohammed Ali El Aroui, declared in July that the security forces would not provide security for any shows featuring Abdelli because he “crossed the line of what is acceptable when he denigrated police officers in a vulgar and humiliating way”].
 
In my shows, I criticise everybody, including the police. But I don’t particularly single them out. I have nothing against them. I’m just doing my job as a comedian.
 
The government is trying to intimidate me. We live in a little dictatorship that, like so many other dictatorships, does not like anyone tarnishing its image and does not appreciate any kind of critical thinking from its population.”
 
Some Tunisian media also accuse the government of being too hands-off — and even in cahoots — with the Salafists.
 
These incidents have occurred after a period of relative calm. Nevertheless, violent incidents took place in several regions across the country in June after extremists ransacked a Tunis art gallery whose artwork they deemed blasphemous.

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