Tunisia Faces a Balancing Act of Democracy and Religion

Tunis — The insults were furious. “Infidel!” and “Apostate!” the religious protesters shouted at the two men who had come to the courthouse to show their support for a television director on trial on charges of blasphemy. Fists, then a head butt followed.

When the scuffle ended a few minutes later, Tunisia, which much of the Arab world sees as a model for revolution, had witnessed a crucial scene in what some have cast as a gathering contest for its soul.

“We’re surrendering our right to think and speak differently,” said Hamadi Redissi, one of the two men, still bearing a scab on his forehead from the attack last week.

The challenges before Tunisia’s year-old revolution are immense — righting an ailing economy, drafting a new constitution and recovering from decades of dictatorship that cauterized civic life. But in the first months of a coalition government led by the Ennahda Party, seen as one of the most pragmatic of the region’s Islamist movements, the most emotional of struggles has surged to the forefront: a fight over the identity of an Arab and Muslim society that its authoritarian leaders had always cast as adamantly secular.

The popular revolts that began to sweep across the Middle East one year ago have forced societies like Tunisia’s, removed from the grip of authoritarian leaders and celebrating an imagined unity, to confront their own complexity. The aftermath has brought elections in Egypt and Tunisia as well as more decisive Islamist influence in Morocco, Libya and, perhaps, Syria. The upheaval has given competing Islamist movements a chance to exert influence and define themselves locally and on the world stage. It has also given rise to fears, where people in places like Tunis, a seaside metropolis proud of its cosmopolitanism, worry about what a revolution they embraced might unleash.

An opposition newspaper has warned darkly of puritanical Islamists declaring their own fief in some backwater town. Protests convulsed a university in Tunis over its refusal to let female students take examinations while wearing veils that concealed their faces. Then there is the trial Mr. Redissi attended on Jan. 23, of a television director who faces as many as five years in prison for broadcasting the French animated movie “Persepolis,” which contains a brief scene depicting God that many here have deemed blasphemous.

The trial was postponed again, this time until April. But its symbolism, precedence and implications infused a secular rally Saturday that drew thousands to downtown Tunis in one of the biggest demonstrations here in recent months.

“Make a common front against fanaticism,” one banner declared.

Tunisia and Egypt are remarkable for how much freer they have become in the year since their revolts. They may become more conservative, too, as Islamist parties inspire and articulate the mores and attitudes of populations that have always been more traditional than the urban elite. Some here hope the contest may eventually strike a balance between religious sensitivity and freedom of expression, an issue as familiar in the West as it is in Muslim countries. Others worry that debates pressed by the most fervent — over the veil, sunbathing on beaches and racy fare in the media — may polarize societies and embroil nascent governments in debates they seem to prefer to avoid.

“It’s like a war of attrition,” said Said Ferjani, a member of Ennahda’s political bureau, who complained that his party was trapped between two extremes, the most ardently secular and the religious. “They’re trying not to let us focus on the real issues.”

Nearly everyone here seems to agree that “Persepolis” was broadcast Oct. 7 on Nessma TV as a provocation of some sort. Abdelhalim Messaoudi, a journalist at Nessma, said he envisioned the film, about a girl’s childhood in revolutionary Iran, “as a pretext to start a conversation.” But many in Tunisia, both pious and less so, were taken aback by the brief scene in which God was personified — speaking in Tunisian slang no less. A week later, a crowd of Salafis — the term used for the most conservative Islamists — attacked the house of Nabil Karoui, the station’s director, and he was soon charged with libeling religion and broadcasting information that could “harm public order or good morals.”

The trial, which Human Rights Watch called “a disturbing turn for the nascent Tunisian democracy,” was originally scheduled for Nov. 16, then postponed until January.

On Jan. 23, crowds gathered outside the colonnaded courthouse, along a sylvan street in Tunisia’s old town, known as the casbah. Tempers flared and, in a scene captured on YouTube, Mr. Redissi and Zied Krichen, the editor of the newspaper Al Maghreb, tried to leave.

“All I could think was to not look behind me, walk ahead, and not open my mouth,” said Mr. Krichen, who is 54. A man rushed toward him, hitting him from behind. When Mr. Redissi, 59, turned to defend his colleague, he was head-butted. At first, the police did nothing, then helped escort the two men to a police station down the road.

Mr. Messaoudi, who was sitting at a cafe across the street, was also assaulted.

Two days later, in a statement many secular figures deemed too timid, Samir Dilou, a government spokesman and a member of Ennahda, reiterated the party’s view that the film was “a violation of the sacred.” But he condemned the violence and promised to act. One of the assailants, identified in the video, was later arrested.

For people like Mr. Messaoudi, though, the incident reflected a months-long trend of thuggery by Salafis, from an attack on a theater airing a film they deemed objectionable to their brief control last month over a northern Tunisian town called Sanjan. Some secular figures acknowledge that Ennahda is embarrassed by the incidents, loath to be grouped with the Salafis. Others view both as part of a broader Islamist outlook that celebrates Tunisia’s Muslim identity as a way to promote a more conservative society.

“Certain Islamist factions want to turn identity into their Trojan horse,” Mr. Messaoudi said. “They use the pretext of protecting their identity as a way to crush what we have achieved as a Tunisian society. They want to crush the pillars of civil society.”

The debates in Tunisia often echo similar confrontations in Turkey, another country with a long history of secular authoritarian rule now governed by a party inspired by political Islam. In both, secular elites long considered themselves a majority and were treated as such by the state. In both, those elites now recognize themselves as minorities and are often mobilized more by the threat than the reality of religious intolerance.

Mr. Redissi, a columnist and professor, predicted secular Tunisians might soon retreat to enclaves.

“We’ve become the ahl al-dhimma,” he said, offering a term in Islamic law to denote protected minorities in a Muslim state. “It’s like the Middle Ages.”

As in Egypt, the prominence of the Salafis since the revolution has taken many Tunisians by surprise. Their numbers pale before their brethren in Egypt, but like them, they are assertive and determined to make their presence felt, often embarrassing more moderate counterparts like Ennahda and the Muslim Brotherhood. On Friday, they organized a demonstration in front of the Foreign Ministry in support of Syrian protesters. For weeks, they held a sit-in at Manouba University here in Tunis to demand that women in full veils be allowed to take exams, eventually forcing the campus to close for a time.

“There are red lines not to be crossed,” said Abdel-Qadir al-Hashemi, a 28-year-old Salafi activist who helped organize the protest at Manouba. “The film ‘Persepolis’ was a provocation, simply a provocation, with the goal of driving us toward violence.”

A few of his colleagues turned out for the secular protest Saturday.

“Go back to your caves and mind your own business!” someone shouted at them.

They heckled back.

“You lost your daddy, Ben Ali!” one of them taunted, referring to the Tunisian dictator, President Zine El-Abdine Ben Ali, who was forced into exile in Saudi Arabia last year.

Even secular figures like Mr. Redissi suggest that Ennahda would rather avoid the debate over “Persepolis.” He predicted the trial would be postponed until after the next elections that follow the drafting of the constitution, in a year or so. Others insisted that Ennahda take a stronger stand against the Salafis before society became even more polarized.

“I don’t see either action or reaction — where is the government?” asked Ahmed Ounaïes, a former diplomat who briefly served as foreign minister after the revolution. “What is Ennahda’s concept of Tunisia of tomorrow? It hasn’t made that clear.”

In Ennahda’s offices, Mr. Ferjani shook his head. He complained that the case had been “blown out of proportion,” that media were recklessly fueling the debate and that the forces of the old government were inciting Salafis to tarnish Ennahda. But he conceded that the line between freedom of expression and religious sensitivity would not be drawn soon.

“The struggle is philosophical,” he said, “and it will go on and on and on.”

by Anthony Shadid
Source – The New York Times