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Tunisian arts spark Salafist spring

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The result so far of what seems to be a never-ending controversy over blasphemy in Tunisia sometimes seems to be leading the country pell-mell to a civil war.


Meriem Dhaouadi
20 June 2012

During Ben Ali‘s ‘glorious ‘days we used to have more than 10 million experts in football, while during the high times of the Revolution, surprisingly, it turned out that we had more than 10 million political experts, and just a few days ago, after an art gallery expo took place in El Abdellia la Marsa, Tunis, more than 10 million individuals got involved brilliantly in the business of being an art critic.

The Tunisian people split into two camps: those who felt outraged by some of the so-called ‘provocative’ art works that were featured in the art exhibition and took to the streets to protest ‘peacefully’ the demonization of the sacred. The other camp has almost been invisible, though there were some attempts by the artists involved and their supporters to try and clarify certain misunderstandings, bat off false accusations and justify themselves.

The result so far of what seems to be a never-ending controversy over blasphemy in Tunisia sometimes seems to be leading the country pell-mell to a civil war. Since Monday night, more than 700 Tunisian have been admitted into hospitals just in the capital of Tunis following confrontations between angry Salafists and security forces. In Sousse, a coastal tourist spot, a youth of around 22 years was shot dead by a rubber bullet in violent clashes between the fanatics and the police forces.

Violence in the name of defending Islam is a new phenomenon in Tunisian society. It is true that Tunisia is a Sunni majority Arab country, but individuals with different religious affiliations have peacefully co-existed for as long as I can remember. Under Ben Ali, the Salafists, inspired by Wahhabi teachings, have always lived side by side with westernized Tunisians who adopt secular lifestyles.

Tunisia has shown considerable immunization from the religious intolerance and sectarian conflicts that have plagued some neighbouring Arab countries. Today, the rumour circulated like wildfire on Facebook that red underwear was exposed in the gallery as well as a caricature that mocked the prophet Mohammad (Peace be Upon Him). This ignited the whole gamut of hysteria and violence. Names of artists, their phone numbers and even their home addresses with the slogan “wanted dead or alive” were doled out by the adminstrators of web pages which sympathize with the Salafists ideologies. Some fanatics had already attacked the art gallery on June 10 as religiously offensive. The government‘s response challenged every attempt to restrict the freedom of the artist and the restoration of censorship once again. The minister of culture, however, issued an order to shut down the art gallery on June 12.

“Art‘s role is to provoke. Sometimes art provokes which is its role. But there is a huge difference between provocation and attacks on religious symbols”, declared Mehdi Mabrouk, the minister of culture in a press conference. The Troika of Tunisia on June 13 issued an official statement condemning the attack against sacred symbols and warning that acts of violence will not be tolerated again.

Personally, I have never been interested in plastic contemporary arts and such cultural events remain exclusively dedicated to the educated well-off elite. If you go down the Tunisian street and ask people to name just one Tunisian artist, you will be surprised, since the common Tunisian doesn’t seem to be fan of such art. My curiosity though drove me to take a look at some of the exhibition pieces that most provoked the Salafists and I found that what had given particular offence was a caricature featuring an angry Salafist. That they were made fun of in this way is almost another act of ‘blasphemy’: this it seems is their logic. 

The interior ministry imposed a curfew on Tuesday when some police officers were attacked with Molotov cocktails and stones, the police responding with tear gas and rubber bullets. Sometimes it seems as if we are playing out the Tunisian version of Persepolis, in which, Iranian-style, one dictator is kicked out, only to be replaced by another.  

Meanwhile the French channel TF1 has warned the French people off from travelling to sunny Tunisia, which has always provided the destination for hoards of tourists, especially in summer, lured by our charming Mediterranean beaches. Maybe we can look forward to them being amply replaced by people from Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia who will feel more at home in Tunistan.

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