Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia

Salafists continued to make headlines in Tunisia in August, after a lull following the riots and curfew last month. From the legalization of Salafist political parties to reported attacks on individuals, politicians, and cultural events, this seemingly growing minority group continues to grab the attention of Tunisians and outsiders alike. The major headlines:

Attacks on cultural events

After three consecutive nights of Salafist demonstrations against cultural events, Le Figaro says that Salafists are imposing their morals on Tunisia. Tunisia Live provides on the ground reporting of the cancellation of cultural events.

From Beja: “The organizing committee of the summer festival of Goubellat in Tunisia’s northern governorate of Beja decided to cancel the twelfth edition of the event, which was scheduled to kick off last Thursday, August 2. The decision was made due to pressure put on the organizing committee by a group of individuals allegedly affiliated with the Salafist stream of Islam.”

One week earlier, a similar event was cancelled after Salafist protests in Sejnane, also in Northwest Tunisia.

On August 16 France 24 reported, “Hardline Islamists have prevented an Iranian group from performing at a Sufi festival in Kairouan, south of Tunis, deeming their Shiite chanting violated sacred values, Tunisian media reported on Thursday.

Meanwhile popular Tunisian comedian Lotfi Abdelli had his one man show cancelled in Menzel Bourguiba due to Salafist protests. From Al-Arabiya: “The comedian told private radio station Mosaique FM that the imam of the town in northern Tunisia had called for the show to be disrupted and accused Abdelli of offending Islam. “Bearded Muslims appeared at my show… They came and laid their prayer mats down in the auditorium in the morning, saying they were going to pray all day long,” he said. “The security forces were there and they told us that they hadn’t received any orders to intervene,” Abdelli added. “I was afraid, I’m not superman. I was there to have a good evening and a laugh, not to get beaten up.” Protesters also tried to disrupt a subsequent show of Abdelli’s in Sfax later in the month.

Attacks on politicians and shiites also made news.

On August 6, Tunisia Live reported that Abedlfattah Mourou was attacked at a conference on tolerance in Islam. “Yesterday, Abdelfatah Mourou, a prominent Tunisian Islamist figure, was hospitalized after he was attacked by an attendee of a conference entitled, Tolerance in Islam, which he was heading in Kairouan. The assailant struck Mourou in the head with what appeared to be a water glass following a dispute. Mourou passed out and was taken to the hospital, where he was given five stitches in the forehead.” Western Culturel blog has a video of the incident.

Attacks on Tunisian shiites were reported in Gabes and Bizerte, and condemned by human rights groups.

U.S. neo-con Elliott Abrams describes the events in Bizerte: Kuntar was referred to as the “Dean of the Lebanese Prisoners.”…He spent nearly thirty years in an Israeli prison (because Israel does not have the death penalty, except for Nazi war criminals) and was liberated in an exchange with Hezbollah in 2008 for the bodies of the kidnaped Israeli soldiers….So that is the man who was the honoree and center of attention in Bizerte. Here the story moves from the despicable to the absurd. Kuntar, a Hezbollah terrorist through and through, defended the Assad regime in Syria, which has now killed over 20,000 Sunnis. Accordingly, Salafi gangs using sticks and knives attacked the closing ceremony of the anti-Israel rally, shouting slogans that in essence accused Kuntar and the organizers of being pro-Shia. Several people were wounded badly enough to be hospitalized.

Four suspects were eventually arrested and then released.

What’s behind the attacks on shiites? Ennahda hardliner Sadok Chorou provides insight, saying in an interview, “Before the revolution, Shiism had been kept low-key. However, with the flow of freedom that prevailed in the country, cultural and informative seminars have been held to promote Shiism. It is very likely that the Iranian Cultural Center in Tunisia is playing a major role in spreading Shiism, for there are no Shiite institutions in the country. The promotion of Shiism is the result of foreign activity. Even the tide of Salafism is the result of foreign intervention, as some external parties are trying to spread it in Tunisia, which has become a pit of exported ideas and doctrines coming from the Gulf and Iran in particular.

Tunisian jihadi Abou Ayadh called on the government to stop the shiite wave in Tunisia and to “combat these enemies of Islam” (article includes pictures).

On August 22 the Culture Ministry condemned the attacks perpetrated by Salafists at El Aqsa Festival in Bizerte. The Ministry also condemned the proliferation of attacks against cultural events across the country, describing them as “dangerous drift.” The Ministry believed that “what had happened was not only an attack against freedom of expression and creation but also augurs of a sectarian conflict strange to our Tunisian society, known for its balance, tolerance and moderation.”

Much of the English-speaking press debated whether or not Salafist parties were a threat to Tunisian democracy. Anne Wolf writing in Open Democracy on Aug 14 urges us to use caution before condemning legalization of Salafist parties

The new Salafist party is indeed unlikely to be able to ‘tame’ the most violent and radical Salafists – even in the long-term – but it might eventually mobilise some of Tunisia’s religiously ultraconservative populace, particularly its disenchanted youth. Such a possible scenario is feared by many Tunisian liberals, who are fiercely opposed to the increasing role of religion in the country’s new democracy….But before rejecting Jabhat al-Islah in its entirety, it is worth bearing in mind what the Salafist alternative looks like: more secretive and potentially more violent movements spreading throughout the country

Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta concur, writing in Jadalliya:

In many ways Ennahda tends to see the Salafists as potential traveling companions who need to be re-educated and reintegrated into political institutions. The secular parties see them as ideological rivals and as anti-democratic, and therefore, mobilize strongly against them. Paradoxically, this interplay might positively reinforce the construction of a democratic and more liberal Tunisia because finally, all sorts of issues can be discussed in public, and differences about the nature and direction of the country can be aired. Thus, contrary to expectations, university elections rewarded leftist lists rather than the Islamist ones. It is for this reason that we also see contradictory behavior among Salafists, who at times use street violence to demonstrate against perceived attacks on religion, and at other times seem quite happy to refrain from demonstrating more forcefully against the government or reject the calls to violence coming from al-Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri, despite proclaiming quite openly their admiration for international Jihadism.

Robin Wright, in a New York Times op-ed, cautions those who might support salafists. “Salafis are only one slice of a rapidly evolving Islamist spectrum. The variety of Islamists in the early 21st century recalls socialism’s many shades in the 20th. Now, as then, some Islamists are more hazardous to Western interests and values than others. The Salafis are most averse to minority and women’s rights.”

Meanwhile Tunisian Meriem Dhaoudi is more alarmed.

Tunisia‘s hardcore Salafists emerged only after the popular uprising that resulted in toppling the dictator Ben Ali. This culture of Salafism was nurtured in Tunisia by a great influx of Wahhabi preachers welcome to Tunisia with the blessings and welcome of the Tunisian government.  Early this month Abdel Fattah Mourou, a founding member of the ruling party Ennahda was attacked and injured in a conference on religion and tolerance. Apparently the Association of Religion and Tolerance offended the sensitivities of the ultra-conservative Muslims whose ears have recently become accustomed to an intolerant discourse imported from the Gulf and orchestrated in order to generate hatred and violence in Tunisia.

The time has come to rebel against religious fanaticism in Tunisia. Hardline Islamism has become more visible and threatening in recent weeks starting from targeting the two Tunisian Olympic medalists Habiba Ghribi and Oussama Mellouli on social media networks for inappropriate clothing and anti-Islam behaviour.

While “Anglos” debated political inclusion of Salafists, the French press was busy writing about an attack, blamed on Salafists, on a French elected official in Tunisia. The Nouvel Observateur reports:

The shameful attack a few days ago suffered by  an elected member of the French Republic in Tunisia…Walking very peacefully with his family on a street in Bizerte, Jamel Gharbi, an elected official from Sarthe, was attacked by a Salafist gang of thugs. Staying behind to allow his wife and daughter to flee, he was beaten with fists and with clubs. He managed to escape, narrowly escaping a lynching pure and simple.

French foreign minister Laurent Fabius called the incident very serious, provoking an official apology by Tunisian officials. Nouvel Obs sees the event as a growing sign of fascism in Tunisia. “Everything happens as if Ennahda and the Salafists had divided the work: the first constructed a facade of democracy in Tunisia, the second implement the fierce repression of freedom of expression, (leading to) a de facto Islamization of Tunisian society.”

French weekly Marianne reports that Tunisian salafists are taking on the role of the police. It looks first at the recent headlines: “The Salafists are the police in Sidi Bouzid,” “Salafists abuse an imam of the mosque in the city Errahma El Khadhra” “Ennahdha at the heart of violence Wednesday night at El Hancha” “clashes between Salafists and Shiites in the city of Gabes “,” a French elected attacked by Salafis in Bizerte” but also a satirical Television producer arrested, artists prevented from going on stage, festivals canceled under threat from Salafis. In recent days, the headlines Tunisian speak volumes about the climate of fear that Islamists are spreading in the country. According to the website Maghreb Intelligence, several areas in central and south-eastern Tunisia “are now hostage to Salafist activists who have money from the Gulf countries and rely on the support of generous donors from the Tunisian diaspora in Europe.”

French weekly Le Point piles on, seeing a double sided game from Ennahda: “For the sociologist Samir Amghar there is in fact a real collusion between the two Islamist parties.”The leaders of Ennahda, being in power, are forced to keep a moderate speech in public,” he says. “But internally, a good portion of them agree with the Salafist ideology.” In this strategy, the Salafists are responsible for carrying out the behind the scenes “dirty work.” “The Salafists are putting pressure on the sensitivity of the Muslim Tunisian public opinion to create a balance of power in favor of Islamisation of society,” said the specialist in the movement. This may explain why, on August 1, Ennahda filed in the National Constituent Assembly a bill … punishing infringement of the sacred.”

Meanwhile, Tunisian writer Ramses Kefi argues that people should calm down, Tunisia has not yet become Afghanistan, and his wife still wears a mini-skirt.

Update on Salafi attacks in upscale Tunis suburb of La Marsa

[Update: The ruling party has released a statement on these events, condemning and calling for the prosecution of both the artists and the vandals, my English translation of the statement can be found here.]

It was only moments after I posted this article that the Tweets started rolling in. Something big was happening in La Marsa related to the art exhibit that had been attacked yesterday. I left the house at around 11:30 p.m. to see what was going on in. By the time I arrived at Tunisie Telecom, in the heart of La Marsa, just steps away from the French Ambassador’s residence, the evidence was already there – broken bottles, tear gas canisters and rock piles. And then all of a sudden I found myself surrounded by military and police vehicles telling me to get the heck away as they moved in to arrest a handful of young rioters.

The rioting continued for the next several hours (it’s still going on as I write). Curious and concerned onlookers would give each other reports from friends and family, mostly about the expected arrival of reinforcements from nearby cities, especially La Goulette and le Kram, to coastal towns known for Salafi activity.

Much like during the revolution, the riots ebbed and flowed, with protesters surging against the police only to be driven away by speeding paddy wagons and lobs of tear gas. It was unclear how many of the rioters were truly “salafists” – the catch all word for religious extremists in Tunisia. In fact, from what I say, there were a fair number of run of the mill young hoodlums having a lot of fun throwing rocks at the police, with thoughts of the apostates far from their minds. Nevertheless, the religious overtones were there, with each surge came chants of God is great.

Tonight’s protests were based as much on the images displayed in the art exhibit as they were on contempt for the country’s elite, who live largely in La Marsa. The elite are perceived as out of touch and disrespectful of religion. And the reality is that when it comes to puritanical forms of Islam, the protesters are largely correct. The story will play big in tomorrow’s papers and risks spreading rapidly through a society that is more polarized than ever before.

The pity of tonight’s protests, on top of spreading intolerance and polarization, is that it is exactly what the country does not need at this point. Tourism is only just recovering and foreign investors have held on tenuously to their ventures in the country, waiting for a return to stability. Rioting in the hometown of most of Tunisia’s business community as well as a symbol of its summer beach culture will do no favors to either industry.

What does it mean to attack Tunisian bar culture?

A series of stories has grabbed the attention of the international press about religious attacks on Tunisian bars and liquor stores. Attacks have occurred across the country over the past year, intensifying in the past 10 days with major incidences in Jendouba and Sidi Bouzid. These attacks raise the question, what is the prevalence of Tunisian bars and liquor stores? how easy is it to buy alcohol in this Muslim country? and who is being attacked?

From Agence France Presse:

On Saturday, after police arrested a Salafi suspect in the northern town of Jendouba, a group of 200 bearded men attacked the police station with firebombs and stones. They were repulsed with tear gas but went on a rampage through downtown, attacking bars and liquor stores. Fifteen suspects have been arrested. Earlier in the month, another group of conservatives attacked bars in the central town of Sidi Bouzid.

To read the reports, it sounds as if Tunisia’s reputation as the most secular of Arab countries is really true – women and men sip wine together and mingle in a southern version of a Parisian bar. “Pass me the vermouth, honey.” The reality, of course is a little different.

Let’s step away from the 4 star hotel on the coast most tourists find in Tunisia and look at where a typical Tunisian goes to have a drink.

First of all, you’re going to have to get there early. Bars are forbidden to serve after 8 p.m. Secondly, check your pants – if you’re a man, come on in, if not – no booze will be served – these are men only affairs. Finally, do you like dank? If so, you’re in the right place. Tunisian bars have generally not been cleaned since the 1960s.  While I don’t have the precise data, it corresponds roughly to the last time someone was able to open a new bar in Tunisia. Since Bourguiba’s era, alcohol licences have only been available to “Restaurant touristique” meaning that all the bars in Tunisia are roughly from the colonial era. And they smell like it too.

Dive bar does not describe the typical squalor of a Tunisian bar. If you like drinking inside of a roadside gas station men’s restroom, you’ll be right at home. The further you get from the tourist areas, the truer this is.

What, this doesn’t appeal to you? Perhaps you’d like to drink with your mates at home. No problem. Tunisian liquor stores have all you need – both beer and wine. But you’re going to need sharp elbows – and you’ll have to be punctual. Buying beer at a Tunisian liquor store involves queuing (fighting) with about 50 guys in a cage, usually in a basement, or in an alleyway – most likely both. These stores are typically open for about 2 hours a day. But armed with your loot – at least you can go have your beer in tranquility – just make sure it’s in a black plastic bag – no way can you brandish your beer on the street. Also, be sure it’s not Friday, when no booze is for sale and no bars are open.

Of course, if you’re a little more well to do Jendoubian or Sidi Bouzidois, you might be able to head to the local hotel. Ostensibly for foreign customers, most Tunisian hotels are armed with the “Restaurant touristique” license that allows them the opportunity to sell booze. And of course, if you’re in Jendouba or Sidi Bouzid, there are no tourists, so you’re likely to have the place to yourself, your buds, and be able to enjoy a plate of Ojja to boot. And, of course, you’ll still have the dank, womanless environment we all enjoy when having a glass of pinot gris.

What could possible upset this wonderful bar culture in Tunisia? Well, it seems that the debauchery of a typical Tunisian bar is just a bit too much for some of the country’s more conservative elements. Trashing a bar or liquor store and harassing its customers is what the 2011 uprising was all about, after all – at least for our facial-hair endowed neighbors.

Meanwhile, many question whether these attacks will drive away tourists. Well, the headlines might, but the attacks themselves won’t. The reality is that the vast majority of these attacks are aimed at Tunisians by Tunisians. Is it that surprising that we’ve started to see some push back? Bar owners in Sfax and Jendouba are reportedly coming together to defend their establishments. Now if they could only clean them…..

Constitution watch – updates on the drafting of Tunisia’s new constitution

In what hopefully (depending on government progress and my discipline) will be a regular feature on the blog over the coming months, I give you my first “constitution watch” – updating readers on progress in the Constituent Assembly in drafting Tunisia’s new constitution.

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Two articles this week discussed contents of the preambule of the new constitution, which were leaked, separately, to reporters.

An article appearing in the Tunisian magazine Leaders reports that the new constitution will explicitly define the Tunisian republic as a civil state. According to their sources in the assembly it will also maintain the first article of the constitution and define the regime as republican, abolish the death penalty, and confirm respect for universal values.

In a separate article published by Tunisia Live on Wednesday, the English-language site reports that the constitution will emphasize “applying Islamic principles to the constitution, explicitly defining the Arab-Muslim identity of the state.” The article is unclear on whether these are separate articles in the preambule or not. “The draft also describes the new regime as “republican, democratic, and participatory,” based on respect for the people’s sovereignty and the separation of state powers.” The report also states that the draft will be released to the public next Monday, June 4.

There are no major revelations here, although it will be interesting to see how “applying Islamic principles to the constitution” will actually read in the final draft. Many secular opponents of the government have feared that while Ennahdha has specifically rejected references to sharia in the constitution, they will try to introduce a form of religion-based value tests for the country’s lawmakers and judiciary.

For a further discussion on how the constitution is actually being put together, see this article by Duncan Pickard in the Carnegie Endowment.

See also my previous discussion of including Sharia in the preambule here.

Standing up for a Salafist – Defending offensive speech in Tunisia

In flagrante delicto – courtesy of Leaders

Today a Tunisian court condemned Yacine El Bdioui to six month suspended sentence for defaming the Tunisian flag. Unless he is caught again, he will serve no jail time. The case was brought against El Bdioui, a Salafi activist, after he was caught on video in February at a protest at Manouba University taking down the Tunisian national flag and replacing it with a black “salafi” flag – embedded with the Muslim profession of faith.

The act of removing the flag was offensive to almost all who saw it – it represented for many a group of extremists trying to impose their will, and their morals, on the country. When a young women, Khaoula Rachidi, stood up to the Mr. El Bdioui, and replaced the “salafi” flag with the Tunisian flag she became a national symbol.

President Moncef Marzouki openly praised the young woman and invited her to the presidential palace in Carthage. Opposition parties in the Constituent Assembly used the event for political gain as well – accusing the government of inaction. They attacked the government for laxity after the accused was left to his own devices for several weeks before he turned himself in – even though his identity was widely known.

The verdict, like so many recent verdicts in the Tunisian justice system, and despite its softness, leaves a bitter taste. Firstly it shows the inadequacy of Tunisia’s criminal code. In spite of the fact that the crime was offensive, El Bdioui’s act was one of a vandal. His extremism was not directed at any person. In this way, it once again shows the timidity of the Tunisian justice system to stand up for basic civil rights. Similar to the sentences handed down last week against the translators, producers, and distributors of Persepolis on Tunisian television, the judges avoided the kind of sentences that would cause utter outrage – but do nothing to show that certain kinds of speech are and will be protected.

Unlike the cases against Nessma TV or Attounsiya, there are no heroes here. El Bdioui was not charged with a spurious claim of being offensive or blasphemous, he was caught in flagrante delicto. But just like the two businessmen, he was caught in the web of Tunisia’s criminal code which gives too much power to the government to define what is offensive, and too little power to individuals who want to express their views.

The verdict will no doubt draw comparisons as well to the recent harsh sentences given to two Tunisian atheists for posting offensive comments and photos on their Facebook pages (see my article on the Mahdia Affair). Critics of today’s sentence will argue that the disparity in sentences is cause for alarm (the two atheists were given 7 years of hard time, rather than a 6 month suspended sentence). It is difficult to argue that the disparity poses deeply troubling questions. But defenders of civil liberties should remain resolute – both sentences go against the principles of freedom of expression and show the arbitrariness of regulating speech.

I was offended by Mr. El Bdioui’s act, just as I was offended when another group of extremists burned the American flag in front of the embassy one week earlier (no charges were brought).

However, I do defend the right of people to protest peacefully and to express their views publicly. A defender of civil liberties cannot act one way toward people he supports and another for people he disapproves of.

Jewish pilgrimage begins in Tunisia

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The Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, Tunisia (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today marks the beginning of the Jewish pilgrimage to the Ghriba on the Tunisian island of Djerba. While Judaism is the oldest religion continuously practiced in the country, Tunisia’s Jewish community has dwindled over the past 50 years from a population of over 100,000 in the 1950s to about 2,000 today.

Nonetheless, the pilgrimage to Djerba has remained an important symbol of Tunisian openness – this year especially as Tunisia’s democratically-elected, Islamist-led government tries to demonstrate Tunisia’s openness to both minorities and tourists alike. Some highlights from the web on this weekend’s events:

Tunisia Live reports that so far the event has attracted few pilgrims:

According to our reporter in El Ghriba, police and journalists outnumbered the pilgrims, mainly Jewish Tunisians, who attended the event.

The Israeli Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) has previously issued a travel warning advising Israelis to avoid Tunisia. But Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali declared that “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

, writing in the Guardian, describes the Tunisian governments efforts:

The current Tunisian government, elected last October, has made promotion of the event a critical priority for reviving tourism in the southern part of the country. At the recent International Congress of World Tourism, the Ennahda party leader and prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, declared: “Tunisia is an open and tolerant society, we will be proud to have Jewish pilgrims visit El Ghriba as they have in the past.”

President Moncef Marzouki visited El Ghriba synagogue at Passover – which this year also marked the tenth anniversary of an al-Qaida-related attack that killed 21 European tourists. Wearing a traditional Tunisian hat known as a kabbus, often used by Jewish men in Tunisia as a religious head covering, Marzouki emphasised that Tunisian Jews are an integral part of Tunisian society and “any vandalism or violence against the Tunisian Jewish people, their property or their holy sites is totally unacceptable”.

 

Guilty! Tunisian courts convict Persepolis translator

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Today Nessma TV, a Tunisian television station, was found guilty of blasphemy and disturbing the public order for last October’s airing of the French-Iranian film Persepolis. Prosecutors brought lawsuits against the TV owner and other involved in the film’s production and translation into Tunisian dialect.* While both convictions are setbacks for free speech in Tunisia, it is the conviction of the film’s translator and producers that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect.

(For more background on the case, see Masood Hayoun’s article in the Atlantic this week)

The case has played out for over 8 months, beginning with the film’s airing just weeks before the country’s first democratic elections on October 23. Outraged by the film’s brief scene with God, protests ensued immediately after the airing – followed by a lawsuit brought by conservative lawyers. Nessma TV employees were threatened and Karoui’s house was ransacked. The new government, led by Islamist party Ennahdha, condemned the violence against Karoui – as well as the “provocation” caused by the film.

The convictions show failures in Tunisia’s political system on three levels.

Firstly, the fact that the case was a criminal case is a miscarriage. Human rights groups  have pointed out that the prosecutions have been based on Ben Ali era criminal codes which essentially allow the government to prosecute anyone who might be deemed to have done something offensive. These laws were used liberally by the former dictatorship and it is disturbing to see them still being used to silence speech. (see here and here for more background on the criminal aspects of the case)

Secondly, the conviction of the film’s translator is particularly troubling. Supporters of the convictions often use the argument that governments have the right to protect public morality over the airwaves. This is true and is an often used restriction on free speech throughout the world – but that should extend only to the television station itself. The fact that the film’s translator was convicted shows that the prosecution not only wants to restrict diffusion of potentially controversial speech, but to limit its very creation.*

Finally, there is the failure of the government to defend free speech. Each time the government has expressed its opinions about the free speech cases it has been equivocal. “We do not support violence or provocation to violence.” This is unacceptable in a case like this. The government has every right to condemn Nessma. It has every right to condemn the film. It has every right to encourage Tunisians to boycott the film or its supporters.

But it is cowardly to not defend the people who translate art against prosecution; to not call for the end of authoritarian restrictions on speech; and to not differentiate between free speech and provocations.

*This paragraph originally identified Boughnim as the translator based on an outdated article on Tunisia Live. Tunisia Live has subsequently updated their article, stating: “Karoui was fined 2,400 dinars. In addition, Hedi Boughnim, programming director at Nessma TV, and Nedia Jamal, president of the women’s organization that dubbed the movie, were each fined 1,200 dinars.”