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.

Thug violence vs. Salafist violence – do definitions really matter?

Tunisian soldiers stand guard outside the national assembly

With a return of calm on the streets of Tunis after the remarkable instability in Tunisia over the past week the question has now moved to who and what has caused the recent violence. While conspiracies abound, most press accounts have pointed the finger at religious extremists intent on destabilizing the regime. Some at the time of the riots disputed whether “salafists” were actually involved, with many blaming former regime officials. With events a few days in the past, some have pointed to a quick-to-judge press that is willing to blame the bogeyman of “salafists” for any violence in the country.

First of all, critics are right to point out that the press liberally uses the term Salafism to describe a heterogenous movement. Salafi movements can be found throughout the Muslim world and take on many forms. For various reasons, including a general misunderstanding of Islamist movements in both the West and Tunisia, Salafist has become a catch all term for religiously-oriented groups whose goal is to create a more conservative society for Tunisia, oftentimes through coercion, violent and non-violent. This is important because it is obvious that much of the violence in Tunisia since the revolution, while blamed on Salafists, is actually caused by thugs and opportunists who are taking advantage of a much weakened security apparatus.

For example, the riots in La Marsa on Monday (to which I was an eyewitness for 3 hours of violent clashes) included large numbers of young delinquents who were more than happy to take the opportunity to throw rocks at cops for a couple hours. As I reported to France 24 the following day: “I can’t say that there were tons of Salafis, but among the protesters, I saw quite a few bearded men screaming “Allahu Akbar” [“God is great”] and throwing stones at the police. [Salafist men generally wear their beards long]. There were also very young guys, teenagers who looked like they should be at home playing video games.”

Some have used the fact that there were obviously non-religious elements among the rioters to say that this is yet another example of the hysteria among elite Tunisians and the foreign press for anything conservative and Islamist.

The reality is that in a riot one doesn’t have the opportunity to interview arsonists on whether their goal is a return to a 7th century caliphate or simply to try and injure policemen and “burn shit”. It is clear that at times there is an intersection between these two motivations, with the former giving intellectual space for the latter. The government, well versed in Islamic scholarship, has oftentimes taken the position that it is absurd to link the thuggish actions of petty criminals to an intellectual movement that calls for the return to traditional Islamic, and presumably peaceful, values. Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi has even called himself a Salafist to prove the point that the word is being misused.

But while the government has been outspoken in its condemnation of violence, it has often supported the intellectual underpinnings of the violence committed. This is a pattern in the “Salafist” attacks around the country – a small group of religious conservatives will use delinquents, criminals or opportunists to manipulate a situation. (This account of how a political party office was destroyed by extremists by Sameh B sums up how so many of the stories of extremist violence have played out, starting with verbal harassment by self-described Salafists followed by physical violence by young men who the Salafists have encouraged to do their work for them.)

The government’s position, which has supported many of the positions of extremists while condemning their actions, is a potentially dangerous misdirection at a time when ultra-conservatives have come to play an ever more important role in public discourse in Tunisia. Time after time in the past week the government condemned the violent actions of rioters along with the artists. The Interior Minister, who wisely called off protests announced by Ennahdha leader Rached Ghannouchi last Friday, was brought before the Constituent Assembly to talk mostly about the supposedly-offensive artwork rather than the steps necessary to stabilize an obviously reeling country.

The government has said that it will take steps to control violent movements on many occasions, but oftentimes this has felt like lip-service. While a planned secular protest against violence was called off by the interior ministry, a jihadist one was allowed. The government ordered the art gallery in La Marsa to be closed after last week’s events but  had allowed an illegal sit-in by conservatives to go on for almost three months at the state television station. A conflict at the Manouba university over niqabs has been left to fester for an entire academic year because the government has decided not to intervene – leaving the university to solve the problem.

This past week has finally seen clear and concrete actions by the government on the security level (this is important and highly needed) and calls to be tougher on extremist preachers. When a preacher at Zitouna mosque, an important mosque and center of Islamic theology called on the assasination of the artists responsible for the offending artwork, the Ministry of Religious Affairs called for his sacking. Yet just today reports have said that the preacher will not in fact be sacked. The government has yet to release a clear statement on the matter.

But what sometimes looks like irrational fear or Islamophobia, among both many Tunisians and the press, is also based on the almost daily first-hand accounts one hears when living and traveling in Tunisia. Verbal (and sometimes physical) attacks on mixed groups of men and women have been widely reported among the country’s expatriate community since the uprising last year. Just last month separate groups of students and diplomats were physically attacked by a Salafi mob in Sejnane. While physical violence has been rare, and the country remains comparatively safe, an environment of threats of violence has been left to fester while the intimidation has been met with little challenge from the state, and sometimes denial of well-documented events.

Are the men who sexually taunt women over their supposedly immodest dress Salafists or thugs? Does it matter? The fact is that an intellectual space has been opened in Tunisia for those hoping to instill their conservative values on society. This space allows sexist thugs to harass women, violent gangs to team up with religious extremists, and preachers to foster hatred among their followers – no matter whether their theological beliefs correspond to one of the many Salafist worldviews. What has been created is a self-reinforcing feedback loop in which extremists justify the actions of thugs and thugs do the (implicit) bidding of extremists. This is how militia’s are formed and which is why it is dangerous to underplay the interactions between intellectually motivated groups versus those motivated only by violence.

I appreciate the efforts of those who have called out the press for their wanton use of the term Salafist. The use of specific theological terminology for a heterogeneous group does little to clarify the situation. Nevertheless, in order to be intellectually honest, one must also admit that extremist violence is not always committed by extremists. Where hateful ideas are allowed to fester (and sometimes encouraged), hateful actions will follow – regardless of the actors’ beliefs.

Photograph: Zoubier Souissi/Reuters

After extremists riot, political brinkmanship creates major risks for Tunisian revolution

A shocking display of political brinkmanship is underway in Tunis this week. While commentators, including myself, have called attention to the culture wars (see here and here), the real power play is a political one, pitting the three major political forces, Islamist, secular, and former regime, against each other.

The sight of riots consuming entire neighborhoods around the Tunisian capital, and the systemic violence against civil institutions has created shock waves throughout Tunisia. The violence and rioting caused the government to impose a curfew last night.

But the interesting part of the government’s response has been its continual and forceful condemnation of what they refer to as secular extremists. Artists, organizers, and their political supporters are, according to Ennahdha, the force behind the political discord that caused religious extremists to riot and they should be criminally prosecuted. The rioting was further provoked by elements of the former regime who have been trying to destabilize the Islamist government from the beginning in an attempt to bring back the bad-old days of Ben Ali.

Ennahdha is, according to this reasoning, the only political force that can both preserve Tunisia’s sacred symbols and traditions, while also bringing law and order to the country. Beginning on Sunday, Ennahdha ministers, parliamentarians, and its leader have repeatedly pointed out that their role is to protect the country from all forces that would endanger the values or security of the state. Action on the security element took place last night as a curfew was imposed on the capital and other regions. Action on the sacred was announced this morning by Ennahdha leader, Rached Ghannouchi, who called for a massive protest after Friday prayers to defend the country’s sacred values.

Friday’s protest will serve two purposes, both fitting with the underlying political logic. Firstly, the protest will allow Ennahdha to coopt the Salafi movements who have also called for protests and who risked showing a much more extreme face of Tunisia than the government wants to project. Secondly, the protest falls on the eve of a major event planned by former regime elements, led by Beji Caid Essebsi, who is planning on announcing a political movement the following day. Ennahdha’s call to protest, which will likely draw tens of thousands of supporters, will help neutralize Essebsi’s announcement the following day.

Former regime elements, meanwhile, will take advantage of the dramatic violence and unrest by calling for a return to law and order. Beji Caid Essebsi has long voiced his intentions to form a political movement – the centrist, secular party has scheduled its coming out party for this Saturday for over a month. Following on the heals of a major event in Monastir last March, Essebsi’s goals are to create a viable alternative to Ennahdha that capitalizes on the people’s desire for more security and, to many, a return to the politics of Habib Bourguiba, modern Tunisia’s founder and and authoritarian dictator in his own right. Those who think, such as the government, that former regime officials are behind the recent violence, see this coming weekend’s event as a little too coincidental – as most likely the main message from this Saturday will be that the Islamist-led government is in no position to govern and cannot control the extremists who want to take over the country.

Liberal secular politicians are caught between these two elements, one they see as a secular dictatorship, the other a religious one. And yet, they are in a difficult position because their defense of freedom of expression and universal rights is one that does not appear to be shared by the majority of the population. Ennahdha’s attacks on provocative artwork are widely supported in this conservative country, just as its position on the Persepolis trial, while highly mediatized in the West, cost them no political points. The secular left is stuck defending an unpopular position, and one that seems both elitist and anti-Islamic. While some politicians have come out forcefully against the attacks on art, there is mostly a sense of shock or resignation that they do not have popular backing for their position. Nevertheless, secular parties remain viable for their unabashed antipathy for religious extremists. While Bourguibist parties call for law and order, they are compromised by their authoritarian pasts which rounded up and jailed not just Islamists, but any opponent to the regime. Liberal secularists have no such baggage and will hammer the point that it was only a laxist government that could have allowed the kind of religious extremism that is new (and unpopular) in Tunisia.

Finally, there is the interesting positions of the CPR and Ettakatol parties. Leaders in the government along with Ennahdha, Mustapha Ben Jaafar and Moncef Marzouki backed the position of Ennahdha that the art work in question was provocative and inciteful. These parties have always towed a fine line between appearing supportive of the Islamist-majority government and adhering to their roots as secular, liberal parties. Their political calculus appears to be that their futures reside in unifying their positions in the government, even if it risks internal turmoil within the party and a loss of liberal bona fides.

Under a curfew, with riots and unrest in their fourth day, political forces appear to be playing a high-stakes game for the future of political leadership of the country. One gets the impression that the fuse has been lit. With reports of protester deaths coming in this morning, there is a risk that events could spiral beyond the control of the much-weakened police apparatus. One also gets the impression that pushing things to the brink is exactly what many politicians here are eager to do.

Ennahda statement on La Marsa artwork calls for criminal prosecution of artists

This afternoon Ennahda’s parliamentary group in the constituent assembly released a statement concerning the events of the last 48 hours, which began with a protest and the eventual destruction of numerous works of art deemed offensive to Islam. See my reports here and here. The statement, released by the TAP press agency (government’s official agency) states the following, emphasis mine:

“The Ennahdha Movement (parliamentary) group in the National Constituent Assembly (ANC) said Tuesday that it will propose a law criminalizing the violation of the sacred and will work to include in the Constitution a principle against interference with the sacred.

“Religious symbols are above any mockery, irony or violation,” the group said in a statement Ennahdha, whereas freedom of expression and creation, “although recognized by the Movement”, are not “absolute “and” those who perform them should respect the beliefs and customs of the people.”

Acts of destruction, vandalism and arson are, according to the press release, either “a false answer to secular extremism” or “part of a destructive process targeting the state and its legitimacy through attacks on its courts public administration.”

The Ennahdha group called on the authorities to “open a criminal investigation and to prosecute all those who are found to be involved in the violation of the sacred and destruction of property”.

It also called on Tunisians to not respond to calls for arson and destruction and to express their opinions within the law.”

Readers will note that Tunisia actually already has laws of this nature in its penal code (115), which has been condemned by groups including Human Rights Watch and Reporters without Borders. This has allowed recent prosecutions of those who have posted offensive pictures on Facebook and the translators of films featuring images that have been deemed offensive.

The statement was elaborated upon on the party’s Facebook page.

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.

Culture wars: Salafi attacks in La Marsa target heart of Tunisian secularism

Divine creatures from the La Marsa art exhibition

[Update 2: The ruling party has released a statement condemning both the artists and the vandals, calling for both of their prosecutions. See the press statement in English here]

[Update: Only moments after I posted this article more riots broke out in La Marsa. See my take on the most recent events here.]

It only happened yesterday, but already a lot of ink has and will be spilled on the confrontations at a local art fair yesterday in La Marsa, a coastal suburb of Tunis. The situation took place, according to several eyewitness accounts, at the Abdallia Palace, a former Ottoman palace turned gallery in the center of the town. The art fair, on its final day, was the scene of first verbal confrontations, and in the end, the destruction of numerous works of art by what appear to be religious groups who objected to what they deemed to be offensive works. Here are some quick thoughts on the incident and how its been reported in what will surely remain, along with Persepolis, a key event in the Tunisian culture wars.

A number of journals have already provided descriptions of the incident. In English, have a look at Tunisia Live’s accounts here and here. French accounts can be found here and here.

Firstly, what remains unclear is exactly what was found offensive by the protesters. The La Marsa art fair was held over 10 days throughout the northern Tunis suburbs of La Marsa and Sidi Bou Said. Reports on social networks have been inconclusive. Many have reacted against a work which appears to show a pair of women’s panties, although other sources claim that these photos were taken elsewhere in Tunis and were not part of the exhibitition. The La Marsa bookstore Mille Feuilles reported on its Facebook page that one of the offending pictures was entitled Divine Creatures, in what appears to be an abstract image of different animals. Another image on Tunisia Live’s website shows a punching bag with a woman wearing a veil with a caption reading “I am a Christian woman.” Reports have not mentioned what exactly was deemed offensive by these images or if other images were exhibited that were more outwardly provocative.

Which leads to point number 2, provocation is once again the key word for those who have defended the protesters, including Tunisia’s Islamist-led government. The Ministry of Cultural Affairs released a statement condemning “all attacks against that which is holy, which is the case for some of the works on exhibition.” This follows repeated calls on social networks against violence, but also against the art fair for provoking religious discord in the country. Many of these accounts cited the precarious position Tunisia is in at the present moment as cause for self-censorship of these kinds of works. My readers will recall that the same logic has been used frequently in Tunisia under similar circumstances, such as the release of the film Neither God nor Master last year or the broadcast of Persepolis by Nessma TV last October. In the case of the latter, as in the current case, the call of provocation was also made by the ruling party itself.

Thirdly, the reports are entirely unclear whether protesters and destroyers of art are the same people. Articles have stated that there were at least three different incidences last night. According to Tunisia Live and Nawaat blogger Lilia Weslaty, first a group of people at the exhibit protested directly to the curator of the exhibit. They then said they would return with other protesters and lawyers. When this happened a confrontation took place with exhibit-goers and protesters which was resolved peacefully with police involvement. Finally, later in the evening a group of people returned to the gallery, vandalized works of art, spray painted the buildings, and left. It is unclear whether these were the same groups. This is important because it was only the vandals who clearly crossed red lines.

One other observation is that almost all of the accounts I have seen talk about the behavior of the art fair organizers. It appears that after the initial confrontation, the organizers made it difficult for pious critics of the exhibit to properly view the exhibit. Weslaty reports that these critics were followed closely to “protect the artwork.” Tunisia Live reports that these people felt that those who were following them were trying to “provoke” them. Whatever the reality, the news reports point to what was clearly a class divide between the organizers and the religious activists. It is hardly uncommon to hear among Tunisia’s educated elite how ignorant they think Salafis to be. Likewise, among Salafis, a common refrain is that the elite are completely out of touch with ordinary Tunisians because of their French educations and haughty ways of acting. The reports on these incidents seem to confirm this class of cultures.

So what can we take away from this ugly incident?

Ultimately, what’s important is that this attack was a direct attack on Tunisian multi-cultural, largely secular, and French speaking community. La Marsa, a town built by the French 100 years ago, is one of the few towns in Tunisia where you’ll hear as much French as Tunisian – not only do many foreigners live in La Marsa, but the Tunisian residents have often been educated in one of the French schools in the city. To give an idea, the town of La Marsa has its own polling place for French residents. While previous incidents of this nature have taken place in downtown Tunis or in towns in Tunisia’s interior, Sunday’s incident struck at a pocket of Tunisian progressivism at an event that celebrated free expression. It is unlikely that this event will soon be forgotten and many in La Marsa will no doubt be expecting yet more confrontations of this kind.

For more on Tunisia’s culture wars see here, here, here, here and here.

NPR Series on Tunisia looks at politics, women, presidents, and booze

Filling up on legmi by the side of the road

NPR reporters buying moonshine on the side of the road. Photo by John Poole, NPR

NPR’s Steve Inskeep has been reporting from Tunisia this week on the first leg of a road trip across North Africa. He’s filed a number of interesting reports that are well worth checking out.

Some highlights:

Tunisian Women Turn Revolution Into Opportunity – including an interview with Ferida Lebidi, a member of the Constituent Assembly from Ennahdha. She talk about political repression under the former regime and, interestingly, how she would like to institute the death penalty for adulterers.

Some Taboos Vanish In Tunisia, Replaced By Others – discussing religious taboos replacing political taboos and new censorship in Tunisia. Money quote: “Tunisia is the laboratory of the Arab world. We are today addressing all the questions we should have addressed one century ago. We are negotiating our past, our common values, where are the red lines of the freedom of speech.”

Tunisia’s Leader: Activist, Exile And Now President – An interview with Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki. Money quote: “We badly need the help of our friends in Europe, in the United States, because Tunisia is now a kind of lab — the whole Arab world is watching,” he said. “This year, which is the most dangerous year because it’s the year after the revolution, and the level of expectation is very, very high. And people are waiting for everything — for a miracle.”

Once Tolerated, Alcohol Now Creates Rift In Tunisia- Stories are rampant about attacks on the alcohol industry in Tunisia, but Inskeep provides us with this nugget: “Since Tunisia’s revolution, the company that brews Celtia has reported sales have actually increased. And that company is a state-run enterprise. That means that technically the Islamist party now dominating the government is in the brewing business.”

And finally, Inskeep gives us the story we’ve all been waiting for – how to make Tunisian moonshine.

Road Brew: How To Make Hooch With Tunisian Date Juice (Or Try) – After sampling Tunisian date wine – the NPR photographer stated: “It’s like one-third maple syrup to two-thirds water, but with a hint of dates.” And, after trying to make it in what must have been a dare – “What remained in the bottle was “unbelievably foul.”