The riots by ultra-conservative Muslims in Tunisia over issues of
blasphemy threaten to destabilize the fledgling democracy, leading
legislators to consider some limits to free speech.
Before last years revolution, police would drop by the Librairie
Mille Feuilles in this upscale Tunis suburb to look for books deemed
politically deviant. The bookshop has since attracted a different
kind of scrutiny.
Last December a strange man entered and addressed owner Lotfi El
Hafi: You have indecent books, he said, indicating Femmes au Bain, a
book about depictions of women bathing in European art. Im sent to
warn you. The next day he returned with a second man and threatened
trouble if the book wasnt removed.
They were Salafis, says Mr. El Hafi, referring to a deeply
conservative brand of Islam.
Femmes au Bain sold out quickly and no trouble materialized. But
the incident highlights Tunisia's struggle to balance two gains of
the revolution that seem complementary but often clash: freedom of
speech and the free practice of religion.
The debate will ultimately determine the breadth of free
expression in a country that was long among the worlds most
censored. It has also cast a spotlight on the leading Ennahda party,
moderate Islamists who say that Islam is compatible with an open
The party heads a power-sharing government with two left-leaning
parties and says its goal is to encourage Islamic values without
imposing them. However, it is also pushing to criminalize offense to
core elements of Abrahamic faiths.
Ennahda says the move is meant to deter acts that might provoke
violence Tunisia has suffered several bouts of rioting since last
year over questions of blasphemy.
Some Tunisians think that makes sense. But others worry that
limits to free speech whatever their intent are a step toward
One person's blasphemy is another's art
Under President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, repression was near-
total. Media and the Internet were tightly controlled, and
dissidents from across the political spectrum were harassed, jailed,
tortured, and driven into exile. Pious Muslims suffered in
particular, and the Islamic headscarf was banned.
Ben Alis toppling in January 2011 unleashed an explosion of
public discourse. Tunis central Avenue Habib Bourguiba became a
carnival of marches and impromptu speeches. Soon Salafis, long
persecuted by Mr. Ben Ali, were rallying to demand an Islamic state.
In July 2011, dozens of men barged into a Tunis cinema,
assaulting viewers of "Secularism, Inshallah" by atheist filmmaker
Nadia El Fani. Last October, rioting erupted after a Tunis TV
station aired the cartoon film Persepolis. Protestors called both
In June, Salafis ransacked an art exhibit at the Abdellia Palace
in La Marsa that they said insulted Islam, triggering days of
rioting around the country. Several pieces of artwork were burned or
slashed. One was Divines Cratures by Tunisian painter Henri Ducoli,
a collage of humanoid figures that included a naked woman. …