Islamist Intimidation: The Battle for the Future of Tunisia

By Alexander Smoltczyk

Almost two years after the Arab Spring got its start in Tunisia, Salafists are intimidating women, artists and intellectuals. Many fear that the government is tacitly supporting the radical Islamists in their efforts to turn the young democracy into a theocracy.

Photo Gallery: Safeguarding Tunisia's Secular Tradition Photos
AP

It was a Friday in February 2011 when the Jasmine Revolution reached the prostitutes on Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech, a dead-end street tucked away in the dingiest corner of the medina in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. The women leaning against the walls there are registered with the government and pay taxes. The red-light district on this small street is only a stone's throw from a large mosque in the heart of an Islamic country.

On this day, shortly after the fall of the old regime in Tunisia, several hundred outraged citizens had gathered near the prostitutes' street. Some were bearded and others were wearing jeans, but they were all loudly demanding moral cleanliness. Before long, they began making their way toward the women, sticks and torches in hand.

That this could happen was no surprise. Imams preaching on satellite stations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia routinely rage against this hotbed of vice. Arabs from the Persian Gulf don't need the women from Abdallah Guech when they come to Tunisia in the summer since they usually bring along their own escorts. The Guech and hundreds of other so-called maisons closes in Tunisia are for ordinary people, have always been tolerated and were legalized in 1942. Men come and go, leaving behind a handful of dinars.

On that Friday, the military stepped in and police fired warning shots into the air to fend of the Muslim moralists' attack on the women. A militia of pimps, porters and day laborers barricaded the entrance to the lane. After the incident, the sign "Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech" was removed for security reasons. A gate was installed, and the women posted a sign above it saying "Closed on Fridays and during Ramadan" in an effort to accommodate the Islamists.

Maisons closes in other Tunisian cities were not so lucky. In places such as Sousse, Médenine, Sfax and Kairouan, brothels were set on fire, and women were hunted down and beaten.

The attacks of February 2011 marked the beginning of a development that has grown to become a cultural revolution and a model for the post-revolutionary countries of North Africa: the government-tolerated offensive of Salafist fundamentalists against aspects of modern secular society, even if they amount to nothing more than the bleak activities of prostitutes and their customers on a small street in Tunis.

In April 2011, the filmmaker Nouri Bouzid was beaten with an iron bar after he had spoken out in favor of a secular constitution.

A few weeks later, in June, a gang of Salafists forcibly entered the AfricArt art-house cinema in Tunis, sprayed tear gas and roughed up the management. The cinema was planning to show what the Salafists viewed as a heretical film about religion in Tunisia. The police only intervened after prolonged pressure. AfricArt has been closed ever since.

In October 2011, a few hundred Islamists tried to set the house of the owner of the private television station Nessma on fire. The station had broadcast the animated film "Persepolis," by Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi, in which Allah is briefly depicted. In June 2012, morality police attacked the exhibition "Spring of the Arts" in the El Ebdellia palace, destroying about a dozen paintings.

Fear and Intimidation

The scar on Nouri Bouzid's bald head is hardly visible anymore. "Luckily I was wearing a hat," says the 67-year-old director. "All that's left of our revolution is that there are no longer scissors," he adds, referring to government censorship. "But there is a censorship of deeds carried out by the Salafist brigades and the so-called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution."

Bouzid seems more alarmed than bitter. "Hundreds of events" have already been quietly obstructed, he says. Summer festivals and rock concerts have been interrupted, and actors have been threatened. All of this is happening, Bouzid explains, with the tacit consent of the ruling Islamist party, Ennahda. "They're playing a double game," Bouzid says. "They use the radicals to test how far they can go. Not a single artist is involved with Ennahda."

Located on the extreme northern tip of Africa, Tunisia is very close to Europe. It has a tradition of tolerance that artists like Bouzid now believe is threatened. "They want to destroy this identity, using all the money they get from the Gulf," Bouzid says. "But, unlike in the past, we are no longer afraid of the police. We can express our views, we are willing to take risks and we don't take everything lying down. That can be inspiring."

Tunis is still a city where women don't have to be brave to show their hair. In contrast to Cairo, for example, veiled women are a minority in Tunis. In many neighborhoods, Tunis looks like the twin sister of Marseille, a pleasant and open metropolis on France's Mediterranean coast, where most people refuse to be told what to wear in public or on the beach in the summer.

Given Tunis's reputation, it's all the more shocking to hear a young female journalist talk about how terrified she was to find her photograph on the Facebook page of a Salafist group. Her address was also listed there. Above it were a skull and the word "traitor." This isn't uncommon, she says. "You have to expect that 30 Salafists will be outside your door the next morning, shouting that the devil lives there."

It's a Salafist chorus of online outrage. It would be a continuation of the Facebook revolution, using the same tools, but for a different purpose: to intimidate lawyers, artists, university lecturers and filmmakers -- and, of course, women.

Controlling the Mosques

The offensive by the ultra-conservative group has been most successful in the mosques. "It's an invasion. They control most of the mosques in Tunis. They demonize the old imams and berate them as accomplices of the old regime," says Sheikh Ahmed Touati, until recently the imam at the large Zitouna Mosque, and the current head of a group calling itself the "Party of Conservatives."

The 32-year-old Touati is a large, imposing figure. He is sitting with his legs apart, wearing baggy trousers, in front of the Sekajine souk, drinking tea. Most passers-by greet Touati, but not all, especially not those wearing the calf-length robes favored by radical Islamists. "In their view, I'm even a kafir, an infidel," he says. "They aren't allowed to greet an infidel."

He describes the day the Islamists first turned up at the large mosque, a week after the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They demanded different prayer positions and didn't want the Koran to be recited out loud by the congregation. Within a year, the chief imam had been driven out. "Why? They have the money and the satellite dishes," Touati say. "Their message appeals to the practicing faithful, especially the younger ones. The others keep their distance. Our mistake was that we waited too long."

Touati was slapped when he removed an Islamist treatise from the wall of his mosque. He also received threats, with the Islamists telling him things like: "Get out of here and don't come back -- or someone will slit your throat."

Charges of Government Duplicity

Many of the Islamists are also involved in militant activities. The Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution collect donations and allegedly recruit young men to fight in Syria's civil war.

The ruling Ennahda Party has yet to distance itself from the radicals. Ennahda founder Rachid Ghannouchi even encouraged "our young Salafists" to patiently embark on a long march. "Why the hurry?" he said in a video of a meeting with Salafists. "The Islamists must fill the country with their organizations, establish Koran schools everywhere and invite religious imams." The video was secretly recorded and posted online, but Ghannouchi claims his words were taken out of context.

The opposition accuses Ennahda of duplicity, saying that while it publicly encourages tolerant discourse, it also uses the young radicals to intimidate independent voices in what seems like a joint effort.

Ennahda bridles at the accusation and claims it is being misunderstood. "We support tolerance and freedom of expression in the arts. After all, Ennahda means renaissance, right?" says Ajmi Lourimi, a member of the party leadership in charge of educational and cultural matters.

Lourimi is wearing a cap backwards. He turns his computer around and points to the screen, where there is a YouTube interview with the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: "You see? I'm a philosopher myself," says Lourimi. "An Islamic philosopher."

The purpose of culture is to educate the people, Lourimi says. And of course, he adds, he is against raids on art galleries. When asked about demonstrations against airing the "Persepolis" film, he says: "No one is against this film. It's just that there are few scenes that hurt the feelings of many people when it's shown publicly. Most directors realize that this is where cuts are needed."

When asked about his favorite film, he mentions a crime thriller starring Alain Delon and Jean Gabin. "My favorite painter? Oh, I'm too old to go to exhibitions anymore." He's in his early 50s.

The party newspaper al-Fajr has an article about the short film "Bousculades" entitled "The Latest Flashes of Genius of Tunisian Cinema." The film tells the story of how prostitutes in a brothel participated in the country's war of liberation from France.

Sawssen Saya, the film's 26-year-old director, sees the article as a call to action. "The governing party's newspaper denounces a film without having seen it," she says. "Why? So that there will be boycotts in keeping with the motto: Defend yourselves."

At the same time, "Bousculades" received a government grant and has since collected an award at a film festival. This could be a sign of liberalization -- or of what is left of freedom for the arts.

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