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Tunisians Battle Over The Meaning Of Free Expression

Tunisian artist Nadia Jelassi with two of the sculptures from her exhibit that were attacked by a hard-line Muslim group. Secular Tunisians and Islamists have clashed over multiple issues related to freedom of expression.
Eleanor Beardsley
Tunisian artist Nadia Jelassi with two of the sculptures from her exhibit that were attacked by a hard-line Muslim group. Secular Tunisians and Islamists have clashed over multiple issues related to freedom of expression.

Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring last year, and many regard it as the most Western-looking nation in the Arab world. Yet it's also waging a roaring debate over how to define freedom of expression in an evolving society.

Tunisian protesters attacked the U.S. Embassy recently in response to the anti-Muslim video Innocence of Muslims. This was just the latest of several episodes in which hard-line Muslims have acted out publicly to what they see as attacks on their religion.

For Tunisian artist Nadia Jelassi, the trouble started in June when her sculptures, along with those of other artists, went on display at a Tunis gallery.

Jelassi's sculptures featured female mannequins in conservative Islamic dress that included robes, with their hair covered. The work was surrounded by a bed of smooth stones.

Jelassi says everything was fine until the last day of the exhibit, when a man taking photos asked that some of the artwork be taken down.

"Of course we refused," she says. "But before long he came back with a group of bearded men. They scrawled 'Death to Blasphemous Artists' on the gallery walls, and later that night broke into the building and destroyed many of the pieces."

The men apparently thought the stones suggested that Muslim women wearing traditional clothing should be stoned, Jelassi says.

Soon, groups of bearded, hard-line Muslims, known as Salafists, began protesting around the country against what they perceive as un-Islamic art. Artists and secular Tunisians held counterprotests. Some of the confrontations turned violent.

Artist Charged With Disturbing Public Order

Jelassi says the Salafists' behavior didn't surprise her — something else did.

"I was called to appear before a judge by our so-called moderate Muslim government, and charged with disturbing public order. I was fingerprinted, and mug shots were taken. I have a police record now," she says.

Jelassi says she was so shaken by the judge's actions, that when she got home, she took her own mug shots and pasted them onto her Facebook page.

The pictures sparked a campaign of support for freedom of expression. Since Tunisia's revolution in January 2011, the kind of religious extremists who were once jailed under the dictatorship have been harassing Tunisian artists, journalists and intellectuals.

Secular Tunisians accuse the government of turning a blind eye to the aggressions of the Islamists.

Tunisia's Islamist-led government did seem stunned by the attack on the American Embassy in Tunis this month, and quickly condemned it.

Islamist Leader Wants Limits On Expression

But Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party that captured elections last year, also said that the video that sparked the attack, Innocence of Muslims, wasn't something that should be protected by freedom of expression.

"This video wasn't freedom of expression; it was freedom to attack what is sacred to others," said Ghannouchi. "We don't see a contradiction between free expression and respecting others' beliefs."

Tunisia's government is trying to insert an article into the country's new constitution that would make insulting sacred beliefs a criminal offense. The idea is anathema to secular Tunisians.

But for grocery store manager Salem Amri, freedom of expression stops when it hurts others.

"There are always barriers that we shouldn't be allowed to touch," he says. "We Muslims have our principles."

Amri points out that in some parts of Europe, freedom of expression does not permit denying the Holocaust — so what's wrong with protecting religious beliefs?

Fares Mabrouk, who runs the Arab Policy Institute, says every country has its red lines.

"There is no absolute freedom of expression. Now in Tunisia, are we going to set our limits in terms of freedom of expression? There are different opinions. And this is part of our building a new democracy. This is one of our tasks," Mabrouk says.

Former newspaper editor Hmidi Ben Romdhane disagrees. He says by limiting freedom of expression, Islamists want to push the Tunisian people into a new sort of religious dictatorship.

"We are all Muslims, and the majority of the people are believers, not atheists," he says. "But what these Islamists want to do is to impose new kinds of religious practices that the Tunisian people are not used to. Of course the people of Tunisia reject this."

Back in her studio, artist Nadia Jelassi calls the attack on freedom of expression very grave. And if it isn't stopped, she says, the revolution will be lost.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eleanor Beardsley
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.