Islamist Protests in Tunisia

Tunisia is a free state, independent and sovereign: its religion is Islam, its language Arabic, and its regime the republic. -- 1st article of the Tunisian constitution.

One might think that as Tunisians prepare to write their new constitution, the most debated part of the above phrase would be the word 'republic.' In the last few weeks, however, it's become clear that the word 'Islam' is causing a lot more controversy.

For those who haven't followed the events of the past five days, here's a recap: on Friday a riot broke out at the University of Letters and Human Sciences in Sousse, a northern coastal city. At issue was the refusal by university authorities at the beginning of the month to let two girls wearing the niqab, or facial veil, enroll for classes. Confrontations escalated until on Friday hundreds of protestors descended on the campus, some of them bearing knives, stones, and swords. Police used teargas to disperse the protest.

Then on Sunday, two offices of the television station Nessma in the capital city of Tunis were set upon by several hundred protestors who apparently attempted (unsuccessfully) to burn the buildings down. The attempted violence was a reaction to the station's transmission of the French-Iranian film Persepolis, which depicts the coming of age of a young girl in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian revolution. What rankled the protestors was the animated film's depiction of the young protagonist conversing with an imagined God, as images of God are outlawed in Islam.

The press, both Tunisian and foreign, has described these protestors as 'Salafists,' followers of a radical branch of Islamism whose party Hizb ut-Tahrir, is still banned in Tunisia. But just who are these Salafists and how much support do they have in the mainstream of Tunisian opinion?
Tunisia is indeed a Muslim country, and perhaps more so than was thought before the January revolution. An Al-Jazeera poll in July placed the number of Tunisians who 'strongly agree' with political Islam at 47 percent. But 'political Islam' is not the same as Salafism, and probably means for Tunisians an adherence to something more like the moderate Islamism proposed by the party Ennahdha, which espouses a government based on Islam, but which would preserve equal rights for women and allow non-Muslims to participate in government. At last count, Ennahdha was polling at a margin of nearly two to one over the next most popular party.

Ennahdha has had a telling reaction to the weekend's events: while they denounced the calls to violence, they also took a hard line against Nessma's decision to show the film. This is perhaps what one would expect from a moderate Islamist party, but what's interesting is that their voice has been echoed by in other spheres of public opinion: condemnations of violence, but louder condemnations of the Nessma's choice of programming. On Facebook, a search for 'Nessma' resulted in 47 groups, 32 of which were clearly in protest, and only a handful of which were in support. Numerous lawyers have filed lawsuit and the government itself has entered the fray, opening an investigation into whether the transmission was in violation of the law.

Most recently, this pressure has forced the head of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, to go from decrying (in the French-language Tunisian paper La Presse) what he saw as an attempt to "stifle the voice of free expression" and proclaiming that the channel would "maintain its editorial line" to apologizing publicly on to the government news agency Tunis-Afrique Presse.

All this may come as a bit of a shock to those who know Tunisia as the country of Habib Bourguiba, Ben Ali's predecessor who was a steadfast advocate of a separation of mosque and state and whose image (unlike that of Ben Ali) still adorns the walls of many offices and apartments. Indeed, not all Tunisians are happy with the recent tendency towards the religious.

Just on Saturday, a Tunisian friend who describes himself as Muslim cited the showing of Persepolis as an example of the sort of thing one never would've seen on television before the revolution, praised the film, and made reference to how appropriate the timing of its showing was in light of the mounting political presence of Islamists of different degrees of virulence in Tunisia. Neither of us knew the trouble that was to arrive the next day.

The secularists (Muslim and not) I have talked to here are divided between a worry for the future and a refusal to give in to a culture of fear that could throw the country off its democratic course. Educated, young, and from the upper-middle classes, they know that they are in the minority and are concerned that in a democracy, their rights will be limited. The other side of this concern is their conviction that fear only cause a democracy to move backwards: to seek shelter in the familiar and to err towards the conservative. Some even speculated that the niqab-wearing girls in Sousse were put up to their actions by partisans of the deposed regime wanting to gain votes for parties representing the old guard. While this is, of course, unsubstantiated, the message is that the recent events are best viewed as a distraction.

While Tunisia has avoided the instability that has threatened to push Egypt back into full-scale contestation, it is clear that tensions are rising and that those tensions are centering on the subject of Islam. One thing that I keep hearing from Tunisians of different stripes is: "We'll see."