By Houda Trabelsi
A group of Islamists last week-end stormed into a Tunis cinema to abort the screening of a controversial film on secularism.
Nadia El Fani, whose “Ni Allah ni maitre” (“Neither God nor master”) was set to be shown on Sunday (June 26th), raised the ire of extremists after the Tunisian director publicly admitted her atheism. Two days later, she changed the name of the film to “Laïcité Inchallah” (“Secularism if God wills”).
The event, organised by the Lam Echaml Association, was held in solidarity with Tunisian artists who have been harassed for promoting secularism. According to participants, dozens of men, some of them bearded, broke the glass doors of the building and attacked film-makers and attendees with iron bars, tear gas and batons.
“Tunisian police should have moved quickly to protect the audience and organisers of the film,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Tunisians did not evict President Ben Ali only to have their newfound freedom of expression denied by intolerant fellow-citizens,” she said. “The authorities need to stop those who would censor others with threats and violence, and prosecute those responsible.”
Meanwhile, the interior ministry vowed to “apply the law following attempts at attacking citizens’ security, liberties and principles and gains of the Tunisian revolution”.
Twenty-one people were arrested on Tuesday during a demonstration in front of Palais de Justice. The protestors demanded the release of six people who had been detained during the Sunday assault.
The culture ministry reiterated that freedom of thought was “one of the demands of the glorious revolution and its noble goals”.
“We hereby say with deep sadness that these strange practices don’t serve the supreme interests of the country in any way; rather they contradict the peacefulness of our noble faith and the value of tolerance that is considered one of its most prominent features,” their statement read.
Voices of condemnation and concern were also strong across Tunisia’s civil society.
The Ettajdid Movement described the incident as “a barbaric attack”, which threatens “the cultural life and the minimum principles of individual and collective freedoms”. The party also decried the actions of some individuals who “installed themselves as protectors of Islam and monitors of consciences and minds, terrorising the citizens out of a desire to impose censorship by force and to impose backward and closed patterns of thought and behaviour on the society”.
Sofiene Chourabi’s “Political Awareness Association” expressed their surprise at acts that “oppress thought and creativity and crack down on public freedoms”.
“The extremists are taking advantage of the weakness of state bodies and its security agencies and the uncertainty of the situation here in order to establish a reality which they believe they can impose through terrorism and violence on all Tunisians,” young man Mourad Mhamdi told Magharebia.
Others, however, warned against inflaming people’s sensitivities in this volatile period.
“Freedom is a commitment to respect others in their bodies, feelings and everything related to them,” Houwaida Jlassi told Magharebia. “What this director is doing is hurting the feelings of Muslims and non-Muslims. If she truly loved Tunisia, she would help protect its stability in this historical juncture instead of trying to take advantage of the situation for her personal interests.”
“I think that both sides are wrong,” said Mouna Betayeb. “Ever since we were born, we found ourselves living in a moderate Muslim country. Then why should all this happen now? This is a provocation of Tunisians’ feelings, and will, therefore, wreak havoc in the country at a time when we need stability.”