We have now embarked on a third night of curfew in Tunis. However, as tonight’s curfew started at 10.00 PM and will only continue until 4.00 PM, I suppose it could be described as a ‘curfew-lite’. As I said in my previous post, the Tunisian government imposed the curfew following a couple of days of violence where extreme-Islamist Salafists – plus, no doubt, some criminal elements looking for an easy opportunity to do a bit of looting – rioted in response to an art exhibition that they deemed ‘blasphemous’ in the Tunisian suburb of La Marsa.
Government ministers have also responded verbally to the trouble and I’m afraid that what they’ve said has been very disappointing stuff. They’ve castigated the rioters, true, but they have also talked about bringing in new anti-blasphemy laws to clip the wings of Tunisian artists in future, and talked about prosecuting the organisers of the La Marsa exhibition, and lamented about the immorality of modern, radical art generally. (http://www.alarab.co.uk/english/display.asp?fname=%5C2012%5C06%5C06-13%5Czalsoz%5C919.htm&dismode=x&ts=13-6-2012%2011:19:10)
While describing the violence as ‘acts of terrorism’, the Minister of Human Rights, Samir Dilou, claimed at the same time that Muslims — including, presumably, the Salafists — could defend their values if they felt those values were being insulted. (In Britain, various shitty right-wing tabloids like the Daily Mail insult my values every day of the week. However, if I reacted by firebombing their offices, I would expect to be arrested.)
Meanwhile, the Minister of Culture, Medhi Mabrouk, denounced the artworks in the exhibition as blasphemous and called for Tunisian art not to be ‘revolutionary’ but to be ‘nice’. While his words may be the result of an unfortunate translation into English, they seem to sum up what former Tunisian president and former tyrant Ben Ali might have told the country’s artists during his two-decade reign: don’t be revolutionary, just be nice.
In reaction to this, some of Tunisia’s artistic community staged a protest in front of the Ministry of Culture building yesterday, though the artists whose work appeared in the exhibition didn’t join them. Salafist agitators have circulated their names and photographs on the Internet, many of them have received death threats and, for their own safety, most of them are now in hiding. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/13/angry-artists-respond-to-attacks-with-protest-in-front-of-ministry-of-culture/)
A few words about the exhibition and the artworks that have caused this disruption and mayhem. I know at least two Tunisian Muslims who visited the exhibition in La Marsa, Printemps des Arts, before the Salafists got around to being offended by it and wrecked the place. Neither of them felt there was anything on display that was actually offensive. One painting showed Allah’s name spelt out in configurations of tiny black ants, which the exhibition’s critics have been ranting and raving about since the weekend, but I find it hard to understand how that is sacrilegious. As a kid in Northern Ireland in the 1970s – a place that was overrun with religious extremists of the Protestant and Catholic varieties, a place where the theatrical debut of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar was greeted by mass protests in Belfast – I remember being told many times to look for the ‘glory of God’ in the natural world around me. This was reinforced by a syrupy children’s hymn I was made to sing on countless occasions, All Things Bright and Beautiful, whose final verse went:
He gave us eyes to see them,
And lips that we might tell,
How great is God Almighty,
who has made all things well.
You could argue that the Printemps de Arts painting was merely telling us how God’s wondrous handiwork is visible in all things, even in the simplest organisms, such as insects. However, it is probably a little difficult to discuss the interpretation of an artwork with some fanatic whose philosophy is ‘burn first, analyse later’.
Meanwhile, there is controversy about whether another ‘blasphemous’ picture, depicting the Prophet Mohammed on horseback, was actually in the exhibition at all. The exhibition’s organisers claim that a mischief-maker falsely included it among the real exhibition pictures when they were posted on the Internet.
Tunisia’s conservative Islamist leader Abu Ayoub has called for a mass demonstration against these alleged blasphemies following Mosque on Friday – tomorrow – which no doubt the Salafists will enthusiastically attend. However, Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, the main player in the governing coalition, has also called on his party’s supporters to take part in the demonstration. In a confused statement, Ghannouchi regurgitated the line that people should defend their religion against sacrilegious artists and urged people to march – alongside the Salafists, presumably – to ‘protect’ the revolution. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/13/ennahdha-leader-rached-ghannouchi-calls-upon-followers-to-protest-on-friday/) If Ghannouchi had been in Tunisia at the time of the revolution, and not in exile in England, he might have been aware that the artistic community played a rather more prominent role in that revolution than the Salafists did.
Thus, the Tunisian government’s message to the Salafists seems to be: you can’t always get what you want… unless you riot, invade art galleries, vandalise property, ransack police stations, throw missiles at the security forces and generally cause such a kerfuffle that curfews have to be imposed on much of the country. Then you’ll get government ministers singing to your tune and making life difficult for those people whom you took violent exception to. Needless to say, this will encourage more trouble in a few weeks’ time when the Salafists find something else to be offended by. And, for them, there are surely many more things in Tunisia that are offensive. There’s alcohol, produced by the Celtia beer brewery and various vineyards, and sold in shops, pubs, hotels and clubs. Around Tunis, at least, there are women who don’t cover their hair – who even dye it blonde – and some of the younger ones wear revealing skirts or tight jeans. There are shops selling DVDs packed with ungodly Western decadence – films that promote sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll and the idea that women can lead lives of their own. There are Tunisian kids who wear heavy metal T-shirts. And of course, there are tourist resorts full of filthy foreign tourists indulging in every possible form of vice. Yes, all that needs to be stopped. You should go out and riot again. The government seems minded to agree with you, once you’ve generated a little noise.
Rachid Ghannouchi – a man who, until recently, I had a certain respect for – made some particularly mind-melting comments about how the current curfews are damaging Tunisia’s tourist industry, coming as they have at the start of the summer. If he’s so eager to protect tourism, why is he urging his followers to march next to the Salafists tomorrow? The Salafists’ antics are guaranteed more than anything else to wreck what’s left of the country’s tourist industry (which has lost a third of its revenue since the revolution). I was in Scotland two weeks ago when Salafists went on a rampage in the north-western Tunisian town of Jendouba, burning bars and off-licences. I saw this reported on the BBC. Jendouba is nowhere near the tourist resorts, but your average tourist won’t know that. Your average tourist will only get the impression that in Tunisia, if you try to sit at a beachside bar and drink a glass of beer or wine, you will be attacked by a religious fanatic with a beard and robes. So it’s best not to go there for a holiday.
A few months ago, while the Salafists were campaigning for the introduction of Sharia law in Tunisia, I read an interview with one of their number who claimed that Tunisia didn’t need tourism anyway. The local economy, said this Salafist, could run just as well on farming. Well, that’s certainly the way things seem to be heading – and no doubt the Salafists would love to see the country become a place of ten million peasant agriculturalists, since hardship and poverty constitute the best recruiting ground for their brand of religious extremism.
Finally, with government ministers demanding that art should avoid giving offense, I wonder who exactly will draw the line between what is deemed to be offensive and what isn’t. The answer, of course, will be those people who are most vociferous about being offended – the Salafists again. However, with them acting as the country’s moral guardians, you can not only forget about art that tries to be revolutionary. You can forget about Medhi Mabrouk’s ‘nice’ art too. You can forget about all art, full stop.
Here’s a link to pictures of the Printemps des Arts exhibition that started this whole crisis, in case you’re wondering what the fuss is about: http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/06/02/in-photos-printemps-des-arts/