D’oh! With the sort of disastrous timing that normally only Homer Simpson would be capable of, the new post-dictatorship, post-revolutionary Tunisia showed the world what a beacon of democracy, freedom and tolerance it has now become by fining Nabil Karoui, owner of the Nessma television station, 2400 dinar (about 1000 pounds) yesterday. Coincidentally, that day, May 3rd, happened to be World Press Freedom Day. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/05/03/on-world-press-freedom-day-nessma-tv-owner-karoui-convicted/.)
Last year, Karoui allowed his station to broadcast the 2007 French-Iranian film Persepolis, something that upset a number of upstanding Tunisian citizens. In the past 16 months, many of these same citizens have demonstrated their upstanding-ness by threatening to attack cinemas for showing other films that they disapprove of, by threatening to burn down cafes that serve food during Ramadan, by hassling women in the streets for not being of the right appearance or exhibiting the right dress-sense, and so on.
Karoui managed to be philosophical about yesterday’s verdict, pointing out that it could have been a lot worse. For instance, he didn’t end up in jail, as had been demanded by the Salafists – for yes, it was the bearded, robed and sneakered ones who had spearheaded the campaign against him and his TV station. Some of them had even been calling for his execution.
The Salafists’ beef against Persepolis is that one of its scenes shows the face of God, which in their view is sacrilegious. However, I can think of plenty of other movies over the years that have shown God. Off the top of my head, I can cite the Time Bandits, Oh God, Bruce Almighty, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the Acid House, Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back – at least some of which, I’m sure, have been available in Tunis’s usually well-stocked DVD stores at one time or other.
The irony of this verdict being passed on World Press Freedom Day is by no means the only one here. Most local commentators seem to have missed the irony that post-revolutionary religious extremists in Tunisia should be frothing at the mouth about a movie telling the story of how post-revolutionary religious extremists took over in Iran. Also ironic is the fact that Nabil Karoui was prosecuted under Article 101 of the penal code, which had been created by the hated old regime in 2001 as yet another way of locking up people whose opinions they didn’t like.
One final irony is that May 3rd was also the day that controversial Islamic cleric, scholar and talk-show host Youssef Al Qaradawi arrived in Tunisia, as a guest of the majority Islamist party Ennahdha. A good few people in Tunisia would find some of Al Qaradawi’s past utterances offensive too, although as yet nobody has tried to bring the Ennahdha leadership to court for inviting him. (http://www.tunisia-live.net/2012/05/03/al-qaradawi-visit-divides-tunisian-public-opinion/.)
Among other things, Al Qaradawi has stated that it is okay for suicide bombers to kill pregnant Israeli women; Hitler’s persecution of the Jews was only part of Allah’s will (and they exaggerated the whole episode anyway); the fatwa on Salman Rushdie’s life was a good thing; homosexuality is a crime punishable by death; and wife-beating and female circumcision are justifiable under certain circumstances. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yusuf_al-Qaradawi.) All right, I’m being selective here, and in fact Al Qaradawi has said other things that seem quite reasonable – but those who would condemn Persepolis out of hand on the basis of one brief scene are being a lot more selective than I am.
For the record, I think that in the spirit of freedom of speech it’s acceptable to invite Al Qaradawi to Tunisia, just as I think it’s acceptable for Nessma TV to broadcast Persepolis. Since the old regime was kicked out last year, Tunisians have found themselves in the intoxicating position of being free – for the most part – to voice their own opinions, which is part of what democracy’s about. Unfortunately, another part of what democracy’s about is having to listen to other people’s opinions, opinions you don’t necessarily agree with, and learning to put up with them. That second bit, a lot of people in the government, in the religious and legal institutions, and on the streets here haven’t quite mastered yet. But if the new Tunisia is going to be better than the old Tunisia, they will need to master it.
Inevitably, the international news media has now picked up on the Nessma TV debacle and it will further tarnish the country’s image abroad. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-17936628.) However, I would like to end this entry on a positive note, so I will mention a recent event that didn’t get much international publicity, though it should have done. This Tuesday – May 1st, International Labour Day – saw big marches by Tunisia’s trade unions, liberals, left-wingers and secularists. One of the sites for these was Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the middle of Tunis, which had been the scene of trouble between protesters and riot police on April 9th and April 7th, as well as the scene of aggro between Salafists (again) and Tunisia’s mad, bad and dangerous-to-know national Association for Drama Arts back on March 25th.
Gratifyingly, however, the show of strength by leftward and liberal-leaning Tunisia on May 1st passed off peacefully. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=43_1wy9MVmM.) The only injury I heard of was that received by a Tunisian associate of mine, who complained the next day that during the march on Habib Bourguiba Avenue he’d suffered sunburn on his sizeable bald-patch.