Death of the Tunisian Artist

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A photograph of the exhibition that was seen by Tunisia's Islamists as offensive to Islam. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

Published Monday, June 25, 2012

The recent controversy over artworks said to be offensive to Islam suggests that Tunisia’s Islamists are determined to steer the course of the revolution in their favor.

Tunis - A few days ago, the preliminary court in the Tunisian capital charged bailiff Mohamed Ali Bouaziz with “being responsible for sabotaging public facilities in various parts of the country.”

The defendant had used Facebook to distribute pictures he described as an affront to sacred beliefs. He claimed the artworks were being exhibited at the Abdaliya Palace in the Marsa suburb north of the capital.

On the closing day of the exhibition, Bouaziz visited the gallery with a group of Salafis demanding that the organizers remove some paintings that “were offensive to religion.”

Artists decided to counter the attack by calling on colleagues to gather in the Abdaliya Palace to defend freedom of expression.

But Bouaziz and the Salafi group returned in the evening to forcefully remove the paintings. They clashed with artists and activists who came to defend the gallery against the Salafi attack. Security forces intervened later, removed the paintings, and shut down the Abdaliya Palace.

Minutes later, Religious Affairs Minister Noureddine al-Khademi made a public appearance and denounced the exhibition. He called on Tunisians to demonstrate and “defend what is sacred.”

The minister’s statement added fuel to the fire and set Tunis ablaze. Salafis set fire to police stations and attacked the Fine Arts Institute in Sousse, in addition to vandalizing a number of cultural centers.

Following these events, three ministers from the Islamist al-Nahda party held a press conference and declared war on artists for “sacrilege.” Culture Minister al-Mahdi Mabrouk said he will sue the exhibition organizers and prosecute the artists who were “sacrilegious.”

Interior Minister Ali al-Arid also spoke about insulting sacred teachings and denounced the Salafis and the artists equally for the violent clashes!

In the furor that followed, nobody asked about what the paintings in question were all about. None of them were “sacrilegious.” The pieces which inflamed the street against the artists were actually from the Senegal.

The pictures circulated on Facebook do exist, but in Dakar, not Abdaliya — none of the public figures who spoke out about the offensive paintings had actually been the gallery and seen the artwork.

Was it a coincidence that al-Nahda’s president Rachid Ghannouchi called for a “Friday to defend sacraments” throughout the country on the eve of the former president al-Baji Qaid al-Sibsi announcing his new party, which he said will bolster the republic and the values of the state?

Is it a coincidence that some MPs from the constituent assembly called for a chapter in the constitution forbidding offences against sacred beliefs?

The events of Abdaliya seem to have been meticulously planned in order to achieve several objectives.

They were meant to deflect people’s attention from the scandal involving the leaking of the answers of the Baccalaureate exams, a blow to the certificate’s credibility.

Additionally, Ghannouchi’s attempt to hold remnants of the former regime and its supporters responsible for the situation is an attempt to prepare the public for the decision to exclude members of the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), the former ruling party, from politics.

The proposal is being prepared by the ruling troika, but faces opposition from other parties, especially the main parties of the opposition, including the parties of the radical Left.

The third objective of the Abdaliya charade is an effort to include a chapter in the new constitution on the issue of so-called “protecting sacraments.”

It will be a sword hanging over creativity, following the failure of the Salafis to impose sharia as the only source of the constitution.

Artists are being used in a political battle aiming to change the social order and traditions, through criminalizing creativity under various headings, beginning with inciting the public and portraying Islam as being under threat.

The battle rages on, following the calls to kill artists by the Zitouna Mosque sheikh Hussein al-Obaidi and the lawsuits filed by activists and artists against the ministers of culture, the interior, and religious affairs, in addition to Bouaziz.

The conflict now seems to be between two models for society. The first is the Tunisia of enlightenment and modern traditions.

The second model is that of a new Tunisia, which the Salafis are trying to impose through Koranic schools, parallel religious education, organizations for the prevention of vice, and hostility towards art.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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