Tunisia: Curbing Freedom in the Name of God
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012
The ruling troika is trying to introduce a bill that will “criminalize the mockery of sacred values” after failing to pass a proposal that Islamic Sharia be the only source of legislation for the new constitution.
Tunis - The incident at the Abdaliya Palace Art Exhibition continues to cast a shadow over the political debate in Tunisia. A court convicted the bailiff who alleged that the exhibition was “an affront to sacred beliefs,” and dismissed his claims as invalid. But despite this, the Ennahda Movement’s bloc in the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) exploited the controversy and recently proposed a draft bill that will “criminalize the mockery of sacred values.”
This proposal comes amid the NCA’s preoccupation with drafting a new constitution, which will revise and complete certain sections of the Tunisian Penal Code. One clause included in Ennahda’s draft bill says, “Anyone who insults sacred values shall be punished by a prison sentence of two years and a fine of 2,000 Tunisian Dinar (TND) ($1,241).” According to the proposed bill, insulting sacred values includes “the abuse, mockery, denigration or desecration of sacred values, either physically or morally, whether this is done in words, images or actions – as well as the depiction of the deity and his prophets.”
The draft bill, which the NCA is due to discuss this week, has come under wide condemnation from civil society and some members of the assembly itself, as well as certain international organizations concerned with civil liberties.
In a panel discussion recently held by the National Union of Tunisian Journalists (SNJT), members of the NCA spoke about the dangers of this bill, arguing that “insulting sacred values” may very well be used as a pretext for stifling creativity, imagination and artistic works, and will put artists in Tunisia on trial as it is a loose concept that can be interpreted according to the whims of the authorities.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) also condemned the draft bill, saying it would restrict freedom of expression in a country that has suffered so much censorship.
In addition to the controversy over the Abdaliya Exhibition, which the court is still looking into, in preparing the draft bill in question Ennahda’s bloc also referred to the accusations of “insulting the divinity of God" leveled against Nessma TV. These accusations were made after Nessma TV broadcast the famous [Franco-Iranian] film Persepolis. Back then, the Tunisian judiciary sentenced the TV channel’s manager Nabil Karoui to pay a fine of TND 2,400 ($1,489).
This draft bill confirms once again the truth in the warnings voiced a few days ago by Abdel Sattar Ben Moussa, chairman of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LTDH). He said that the constitution of 2012 may further restrict freedoms in the name of what is “sacred,” just as the constitution of 1959 did so in the name of “public order.”
It is thus a new round in the battle being fought by artists and individuals involved in the creative scene in Tunisia trying to defend a society in which freedom should be guaranteed after so many years of restrictions. Yet one problem facing the democratic movement is the disparity in the balance of power at the NCA, which is dominated by the ruling troika.
Naturally, this ruling coalition is trying to appease its constituents, and its Salafist allies who are yet to wake from the shock of Ennahda relinquishing the clause in the constitution that would have stated that Islamic Sharia is the only source of legislation in the country.
Many scholars like Raja Ben Slama, Naila Sellini, Olfa Youssef, Amal Karami and many other female academics and experts on Islamic culture have condemned the draft bill introduced by Ennahda, in newspaper articles and Facebook posts.
Observers believe that if the Islamist movement succeeds in passing the draft bill it would represent a real setback for the democratic transition and the demands of the revolution, which took place essentially for the cause of freedom, and raised no slogans of a religious nature.
Tunisia has a longstanding Muslim culture and does not need any political parties and movements to correct and curb the people’s way of life.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.