Tunisia: Curbing Freedom in the Name of God

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Two arrested men are pictured in a police vehicle after they took part with 300 Tunisian Salafists in an attack on the headquarters of a private TV station that aired a French-Iranian film and organized a debate on religious extremism on 9 October 2011 in Tunis. (Photo: AFP - Fethi Belaid)

By: Noureddine Baltayeb

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.


The main problem you will have with sharia law is the following: Religious dictators and "hot-heads," fatwas and loud mouthed excitable imams in local mosques whose blood-thirsty passions will interpret small misunderstandings as demanding immediate "vengeance."
Hopefully, Allah will pay them back in spades at the day of judgement, but in the meantime Tunisians will fear to exercise anything which resembles freedom of speech.

Liars will fiddle with taqiya. Good men (and women) will strive for justice. Just "warriors" for common sense will endeavor to show the"pen is mightier than the sword;" The masses will secretly applaud their efforts, but the sword will take its vengeance on their necks.

I love Tunisia; I love Tunisians and I pray Allah that He will lead all of you to a real democracy wherein His wisdom will guide you to grant to each other the freedoms which He has granted to each individual on earth. Then may He grant your leaders such wisdom to establish laws which guarantee complete freedom of expression, of religion or non-religion, etc. which will gain Tunisia a place of respect, power and prosperity amongst the truly free nations of this world.

Would Al-Akhbar, Ibrahim al-Amin, and As'ad Abu Khalil support examples of this "artwork" being displayed in Ad-Dahiyeh, Nabatiyeh or Sur and do they think that Amal or Hezbollah or their masses would tolerate this?

Islam being a universal submission to One True Almighty God, has no concept of a particular Covenant or a specially chosen people as Jews believe.

It also differs from the Christian view of the kingdom of God in heaven and separate Kingdom of Caesar ( Bushco Obama Corp) on earth.

Islam is a faith, a law, a way of life , a nation and a state, with a system of jurisprudence that is continually evolving ( certainly not fixed) for the administration of this world and the satisfaction of human needs under the sovereignty of the creator of the world.

Islam’s Kingdom of God on earth, with its faith, its laws, piety, rituals, society and state, is the prelude and the means to the afterlife.

It is equally true that Muslims share many of the beliefs and precepts of other religions, particularly Judaism and Christianity. But Muslims have limited common ground with modern consumerism and materialistic ideologies.

Islam may share a belief in the importance of this world, the kingdom on earth, but Muslims ask, “WHY A Nation WITHOUT GOD THE CREATOR?” and Why a constitution whose rituals are based solely on economics and sensuality

With such ideologies Islam finds no possibility of compromise

Islam stands firm on individual piety and individual freedom, a close knit family devoted to the welfare of every relative, and a class-less benevolent society

Provided that Muslims act in good faith with due respect for the Shari'ah and set up constitutional regimes compatible with their conditions, they will be establishing a government more suitable and beneficial to them than those systems. Muslims do not have to imitate American or British constitutions or communist democracies

In this way, the Muslim people would set an example for others, as they are called upon to do by the holy Koran when it says, "Thus we have made you a middle nation" that is, opposed to all extremes-and they would succeed in solving problems that have proved to be insoluble to others.

They would also meet the spiritual and physical needs of man, thereby affording civilization and human life the two indispensable ingredients for peace, stability, and prosperity. A human being is no animal whose only concern is fulfillment of natural appetites; neither is he an angel whose total endeavors are directed toward the spirit.

Adopting moderate courses has been a characteristic of the Islamic message. It has taken into consideration the continuous needs of the spirit and the body. To regulate these needs, it enunciated eternal rules which may not be repudiated, and left subordinate matters subject to change in a manner consistent with the changing interest of this world.

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