TUNIS (Reuters) - Six months after Tunisia’s uprising, religious tension is rising over the limits of freedom of expression, as Islamists challenge the dominance of liberals in what was once a citadel of Arab secularism.
Last week several dozen men attacked a cinema in Tunis that had advertised a film publicly titled in French ‘Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre’ (No God, No Master) by Tunisian-French director Nadia El-Fani, an outspoken critic of political Islam.
Police later arrested 26 men, but Salafists -- a purist trend within political Islam advocating a return to the ways of early Muslims -- gathered outside the justice ministry two days later to demand their release, leading to scuffles with lawyers.
Security forces were heavily deployed in central Tunis to stop protests by Salafists after Friday prayers last week.
Secular media and intellectuals have reacted with alarm, warning that freedoms in Tunisia -- a bastion of secularism under 23 years of tough police rule by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali -- are in danger of being lost if Islamists across the spectrum of Islamist politics are not stopped.
“This is a foretaste of what awaits us if firm measures are not taken against these sorcerers’ apprentices, since nothing will stop them attacking hotels, nightclubs or ordinary people sitting in a restaurant,” wrote Taieb Zahar in the French-language monthly Realites.
Tunisia was the launchpad for pro-democracy protest movements that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East since Ben Ali was forced from power in January.
A slow transition to a democratic system is causing tension. An interim president and cabinet will not hold elections until October for a special assembly to write a new constitution that will allow for parliamentary and presidential polls at a later stage.
‘TUNISIA IS NOT SECULAR’, ISLAMIST SAYS
Abdelmajid Habibi, a leader in the Salafist Tahrir party which police accused of staging the cinema attack, said the arts community was trying to provoke Salafists but misjudging the mood among ordinary Tunisians who are more conservative than the father of the modern state, Habib Bourguiba, imagined.
“The country doesn’t need to show a film like this or with this name, especially with the situation Tunisia is going through now. This is a deliberate attempt to provoke people,” he said, pointing to the film’s Arabic title ‘La Allah, La Sayyid’ (No God, No Master) which he said hints there is no god.
He said that despite government policies since independence from France that aggressively promoted emancipation of women -- banning polygamy, easing women’s access to divorce, discouraging wearing the veil -- Islamic conservatism was strong in Tunisia.
“Yes, the Tunisian people do not live the Islamic way, but they are not secular. Society isn’t those who appear on television (talkshows). They have no popularity, they are a minority among Tunisians,” Habibi said.
“Tunisians are almost all Muslims. The people’s mentality is Islamic,” he said, adding secularists were “victims of a system that is the agent of colonialism.”
As Arab leaders such as Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, who was forced from office in Egypt in February, tried to shut Islamist forces out of politics, liberal elites such as the arts community began to see the state as a line of defense against increasing conservatism in Arab societies.
Today many in Tunisia’s cultural elite look to France as a political and cultural model, and Tunisian directors are often feted in France, which funds many of their films.
Fani’s documentary, which calls for protecting secularism in post-Ben Ali Tunisia, was “like a declaration of war, and people wanted to say that they were against it,” Habibi added.
An avowed atheist, Fani is a lightning rod for Islamists who has campaigned for removing an article in Tunisia’s constitution naming Islam is the religion of state. She says it precludes the rights of Jews, Christians, atheists and others.
“There is a battle now to make people understand better that if we are to safeguard the liberty gained in ousting the dictator, we must protect all liberties,” she said, speaking from France.
“What is clear is that there are many who want to live religion as they want. In Tunisia today I do not have the right to say that I do not believe in God.”
Fani said she had changed the documentary’s title to ‘Laicite Insh‘Allah (Secularism, God Willing) at the behest of French distributors after it showed at Cannes this year.
She acknowledged that Tunisians are almost entirely Muslim, but said many wanted the right to choose whether they fast during Ramadan or women needed freedom to dress as they wish.
The leading Islamist party Ennahda, she said, was benefiting from the actions of the Salafists while making a show of standing apart from them.
“The Islamists are not moderate, they will try to take us back to how people lived 1,400 years ago. Tunisia must continue to be modern. We must understand that secularism is an element of progress,” she said.
Ennahda, linked to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, has said it does not agree with the use of force over films or other artistic output seen as offensive, but that Islamic values it describes as “fixed principles” must be respected.
The party was banned by Ben Ali but, like the Brotherhood, has emerged as the strongest single force in politics after the success of protests. The authorities refused to license the Tahrir party over the explicit religious bases of its program.
Tunisian political commentator Rachid Kchena said the secular intelligentsia was playing into the hands of Islamist forces trying to flex their muscles before the elections.
“These secular intellectuals are a very small minority, they do not reflect the attitude of Tunisian society,” he said. “But the Salafis are trying to scare society to impose their way.”
Kchena pointed to other works by Fani that probed Tunisia’s pre-Arab/Islamic identity. “I didn’t agree with her but it’s her right to say what she thinks. These issues concern the future generation, so we have to discuss everything,” he said.
Additional reporting by Tarek Amara; Editing by Giles Elgood