Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Destroying Art in the name of righteousness | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tunisian Salafi groups were once again engaged in violent outrage last week.

Anger spread across the country in some of the most serious disturbances since the awakening of radical Islamic groups in the aftermath of the Tunisian revolution. The latest attack was carried out in the name of “upholding religion”, which these Salafi groups believe has been harmed because of an art exhibition.

These are the same entities that have previously been “angered” on more than one occasion over the past months because of films, exhibitions and paintings, because of non-veiled students, and because of gatherings promoting expression and creativity. However, the Salafis’ most recent display of lawlessness caused extensive security strain in various parts of Tunisia, where people were carrying knives, Molotov cocktails, and attacking security personnel.

We may not find it surprising that these groups are drifting towards violence, and indeed the serious call from one imam to shed the blood of the artists participating in the exhibition does not seem out of place in Salafi literature, but what raises a lot of anxiety and discomfort is the position of senior state officials towards what happened. The Minister of Culture stated that he would lodge a complaint against the exhibition’s organizers, and would close the exhibition hall, talking extensively about the sanctity of religion. Here we should note that the painting that caused such outrage was not present in the original exhibition. Nevertheless, his position was shared by the Minister of Interior and the Minister of Religious Affairs, along with leaders of Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party.

The stances of these officials equated the actions of those who carry knives and petrol bombs, vandalize buildings and attack exhibition halls and innocent people, to those who merely painted a picture, wrote a piece of prose or took a photograph. These officials were quick to condemn the paintings and the artists despite the fact that they were yet to see their work. They cited what they called the “irresponsible behavior” of the artists, blaming them for the deterioration of security that the Tunisians currently fear.

There is a renewed sense of bitterness prevailing among youth and cultural circles in Tunisia, especially after the new authorities were quick to imprison an editor a few weeks ago because of a published picture that was deemed immoral. When the revolution’s wounded protestors demanded their rights, these authorities dealt with them cruelly, but on the other hand they have leniently dealt with those who assaulted universities and professors, those who attacked journalists, and those who took down the flag of Tunisia and replaced it with a religious one.

Did the Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi not say about the revolutionaries: They are our children and they remind me of my youth?

If Ghannouchi understands the enthusiasm and passionate emotions of Tunisia’s youth, then he must also recognize the right of any group to demonstrate and express their views. However, carrying knives and Molotov cocktails, vandalizing property and committing violence is not expressing an opinion and wasting the blood of others is not freedom of expression.

The revolution that was staged in Tunisia called for freedom and dignity; it did not call to establish a religious state or a particular way of life. It is true that Tunisia, more than other states and societies, is experiencing a problematic relationship between Islamic groups and the concepts of liberty, but this relationship should always be open to discussion and debate.

The freedoms of belief, women, art and the body are the core battlefields of the fight for democracy in the Arab world.