Tunisia’s Salafists Wage Campaign Against 'Un-Islamic' Art

Salafist groups in Tunisia recently sabotaged a series of music acts and even mounted an armed attack against the House of Culture in Bizerte last week, deeming them un-Islamic. It wasn't the first time the groups targeted cultural exhibitions, writes Dorra Megdiche Meziou, who questions the lackluster response by authorities.

al-monitor Tunisian singer Lotfi Bouchnaq performs "Istiftah" "begins" at the opening of the forty-eight session of the Carthage international Festival at the Roman theatre in Carthage on July 5, 2012.  Photo by FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages.

Topics covered

salafist movement in tunisia, salafist, freedom of expression in tunisia, ennahda party, ennahda, art exhibition conflict, art

Aug 22, 2012

After an absence that lasted just long enough for the media to start raising questions, the Salafists have returned, regaining  the attention of the public, especially at the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

Salafists seem to have chosen to target cultural events that they deem profane or contrary to Islam. They recently increased their acts of sabotage against works, shows and other artistic events, starting with the sit-ins held at the places where shows are supposed to be performed in order to block them, culminating in the armed attack against the House of Culture in Bizerte on the evening of August 16.

These hostilities, which are targeting culture and art, are proliferating and increasing in scope and severity. However, police and government forces rarely respond to these hostilities.

Thus, three attacks were perpetrated against cultural events during the same week, although the phenomenon had started way before these three attacks. At the exhibition of El-Abdelliya, a group of Salafists and delinquents ransacked the works of art on display, which, according to them, violated Islam. The Lotfi Abdelli show was prevented in Menzel Bourguiba; the concert of Lotfi Bouchnaq, who was accompanied by a band of Iranian "Sufis," was sabotaged in Kairouan. Then there was the grave incident of Bizerte.

That evening, some 200 "bearded" men used violence to prevent the holding of a conference organized by a Bizertine association as part of the "Day of Al-Aqsa" and which was attended by a Lebanese citizen once detained in Israeli jail, Samir Qantar, whom they deem undesirable due to his support for Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

During this last attack, assailants used sticks and swords, resulting in several injuries, whose images were published in the media and on social media sites, leading to a groundswell of anger and indignation.

Ennahda, as an Islamist party in power, is accused of remaining passive in the face of such violence as well as for showing clemency towards the Salafist groups responsible. Some even accuse Ennahda of complicity.

For their part, the relevant authorities were hardly convincing with their inaction — or downright inertia — let alone their comments. Intervention of government forces was slow or, in most cases, entirely absent.

Facing allegations made by members of the public and the parliamentary opposition, the Ministry of Interior sometimes justified its actions by citing "the delicacy of the situation,” and others due to a "wrong assessment of the situation." The fact remains that this ministry is very quiet and unclear in this regard. One would think there is a hidden fear of these Salafist groups. Otherwise, its actions would be, according to observers, complacency.

For its part, the Ministry of Culture simply issued a statement, which deplored, condemned and expressed concern over the incidents. This statement clearly had little effect on the Salafists, who continued their attacks unabated the same evening.

Who are these Salafists? Why are they so scary? And why are they targeting culture exactly? There are many intriguing questions that may not have straightforward answers.

We all know that extremist Islamists structured themselves since the revolution as political parties or associations, and many of them have gradually been granted visas. However, the recent events do not bear the hallmarks of any known or officially recognized organization. The Salafists who attacked, beat, robbed and destroyed, just wear beards and jilbabs [traditional Islamic robes] and hold black flags and sometimes weapons or batons. These are most likely individuals who are trying to lay down the law in an arbitrary manner by resorting to heavier-handed tactics and sowing terror among peaceful populations. Or is it that someone is hiding behind them and pulling the strings while orchestrating their actions?

Either way, it is crystal clear that these Salafists are attacking, generally and very clearly, culture and art. It is precisely here that the dangerous nature of their actions lies. Indeed, since art and culture in general express the civilization of a people, any repression or constriction in this regard would stifle the entire civilization.

Tunisia, which is rich in its 3000 year-old history, its diversity, openness and modernity, is being robbed of this wealth.

If these Salafists want to deprive the country of its colors, features and voice, then they are going too far. And they if the government continues to stand idle, if political parties and civil society groups just let it happen, bury their heads in the sand and adopt a soft and passive attitude, the Salafists would have succeeded.

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More from  Dorra Megdiche Meziou

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