Reconciling freedom of artistic expression with religion in Tunisia

by Aymen Allani
06 October 2014
Tunis - Tunisia has not yet seen the end of the ongoing conflict between those who believe that freedom of creative expression should be boundless and those who see such freedom concerning religious imagery as blasphemous. Most Tunisians believe this issue is a struggle that will end only when one of the two parties prevails over the other, framing it as a zero sum game between religion and art. The reality, however, is much more complex. There is no doubt that the conflict between artistic creativity and religion will continue. Therefore, we should change the method with which we deal with this ancient and yet ever-evolving conflict by promoting dialogue to find solutions agreeable to all sides.

Since the departure of former president Zain Al-Abidin Ben Ali on 14 January 2011 in the wake of a popular revolution, Tunisia has witnessed multiple cases of violent reactions to exhibitions of artistic works that contained religious imagery. Showing the Iranian feature film Persepolis in the Tunisian colloquial dialect on the “Nessma” TV channel in October 2011 promoted outrage in Tunisia. The film contains a scene with a personification of God. Demonstrations against the movie broke out after it was aired, whereby many individuals stormed the channel director’s home and tried to burn it down.

Debate over the limits of creativity reached its peak after an incident in the northern suburb of the capital city of Tunis in June 2012, when a group of fine artists exhibited paintings and sculptures as part of the Al Abdaliya Spring Art Festival. Among the works displayed were depictions of women being stoned, cartoons of Salafists (Muslims who have a literal understanding of Islam’s scriptures and seek to emulate the traditions of the earliest followers of Islam) - one dressed up as Superman and another steaming from the ears - and a reference to God written in letters composed of ants. Many perceived these pieces as a provocative assault on Islam.

After these and other similar incidents, many secular Tunisians used confrontational tactics to condemn religious conservatives through strong statements denouncing the incidents, sensationalist stories in the media, and political rhetoric by parties in favor of their narrow and immediate interests. Most secularists did not try to understand the motives of those who opposed Persepolis or the Al-Abdaliya Festival. They contended that freedom of expression is absolute, indivisible, and guaranteed to all Tunisians through international conventions. Similarly, the religious conservative movement felt humiliated in its core values bringing back unpleasant memories of past suffering and marginalization under the former regime. While strongly opposing all sort of violence, each side must engage and understand the other.

Today, a dialogue must be initiated between the proponents of absolute freedom of expression in the arts and those more conservative groups, who feel their religion threatened by such freedom, aiming to find the common denominator between the two parties. All groups desire to maintain the climate of freedom they enjoy in Tunisia, which guarantees for all parties that they are free to express themselves and free to practice their religion. Adhering blindly to either position, without attempting to understand and engage with the other side, will eventually result in more violence and may accelerate the loss of freedom for both sides.

Dialogue has proven effective in a similar incident where some groups prevented the theatrical production “100% Halal” in Manzel Bourguiba (Bourguiba house, in English) in Bizerte by comedian Lutfi Al-Abdali, which they believed mocked religion and constituted an assault on Islam. The performer received death threats before presenting the same comedy play in Klibia. Lutfi was adamant and courageous by engaging his opponents on discussions concerning some aspects of his play. He published a message on YouTube explaining his position and inviting his critics to a dialogue that would, in his words, “spare the country the chaos and dissent.” In the end, the show was held in Klibia under the best of circumstances, after agreement over a minor change in the play’s scenario. The performance was then attended by the people who had originally opposed it.

Lutfi was subjected to a great deal of criticism, with many perceiving his actions as dangerous to freedom of expression by granting legitimacy to the so-called “religious police” that censors the arts. In fact, the artist’s behavior is not self-censorship but rather responsible behavior in a climate where hatred is rampant among members of the same nation and the threat of violence is very real. Artists should take charge of their freedom nobly and rationally and place dialogue before confrontation, particularly in a country that is undergoing transition and has not yet reached a state of full and sustained political stability.


*Aymen Allani is a Tunisian citizen who works in journalism and civil society. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 6 October 2014,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
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