In Tunisia, uneasy coexistence between Islamists and artists

Sunday 26/02/2017
A picture posted on Facebook by the Tunisian National Theatre shows the poster of the play Alhakumu At-Takathur after the crossing out of the Arabic title. (Tunisian National Theatre)

Tunis - In May 2011, ultraconserva­tive Islamists smashed the windows of Cinema Africa in Tunis, where the movie Nei­ther God Nor Master was being screened. At the time, the movie’s director, Nadia El Fani, defied the Islamists and declared: “I do not believe in God.”
Tunisia has come a long way since then with religious freedoms protected as part of a new constitu­tion but recent events showed that Islamists’ animosity towards artis­tic creativity has not dissipated. They remain determined to censor Tunisia’s intellectual and cultural creations.
When Nejib Khalfallah, a thea­tre director, borrowed two Arabic words from Surah At-Takathur for a play title, he was verbally attacked by Islamists and conservatives for encroaching on the sanctity of the Quran. Among the critics were Tu­nisia’s highest Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Othman Battikh, and several imams.
Khalfallah had altered the title Alhakumu At-Takathur (Competi­tion in worldly increase diverts you), leaving just the French sub­title Fausse Couche (Miscarriage). Khalfallah’s move exemplified how artists in Tunisia take refuge in the French language when attacked by Islamists. In this case, a foreign language was turned into a wider space for free expression.
Khalfallah’s 70-minute play does not touch on Islamic or Islamist is­sues. It is about the self-absorbed behaviour of Tunisian political and social elites and their neglect of the poor and less fortunate.
“I’m a Muslim. I respect Islam and Muslim traditions and rules,” Khalfallah said in interviews with local media. “I call on those who criticised the play to come and see it for themselves.”
The reactions to the play’s ti­tle change were indicative of the daunting challenges that intellec­tuals and artists face in Tunisia.
“The text of the Quran is sacro­sanct and the basics of Islamic ju­risprudence have no preference for using religious words and verses in intellectual works,” Battikh said. “We have to avoid giving pre­texts to the radicals to protest and spread chaos and anarchy.”
Ridha Jawadi, an Islamist preacher, said: “We call for the re­spect of Islamic morality. The use of religious words in cultural works should be avoided.”
Some in the theatre business have viewed the reactions as her­alding a deeper societal regression in the Arab world, not just in Tuni­sia.
“At the heat of the crisis, it is not easy to negotiate when the issue is of a religious nature,” said Fadhel Jaibi, director of the Tunisian Na­tional Theatre.
Political analysts have said the Islamist stand on the play mirrored a dual strategy: While top leaders enjoy the high ground of being part of the country’s democratic poli­tics, some of their followers defend fundamentalist values and cultural restrictions. That dual approach works, the analysts said.
Performances of the play have not been disrupted despite the police issuing alerts about possi­ble violence but the controversy serves as reminder about the un­easy coexistence between resur­gent Islamists and the country’s dominant cultural elite.
Jaibi, a leading figure of the Arab theatre, urged Tunisians to support art and cultural freedoms, saying opposition to the title of the play was part of a broader Islamist of­fensive to change the country’s cultural identity.
“Parties and organisations have to stand with us to face this cam­paign which aims to impose cen­sorship and suppression on the cultural landscape,” he said.
“I believe the latest Islamist move is part of a fierce and planned drive to abort the progressive and modernist cultural project. For a better future, artists and intellec­tuals are competing against a reac­tionary and obscurantist project, which hides its true intentions be­hind the defence of religious sanc­tities,” Jaibi added.