Tunisia’s revolution was the first of what came to be known as the “Arab Spring,” enjoying last fall their first democratic election since 1956. But thanks to Tunisia’s active Islamists, a satellite TV channel owner, Nabil Karoui, has just been convicted and fined for showing “Persepolis,” an animated movie about a young girl who lives through the Iranian revolution.
In the weeks after the broadcast, Karoui’s house was destroyed by a mob of vandals and [Nessma, the TV channel’s ] offices were repeatedly attacked — all because of a short scene in which the girl imagines herself talking to God, who appears as an old man with a long, white beard.
Now, Karoui’s on trial, and so is Tunisia’s year-old revolution and the young democracy it has wrought. For hundreds of years, Tunisia has boasted a complex blend of Islamic and Western values, and now, having ousted their autocratic leader, Tunisians are struggling to find the right balance. No part of that wrenching, sometimes violent debate has been more divisive than the issue of freedom of speech.
Last month, on this capital city’s main boulevard, Islamist activists attacked actors who were celebrating World Theater Day; Islamists smashed musical instruments and hurled eggs. A hard-line preacher stood in front of Tunis’s Grand Synagogue and called for the murder of Tunisian Jews. And a Tunisian philosopher who showed up at a TV station for a debate on Islam was shouted down by extremists, who said he was no scholar of the faith because he has no beard.
In each case, calls for a state crackdown on offensive speech banged up against cries for the government to defend even unpopular expression. Karoui’s day in court became a nonstop, seven-hour shoutfest that will determine whether he is fined, imprisoned, or worse. A verdict is expected Thursday.
In Tunisia, defendants hire a lawyer, but any lawyer in the land may join the prosecution or defense, and those lawyers have the same right to argue in court as hired attorneys. The result: a pulsating black mass of robed men (and a handful of women) surging to the front of Courtroom 10, each with his own view of what should be done to Karoui.
Shouldn’t the death penalty be considered, asks lawyer Nasser Saidi: “Anything related to God is absolute. This was a test of the Tunisian people’s ability to defend God, and they have passed the test.” (“Tunisian court case exposes rift over free speech in new democracy”).
On Thursday Karoui “was fined 2,400 Tunisian dinars (about $1,400) for violating public morals and disturbing public order.” (“Controversial Tunisian Court Ruling Reflects Dilemmas of the Arab Spring”). Not so bad an outcome considering that Karoui’s chief attorney was answering Islamist demands for his client’s execution by arguing that he deserved no more than “five years max.”
For me, this kind of a clash highlights the impracticability of democracy accommodating Islam.
As the reporter for the Washington Post, explained,
The two sides argue as if they live in different galaxies. They cite different laws — God’s and man’s. They base their arguments on different histories — Western traditions of transparency and individual rights vs. Islamic concepts of Koranic authority and the obligations of the community of believers.
Except those arguments aren’t based on different histories at all, but on the same history – the history of “Western [Christian] traditions” vs. “Koranic authority” – the 1400-year history of Islam vs. world.
Democracy is unimaginable without free speech. But Shariah can’t tolerate free speech, because followers of the Prophet see themselves as responsible for defending Allah from insult.
Kouri’s prosecution “was a test of the Tunisian people’s ability to defend God,” said Islamist lawyer, Nasser Saidi, and it “means they have passed the test.” It was also a test of their democracy. And that test they failed.