Islamist Intimidation: The Battle for the Future of Tunisia, Part 1

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Alexander Smoltczyk, Dec 5, 2012 (Photo-Gallery: Safeguarding Tunisia’s Secular Tradition).

Almost two years after the Arab Spring got its start in Tunisia, Salafists are intimidating women, artists and intellectuals. Many fear that the government is tacitly supporting the radical Islamists in their efforts to turn the young democracy into a theocracy. 

It was a Friday in February 2011 when the Jasmine Revolution reached the prostitutes on Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech, a dead-end street tucked away in the dingiest corner of the medina in Tunis, the Tunisian capital. The women leaning against the walls there are registered with the government and pay taxes. The red-light district on this small street is only a stone’s throw from a large mosque in the heart of an Islamic country.

On this day, shortly after the fall of the old regime in Tunisia, several hundred outraged citizens had gathered near the prostitutes’ street. Some were bearded and others were wearing jeans, but they were all loudly demanding moral cleanliness. Before long, they began making their way toward the women, sticks and torches in hand.

That this could happen was no surprise. Imams preaching on satellite stations from Qatar and Saudi Arabia routinely rage against this hotbed of vice. Arabs from the Persian Gulf don’t need the women from Abdallah Guech when they come to Tunisia in the summer since they usually bring along their own escorts. The Guech and hundreds of other so-called maisons closes in Tunisia are for ordinary people, have always been tolerated and were legalized in 1942. Men come and go, leaving behind a handful of dinars.

On that Friday, the military stepped in and police fired warning shots into the air to fend of the Muslim moralists’ attack on the women. A militia of pimps, porters and day laborers barricaded the entrance to the lane. After the incident, the sign “Impasse Sidi Abdallah Guech” was removed for security reasons. A gate was installed, and the women posted a sign above it saying “Closed on Fridays and during Ramadan” in an effort to accommodate the Islamists.

Maisons closes in other Tunisian cities were not so lucky. In places such as Sousse, Médenine, Sfax and Kairouan, brothels were set on fire, and women were hunted down and beaten.

The attacks of February 2011 marked the beginning of a development that has grown to become a cultural revolution and a model for the post-revolutionary countries of North Africa: the government-tolerated offensive of Salafist fundamentalists against aspects of modern secular society, even if they amount to nothing more than the bleak activities of prostitutes and their customers on a small street in Tunis.

In April 2011, the filmmaker Nouri Bouzid was beaten with an iron bar after he had spoken out in favor of a secular constitution.

A few weeks later, in June, a gang of Salafists forcibly entered the AfricArt art-house cinema in Tunis, sprayed tear gas and roughed up the management. The cinema was planning to show what the Salafists viewed as a heretical film about religion in Tunisia. The police only intervened after prolonged pressure. AfricArt has been closed ever since.

In October 2011, a few hundred Islamists tried to set the house of the owner of the private television station Nessma on fire. The station had broadcast the animated film “Persepolis,” by Iranian exile Marjane Satrapi, in which Allah is briefly depicted. In June 2012, morality police attacked the exhibition “Spring of the Arts” in the El Ebdellia palace, destroying about a dozen paintings.

Fear and Intimidation: … //

… Controlling the Mosques:

The offensive by the ultra-conservative group has been most successful in the mosques. “It’s an invasion. They control most of the mosques in Tunis. They demonize the old imams and berate them as accomplices of the old regime,” says Sheikh Ahmed Touati, until recently the imam at the large Zitouna Mosque, and the current head of a group calling itself the “Party of Conservatives.”

The 32-year-old Touati is a large, imposing figure. He is sitting with his legs apart, wearing baggy trousers, in front of the Sekajine souk, drinking tea. Most passers-by greet Touati, but not all, especially not those wearing the calf-length robes favored by radical Islamists. “In their view, I’m even a kafir, an infidel,” he says. “They aren’t allowed to greet an infidel.”

He describes the day the Islamists first turned up at the large mosque, a week after the overthrow of former dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. They demanded different prayer positions and didn’t want the Koran to be recited out loud by the congregation. Within a year, the chief imam had been driven out. “Why? They have the money and the satellite dishes,” Touati say. “Their message appeals to the practicing faithful, especially the younger ones. The others keep their distance. Our mistake was that we waited too long.”

Touati was slapped when he removed an Islamist treatise from the wall of his mosque. He also received threats, with the Islamists telling him things like: “Get out of here and don’t come back – or someone will slit your throat.”

Charges of Government Duplicity: … //

… (full text).

Part 2: Going 14 Centuries Back in Time
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Links:

Unrest in Egypt: Opposing Camps Clash Violently in Cairo, on Spiegel Online International, by Matthias Gebauer in Cairo, Dec. 6, 2012 – (Photo-Gallery): Five people were killed and 450 injured on Wednesday night in Cairo as Islamist backers of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clashed with the opposition outside the presidential palace. The government deployed tanks on Thursday to keep the peace between the two sides, but the rift is wider than ever …

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