This past year the Middle East was defined by the Arab uprisings that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Tunisians were the first to successfully remove their leader, President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, in January. While the successful removal of Ben Ali was a sign of hope and change, Tunisia is undergoing a difficult transition with instability, continued protests, and in some case violence. One example of this continued instability is a series of protests around the recent broadcast of the film Persepolis.
Protests began on October 7th, when the private television channel Nessma aired the film Persepolis, which is the account of a woman growing up in Iran against the backdrop of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The protests continued this past Friday, October 14th. Protestors, who have been defined as Islamists, object to a scene in the film where God is depicted. In Islam, images of God, especially, are forbidden, as are depictions of the Prophet. The protests this past Friday initially were peaceful, but turned violent when police used tear gas and protestors started throwing stones. Also, the home of the TV station’s owner was firebombed.
What ever the offense, protests should never result in violence–Islam does not condone it. Moreover, by holding all these demonstrations, protestors actually called attention to the film, probably encouraging more people to go and view it. This has happened before around Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, when a fatwa was issued against him, and the infamous Danish cartoons of the Prophet. I would argue that more people read Rushdie’s book as a result of the fatwa (which I find to be a problematic use of religious authority in the first place) and more people saw the cartoons as a result of all the protests. It is important to express opinions and it should be done freely, but you probably shouldn’t draw more attention to what you are protesting and violence should never occur.
While most of the media focus has been on this angle of the story, there is an additional aspect to consider. Protestors were also angry about the enforcement of a ban against women wearing niqab enrolling in the university. As I have written elsewhere, most scholars maintain that the hijab is sufficient and that the niqab is not required. However, if women agree to follow security procedures, they should not be prevented from wearing niqab.
This story is important because all these protests are occurring ahead of a crucial election. On October 23rd, Tunisians will vote for a constitutional assembly, which will draft a new constitution. This is the first time that Tunisians are going to the polls since Ben Ali was overthrown. Secularists in Tunisia are concerned because the Islamist Ennahada (Rennaissance, in Arabic) party is expected to win the most seats.
Hopefully, these protests will die down and Tunisians can move forward towards establishing a new Tunisia, where groups with different platforms can compete for representation peacefully and, if successful, not try to enforce only their own positions. This film should not create this much controversy and distract Tunisians from reconstructing their country.
What do you think of the protests? Should Muslims be offended by the film? Are there other ways to express discontent? Are these protests an indication of a larger conflict between Islamists and secularists in Tunisia? Please leave your comments below.