Following Tunisia's Art Fair Riots, Artists Speak Out About the Escalating Attacks on Free Speech

What is more important to an incipient democracy: the freedom to practice your religion, or the freedom to criticize it?

Over the past month, many artists in Tunisia have found themselves at the forefront of a battle between ultra-orthodox Salafist Muslims and the largely urban creative class critical of them. After decades of living in the secular-but-censored totalitarian state of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, post-revolutionary Tunisia is struggling to find the balance between recognizing free expression as a pillar of a fledgling republic and acquiescing to the newly vocal minority of conservative Muslims that, after years of religious oppression, are loathe to accept any attack on their faith. And the government seems to be failing the test.

Electro Jaye's provocative work was removed from display at the Printemps des Arts fair this month. / Courtesy the Artist and Mitchell-Innes & Nash, NY


Nadia Kaabi-Linke, an artist who lives between Tunis and Berlin, explains her fear that extremist ideas will take over: "There is a kind of religious fascism that is introducing itself into the Tunisian society, and I am terrified of that. There are enough negative historical experiences that make me feel very worried about a future like Iran and Algeria or even Afghanistan."

This turn in public perception comes just as artists are beginning to exert their new-found right to free expression, and marks a shift from the early days of the revolution. Speaking to ARTINFO last year at Art Dubai, Kaabi-Linke said that she regularly self-censored her work in the years before the revolution, as any perceived attack on the government could be dangerous for her. At the time, she had hope that the situation would improve, even sharing the stage in Dubai with the new Tunisian minister of finance, Jaloul Ayed. In April 2011, she said "his presence becomes symbolic, and to meet in this particular situation, because I am representing Tunisia here… yes, it was fantastic." In an email this week, she said that she would avoid going up on the podium with him if she found herself in the same situation today.


The tensions between the largely secular urban middle class and a growing extremist minority bubbled to the surface in early June after several politically charged artworks prompted two days of rioting in the streets of the capital city. The violence was incited when a government official (who many of the artists have referred to as a "bailiff") visited Printemps des arts, a long-running art fair in Tunis that shows work from a mix of local galleries and independent artists, in the upscale La Marsa suburb, and snapped a few photos. He brought them to a mosque frequented by Salafist extremists, who posted the images on Facebook before taking to the streets, protesting violently against several pieces they thought were offensive to Islam.

On June 11 and 12, groups of fundamentalists threw bombs, started fires, and clashed with police in the most fiercest conflict Tunisia has seen since the January 2011 revolution, which launched the Arab Spring. The demonstrations prompted the government to impose a curfew and the embassies of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom to issue emergency warnings to their citizens living in the country.


The fallout of the riots has been a test of the democratic ideals of Tunisia's moderately Islamic Ennahda party, which captured 89 of the 217 seats in the legislature during the October 2011 elections. Ennahda has preached religious tolerance, and said that it would like to model its government after the pro-democracy AK Party in Turkey (which is not without its secular detractors) rather than the more extreme Islamic states like Iran. But just nine months after the elections it is not clear that Ennahda is living up to its promise, and the Tunisian art community is paying the price.

Héla Ammar, a Tunisian artist who was showing work at Printemps des arts (but has not received death threats), frets about moves by authorities to criminalize the violation of the sacred — a move that she said threatens the entire creative class. She told ARTINFO, "It would mark the end of freedom of expression not only artists but also of any intellectuals or creatives … we all have a duty to fight: for freedom of expression but also for a creative free and tolerant societal model."

Over the last week, the government has sent mixed messages on its stance toward the situation. Several government officials said publicly that the violence by the Salafists constitutes terrorism and will not be co
ndoned. However, at the same time the government has shown little tolerance for the rights of the artists to express themselves. According to the Web site Tunisia Live, the human rights minister Samir Dilou "said that sacrilegious art was not allowed, and that it is the Muslims' right to defend their values and norms." Though the government doesn't condone the violence that the Salafists initiated, its public statements suggest widespread intolerance of critical expression — a 180-degree turn from the pre-election rhetoric of the party.


In a May 18, 2011, interview with the German radio station Deutschlandradio Kultur, Dilou took a much more moderate stance. Then, he pushed the idea that Ennahda, while Islamic, is not Islamist, and that the new government wanted a democracy, not a theocracy, though many of the party's values are derived from the principles of the Koran. He said that the party stood for "a state that is dominated by the idea of freedom" — and that "the religious state model in the sense of Algeria or the Taliban has failed."

But according to artists on the ground in Tunisia, the situation has rapidly deteriorated in the past year. After the Printemps des arts fair, many of the artists associated with the politically charged work were forced to go into hiding after receiving numerous death threats — not only from Tunisia, but from extremists as far away as Germany and Canada who had seen the Facebook album. A prominent Tunisian imam, Houcine Laabidi, also declared publicly that the "infidel" artists should be put to death.


This is not the first time that the ultraconservative Islamists have made trouble over cultural elements they perceive as offensive to Islam. In January of 2012, 140 lawyers filed lawsuits against the owner of a Tunisian television channel after a broadcast of the French-Iranian film "Persepolis," which many conservative Muslims find offensive because it contains a scene depicting God (which is forbidden in Islam). Lawyers representing the TV station argued that it was an illegal case and should never have reached the courts. However, the lawyers in favor of censoring the film countered with arguments including, "Freedom of expression should never be a pretext to attack sacred values." The outcome was that the court fined the television station $1,600. Despite these pro-Islamist actions, the radical Salafist minority believes the government is not doing enough to promote the religion of 98 percent of Tunisian society.

Even before the Printemps des arts opened, rumors of censorship at the fair had set off an incident. Tunisian graffiti artist Elecktro Jaye accused the fair's organizers of removing his provocative work for political reasons. Though they denied the claim, citing space reasons, the artist told Tunisia Live, "One of the organizers told me that he was receiving pressure from the State to take down my artwork because it was too politically engaging and might cause problems." If it is true that the fair organizers bowed to the whim of goverment officials, it didn't keep them out of trouble. Following the protests, the government shut down the fair and fined its organizers.

Still, one side of this fight is maintaining its democratic approach: The artists are fighting back by circling an international petition condemning the government for inching toward autocracy. It amounts to a last-ditch attempt to shame the government into acting:

A very vigorous international denunciation addressed to this government published in Newspapers and on the Net would represent and extraordinary disavowal which would force them to preserve freedom of conscience, creation, expression and the life of artists.
-Shane Ferro, ARTINFO