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Tunisia culture minister vows to defend artistic freedom

TUNIS: Tunisia’s culture minister, under fire for saying he would exclude sexy Lebanese pop stars from an annual music festival, has promised to protect artistic freedoms which are on the front line of a standoff between secularists and Islamists.

Tunisia, whose uprising against secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali sparked last year’s Arab Spring, has been ruled by an Islamist-led government since elections in October.

The rise of the Islamists has raised fears among secular Tunisians that their country, long considered one of the Arab region’s most secular, may succumb to increased pressure from religious conservatives to ban certain films, plays or musical performances and even to censor art or photo exhibitions.

Last year, conservative Salafist Islamists attacked a theater showing “Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre,” or “No God, No Master,” a film by secular Tunisian director Nadia Fani. Salafists armed with Molotov cocktails attacked the home of the manager of Nessma TV after the private channel showed the Iranian film Persepolis. They were angered by its depiction of God, which is banned by Islam.

But Mehdi Mabrouk, a sociology professor before he became culture minister, told Reuters he would defend artistic freedom against any attempts to undermine it, including by religious zealots. “There will be no restrictions on creative freedom. It is not possible as long as I am a minister of culture.”

“I will condemn any attack on creativity. We will not impose any administrative controls or censorship over film or theater, but civil society should support the efforts of the ministry through a peaceful demonstration and play its role.”

Mabrouk said he raised no questions over the film “Baba Winou,” or “Where is Father,” by Tunisian director Jilani Saadi even though it includes several provocative scenes, including one where a cemetery is desecrated.

“Extremists smashed a sculpture in Tataouin and burned an oil painting in Hammam Sousse this month ... We do not deny that there are incidents of religious extremism, but I see them as isolated,” he said. “We will stand up to them strongly with justice ... We have already filed a complaint against the attackers of the sculpture in Tataouin and Hammam Sousse.”

The moderate Islamist Ennahda party, which leads the government, has promised to support culture in Tunisia and not to impose the veil or ban alcohol. But secular critics say it is turning a blind eye to conservatives who are raising social pressure on Tunisians to conform to religious mores.

Mabrouk said there was some genuine cause for concern but said some secularist intellectuals were exaggerating the threat of Islamic fundamentalism for political ends.

“Some intellectuals want to build legitimacy through an industry of fear,” he said, adding that he had not been constrained by the fact that the government was led by Ennahda.

For instance, Mabrouk said he had refused to allow Wagdy Ghoneim, an Egyptian Salafist preacher whose recent lectures in Tunisia outraged secularists, to use a government-owned center.

Nevertheless, the minister has faced criticism from secularists after saying he would not invite Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe, known for her risque music videos, or Nancy Ajram, another Lebanese sex symbol, to sing at the Carthage Festival.

Secularist critics saw his comments as the latest evidence of creeping religious conservatism, which they fear could be backed by the threat of legal action, constraining popular culture.

Mabrouk said his decision had nothing to do with religion. It had more to do with the government’s efforts to portray the Carthage Festival as a serious musical event with acts that appeal to a wider spectrum of the population than a pop concert. Among the famous names that may perform instead are Celine Dion and Elton John, as well as Lebanese diva Fairouz.

“The reasons for this decision were purely technical and aesthetic and not moral or religious, not because this is an Islamic government ... that is totally wrong,” he said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 21, 2012, on page 16.

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