Tunis (Reuters) - A few hours before Lotfi Abdeli was due to stage his play “Made in Tunisia, 100 percent halal” last month, hundreds of Salafi Muslims who believed the show was offensive to Islam occupied the open air theatre and began to pray.
The play, a satire about politics and religion, was cancelled.
It was not the first time religious hardliners have stopped the plays of Abdeli, a Tunisian actor and playwright known for criticizing ousted president Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali before last year’s revolution.
At last week’s Hammamet festival, Abdeli, whose life has been threatened, was accompanied by personal guards.
“I am not afraid of threats or assault, but I do really fear for our freedom of expression and creativity, which is the only thing that we got out of the revolution,” Abdeli told Reuters.
“I am unhappy with the current situation for intellectuals in Tunisia: threats, beatings and being prevented from performing. I feel boxed into a tight corner but I will not remain silent.”
The role of Islam in government and society has emerged as the most divisive issue in Tunisia in the wake of the popular uprising against secular strongman Ben Ali that sparked last year’s “Arab Spring”.
The Islamist-led government that won elections in October must tread a delicate line between conservatives who see the revolution as a chance to express a religious identity suppressed by Ben Ali and secularists who want to broaden freedom of expression.
Thousands of Salafis attacked the American embassy in Tunis on Friday to protest a film made in the United States mocking the Prophet Mohammad that has sparked demonstrations around the Muslim world. Four people were killed and dozens wounded.
“Today, we are showing that it is essential to make insulting religion a crime,” said Habib Kedher, a member of the Islamist Ennahda Movement.
Many Tunisians fear that their North African country, long considered one of the most secular in the Arab region, may succumb to pressure to ban films, plays or musical performances, and to censor exhibitions.
Religious hardliners have fanned those fears in recent weeks by successfully stopping performances on the grounds they violate Islamic principles.
Culture Minister Mehdi Mabrouk said 12 artistic events were cancelled this summer for security reasons after threats from Salafi groups. He said he had filed six cases against groups who stopped showings.
“I am afraid of Salafis dominating the cultural landscape,” Mabrouk told a news conference earlier this month.
Salafis, who follow a puritanical interpretation of Sunni Islam and want Tunisia to be ruled by Islamic law, prevented an Iranian Shi’ite group from performing at a Sufi music festival in the town of Kairouan during the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Another festival was cancelled in July in Sejnane, with organizers blaming radical Islamists who interrupted the event saying it was unacceptable during Ramadan.
In June, Salafi Islamists broke into a Tunis arts fair and destroyed a handful of works to protest against art they deemed insulting to Islam, then ran riot for days. One person was killed and more than 100 injured.
The incidents show how the Salafis can exert influence far greater than their relatively small numbers - just thousands out of the total population of nearly 11 million.
The main Salafi organization, Ansar al-Sharia, refuses to communicate with the media. But Ridha Belhaj, head of the Hizb Attahrir party which supports the imposition of sharia law, said some artists are deliberately provoking conflicts with Islamists in order to make the problem seem bigger than it actually is.
“Some of these intellectuals are trying to appear as the victims,” he said. “We are against violence. We must not stop concerts, which would allow people to see for themselves how insulting these performances are.”
Artists say they want tougher punishment for those who impede artistic freedom. The Union of Tunisian authors has demanded that the country’s new constitution, due by the end of 2012, include freedom of creativity among basic rights.
Poet Sgair Awled Ahmed said he was beaten by a group of bearded men last month because he wrote a poem criticizing Islamists.
“These people do not know the language of the pen or debate, but they know only the language of force, punching and beating,” Ahmed said.
“It’s a black year for culture; our freedom of creativity is in critical state ... The Salafis and Ennahda are sharing the role in stifling freedoms.”
Ennahda, the moderate Islamist party leading the government, has promised to support culture in Tunisia and not to impose the veil on women or ban alcohol.
But secular critics say it is turning a blind eye to the increasing pressures on Tunisians to conform to religious ways. Ennahda has also come under fire from Salafis who say it fails to defend Islamic values.
The party denies the charges from both sides.
“Preventing concerts from taking place or books being published is unacceptable,” Ennahda leader Rached Gannouchi told a news conference at the end of August. “But we expect that moderate religious culture will spread in Tunisia after the situation stabilizes going forward.”
Ennahda is seeking to pass a law which criminalizes insulting religious principles, including in artistic work, which secularists and rights groups see as a threat to freedom of expression.
As the new Tunisia struggles to find its way within the conflicting visions of the future, some artists have found themselves in trouble with the law.
Painter Nadia Jelassi is facing charges of harming public order after her depictions of veiled women went on display at a gallery. The artist could face a sentence of up to five years in prison, lawyers say.
“I am shocked. I was asked what my intentions in my work were. It’s the first time in Tunisia that a judge asks the artist about his or her intentions,” she said.
Rights groups have called for prosecutors to drop the charges against her, as well as similar accusations against sculptor Mohamed Ben Slama.
“Time and again, prosecutors are using criminal legislation to stifle critical or artistic expression,” Human Rights Watch said in early August.
Some artists have said they fear a repeat of the situation in 1990’s Algeria, where radical militant Islamists killed artists and journalists during the height of its ‘black years’ on the grounds that art is forbidden in Islam.
“I have received death threats ... The government is silent and not protecting us,” said Abdeli. He said state security forces started refusing his shows protection after he satirized the police in one of his plays.
“There is a climate of fear in Tunisia. I hope that the painful Algerian experience will not be repeated in Tunisia.”
(This story was corrected to fix spelling of sculptor in paragraph 33)
Reporting By Tarek Amara; Editing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian and Sonya Hepinstall