Tunisia: Islamist Furor over Persepolis

TV Executive on Trial for Blasphemy

Workers Vanguard

Following on the popular revolt that ousted hated despot Ben Ali early last year, a ruling coalition dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party was brought to power in elections last fall. In an ominous sign of what the Islamists have in store for the Tunisian population, Nabil Karoui, the director of the TV station Nessma, is facing up to eight years in prison. His “crime” was to air the French movie Persepolis, which recounts the childhood of an Iranian woman during the last years of the Shah and brilliantly captures the terror that followed the rise to power of the Islamic hierarchy under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. Following the broadcast, thousands of Islamists stormed the TV station, setting it on fire. They later firebombed Karoui’s house, claiming that the fantasy scenes in the movie where God is seen talking to a young girl are an insult to Islam. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi hailed these reactionaries as “defenders of Islam.”

Karoui has been charged with “insulting sacred values, offending decent morals and causing political unrest.” While the government is eager to prosecute him, it was forced to postpone the trial several times in the face of massive support for Karoui. Huge crowds of supporters have been gathering at the courthouse, and on January 28, thousands marched through the capital, Tunis, in one of the biggest demonstrations in recent months. On February 1, the National Union of Tunisian Journalists joined with media associations such as Independent Radio Stations in a one-day nationwide strike in support of press independence and freedom of expression and in defense of the rights of journalists and communicators. As we demanded in our article “Tunisian Elections: Victory for Islamic Reactionaries—Workers Must Fight for Their Own Class Rule!” (WV No. 993, 6 January): Drop the charges! Stop the persecution of Nabil Karoui!

Persepolis is an award-winning animated film based on the Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, which has sold over a million copies and been translated into dozens of languages. The movie, which has been seen by millions, is alive with humor and warmth. What might have infuriated the Islamists is not the depiction of God as an old bearded man; rather it was the movie’s presentation of Satrapi as a rebellious, fiercely independent young woman straining against the forces of intolerance and superstition. When she is not preaching communism, she is predicting her future as a religious prophet, or she is out in the streets of Tehran buying contraband western pop tapes and wearing a Michael Jackson button. When she was 14 years old, her parents sent her to Europe to study, where she discovered boys, booze and drugs.

More galling for the reactionaries are the representations of her intellectual family: her charismatic father, who adores his wine and life of luxury as much as his Marxist-Leninist ideology; her thoroughly modernized mother; her sexy grandmother, who used to bathe her breasts in a bowl of ice water to keep them firm; and her beloved uncle, a Communist who was involved in the establishment of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Azerbaijan during World War II and was later executed by the mullahs’ regime. The Islamists were no doubt further incensed by Satrapi’s depiction of a dream where Karl Marx gets God to repeat: “The struggle continues.”

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, Islamists in Tunisia, which was long regarded as the most secular country in North Africa, have been targeting unveiled women, secular intellectuals and journalists. In February 2011, hundreds armed with Molotov cocktails and knives raided the red-light district of Abdallah Guech Street in Tunis, torching the brothels, yelling insults at prostitutes and declaring that Tunisia was now an Islamic state. Brothels in other cities were also attacked. The red-light districts in Tunisia have thrived since they were regulated and legalized by the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

Islamists occupied a university campus in Manouba, near the capital, for two months until their eviction last month. They were demanding segregation of the sexes in classes and the lifting of the ban on wearing the full-face veil on campuses. We are opposed to the veil, no matter what form it takes, as both a symbol and instrument of women’s oppression. At the same time, we are equally opposed to state bans or restrictions on it. The reality is that these bans mean the expulsions of Muslim girls and women from schools, universities and the workforce, deepening their isolation from society and oppression within the confines of the family.

As Marxists, we uphold the democratic principle of separation of religion and state, everywhere. Islamic fundamentalists will use any easing of bans on the veil to exert social pressure on women to cover themselves. Nonetheless, we oppose state interference in private religious practices, which paves the way for broader intrusions by the state into other aspects of social life. It is the task of the workers movement to champion the rights of women and all those under attack by the forces of religious reaction.

The historic aim of the Ennahda party is to establish a theocratic state ruled by sharia (Islamic law). Following the October election, Rached Ghannouchi pledged to maintain a secular course, declaring that his party has no interest in establishing sharia. However, Hamadi Jebeli, secretary general of Ennahda and currently the head of the government, was more forthright when he told a rally in the city of Sousse: “We are in the sixth caliphate, God willing,” referring to reviving an Islamic state. One can practically hear Mahdi, the hero of Haydar Haydar’s Arabic-language novel Banquet for Seaweed, screaming, “In the age of the atom, space exploration and the triumph of reason, they rule us with the laws of the Bedouin gods and the teaching of the Koran. Shit.” (For a review of this book, see “Islamist Furor in Egypt Over ‘Heretical’ Novel,” WV No. 770, 7 December 2001).

The aftermath of the mass upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt last year has been marked by the growing influence and dominance of Islamic fundamentalists. In the absence of an established revolutionary Marxist leadership, the working class in Tunisia and Egypt, whose strikes played a major role in bringing down their despotic rulers, has been politically engulfed by the forces of Islamic reaction and bourgeois nationalism. The fight against such reactionary forces is integral to the proletariat becoming a class for itself, fighting for the liberation of all the oppressed.

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