Chanting slogans of “The people want a civil state,” “No to censorship,” and, “Liberty is a sacred expression,” the mass of over 3,000 protesters peacefully marching down Mohamed V Street in Tunis on October 17th differed drastically from the scene of the recent protests against Nessma TV that have broiled throughout the nation over the past week. The motto of Sunday’s peaceful protest was “Aataqni,” Tunisian Arabic for “set me free,” and signs displaying the phrase in Arabic intermingled with posters printed in English and French calling for “Free Minds” and the “Sanctity of Free Thought.”
Reactions to Nessma TV’s broadcasting of “Persepolis” on national television on October 7th – an act which was considered offensive to some conservative Muslims, due to the inclusion of one scene in the film depicting a visual characterization of God in human form, an act prohibited by Islam — varied among the crowd, yet the theme driving protesters to march down Tunis’s main road was the protection of their rights to freedom of speech and preserving the gains of the January revolution. “On January 14th, we called for more freedom, not more recession,” declared one poster brandished by a particularly enthusiastic protester.
Efforts to preserve Tunisians’ freedom of speech were just one thrust of the protest, however. Statements calling for free thought mixed with Tunisia’s continued debate over the role of religion in the country and its compatibility with a pluralistic, democratic society. During the course of the protest, chants such as “No caliphate, no niqab,” and “No to the Salafists — Tunisia is a civil society,” echoed throughout the crowd.
At the same time, there were also those who attended the protest in order to assert that Islam is a religion of tolerance and freedom, and to combat censure of their religion. They condemned the recent attacks against Nessma TV and the justification cited by many that the station was disrespectful to Tunisia’s Muslim identity. Chanting “Yes to a pluralistic Tunisia” and “Stop ignorance,” these individuals asserted that Islam is a multifaceted religion, and that extremists who resort to violence have tarnished its name.
One such protester, a young woman named Sana, proudly carried a sign on which was written, “Islam is a religion of tolerance and freedom.” In explanation of her poster, Sana elaborated: “Our aim is to put into perspective that Tunisia can be built with respect and tolerance. There is no one interpretation of our common religion, and we [also believe] in a common country, which brings together everybody, with a tolerance for different views. This is the modern definition of democracy and the state of law that we are aiming to build…If our people were able to cause a cultural revolution, they are also able to build the first democracy and will have to fight all kinds of extremism in our society to bring the area of tolerance as a mainstream into our society and to build the first democracy.”
Sana went on to assert that the pluralism within Islam makes it compatible with a democratic society. “There is no contradiction between Islam and the state. There is no contradiction between Islam and democracy. This is the first thing that we want to say today…We all live together and talk together and discuss together.”
Long after its conclusion, debates over the appropriateness of Sunday’s protest, Islam’s position in a new Tunisia, and what shape the religion should take spilled over onto the Internet and continue to smolder even now. One comment expressing fear that Tunisia will follow Iran’s precedent has been followed by another expressing alarm at the thought that it may become the next secular France. Moreover, the appropriateness of Nessma TV’s decision to allow a personified image of God to be broadcast across the television screens of countless Muslims and non-Muslims continues to spur discussion. A Facebook group entitled, “One Million Tunisian Muslims for the Conclusive Closing Down of Nessma TV” has already gained well over 100,000 adherents. In this respect, the “Aataqni” protest is no less controversial than Friday’s anti-Nessma protests.
The most striking difference between the “Aataqni” protest yesterday and the previous protests tied to the Nessma story, however, was its calm nature. At one point, the procession halted while a large portion of the mass sat down and began to chant the Tunisian national anthem, waving the Tunisian flag. “No to violence,” the crowd chanted, alluding to the violence that escalated from previous protests against Nessma TV station, which, in one instance, resulted in the burning of the house of Nabil Karoui — the channel’s founder.
Moreover, as opposed to the other Nessma protests — in which tear gas was fired to disperse the crowd of protesters — during the “Aataqni” protest, police forces accompanied and protected the protesters, and all attempts to disturb the event were halted, either by the police, or by the protestors themselves. At several points throughout the protest, isolated incidents erupted which could have derailed the entire proceeding, yet police forces calmly escorted the offending individuals to the side of the road, and the protest carried on without a hitch.
In the potentially volatile days to come as Tunisia’s first experience with transparent, democratic elections approaches, the character of Tunisia’s popular movements is sure to be tested. Hopefully those expressing opposition in the future will look to the “Aataqni” protest as an example of the effectiveness of non-violent campaigns in broadcasting a strong and persuasive, yet peaceful, message.