As I mentioned in my first dispatch, I had only just arrived in Tunisia when a group of Salafists appeared across Avenue Borguiba chanting in unison that there is no God but Allah. I watched from the first floor balcony of my hotel like a bewildered tourist as my fixer Zied enjoyed a cigarette and craned his neck for a better view. Moments later we heard the sound of breaking glass, and later still the crowd dispersed.
The next morning, Monday, Zied relayed some news about the incident over coffee at the sidewalk cafe outside my hotel. The night before, CinemAfricArt, the theatre across the avenue where the Salafists protested, had premiered Ni Allah, ni Maitre (No God, No Master), a documentary by Tunisian-French director Naida El-Fani. The chanting Salafists had been protesting the movie. They had also broken the window of the theater’s box office, entered the theater, and threatened the patrons inside. The police had watched the protest unfold, and arrested some of the Salafists when things turned rough. These events had been shielded from our view by the avenue’s decorative chestnut trees.
Around noon on Monday, after our interview with Moncef Ben M’Rad, editor and owner of the weekly newspaper Akhbar al Joumhouria, Zied shared a hallway conversation with one of the paper’s staff reporters, who gave us El-Fani’s contact number but also said we shouldn’t bother calling her.
“He says the movie is not worth our time,” Zied said when we were back on the street.
“Why not?” I asked.
“He says the film is boring, and that the title is just a provocation. He says it’s not a real story.”
The next day, Tuesday, the paper Le Quotidien ran a front-page picture of the theater’s broken box office window and the sidewalk spray of broken glass. The two pages of coverage inside reported on the protest and quoted reactions from across the political spectrum. The Ministry of Culture reaffirmed, as a principle of the revolution, that liberty of thought and artistic creation are the foundations of modern society. The liberal parties called for tolerance. Afek Tunis, a center-right party, condemned the violence but called the film “intellectual terrorism.” Al Nadha, the Islamic Party, said it was against all forms of violence—intellectual, political, or physical—and that it was equally against provocations to the sensibilities and beliefs of the people.
That afternoon, when we interviewed Mariam Zeghidi, the spokeswoman for La Femme Democratique, a progressive non-government organization that has for years fought for women’s liberation and equality in Tunisia, she pointed out that everyone but Al Nahda had condemned the violence of the protest.
That afternoon we also learned that the government had held an emergency trial of the arrested Salafist protesters that morning, and that more Salafists had come to the trial to attack the lawyers and judges there, which prompted the judges to go on strike to demand more police protection.
“So now the in absentia trial of Ben Ali might be delayed by the judge’s strike,” Zied said with a sigh.
The Salafist protest gave me a nifty set of questions for Sheik Abdelfattah Mourou, an original co-founder of Al Nadha who runs a busy law practice in Tunis.
Here’s some background on Sheikh Mourou: He met fellow politically active Islamist Rachid Ghannouchi in the late 1960’s, and they formed Al Nahda in 1981. In 1991, Mourou broke with the party and renounced the use of violence after Al Nadha attacked a police station. The Ben Ali regime subsequently exiled Ghannouchi as part of Tunisia’s state ban on Islamic politics, but Mourou agreed to quit politics to avoid deportation.
Mourou is the modern, liberal face of political Islam in Tunisia. Lately, he has been making public appearances with Ghannouchi and Al Nadha, who have been working hard to persuade the public of their commitment to democratic principles. Depending on who you ask, Mourou is either proof that political Islam can co-exist with individual freedom and modernity, or he is playing a role for Al Nadha, to help it moderate its image.
We got 30 minutes with Mourou on Thursday. His office was down a narrow lane, in the center of a city block, off a dusty parking area that should have been a courtyard. Inside the ground floor entrance, a handful of men waited at the foot of a marble staircase, and in the reception room next door, thousands of legal files were stacked into paper towers. Resting crookedly atop one of the towers was an oil painting of Sheikh Mourou, in his traditional dress, studying a game of chess. The towering files, the tinge of despair among the waiting men, the Sheikh contemplating a chess game he would never finish was all reminiscent of Joseph K’s visits to the court in The Trial.
The upstairs waiting room had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, a beautiful tile floor, and cushioned antique chairs around a table piled high with books. When Mourou invited us into his office, we sat around a low coffee table covered with—you guess it—even more books.
Mourou was gentle, warm, and quick to laugh. He stressed that he does not belong to the Al Nadha party—that he is an independent Islamist—although he acknowledged he sometimes appears with Al Nahda.
“They are the only ones who will invite me,” he said, turning up his hands. “Everyone else is afraid of me.”
Mourou told us that Tunisia’s constitution should not include any religious ideology, and should protect freedom of religion, including the freedom not to believe. It should balance power between branches of the government, he said, so that no single ideology or institution dominates the country.
I asked him what he thought of the Salafist protest against No God, No Master.
Mourou said he didn’t go to see the film himself. Instead he sent his son. According to his son, Mourou said, while the title of the movie is provocative, the movie itself is not. Mourou said that, in his opinion, the director had given her film a provocative title to attract attention.
“As an artist, she should not have to do this,” he said. “Her art should be able to speak for itself.”
As for the protest, he said he was against violence, but that the revolution had made Tunisians more forceful in their demands for change. Still, he said, all protests should be peaceful, including the Salifists’ protest against the film.
“They should march peacefully in front of the theater,” he said, “and pass out leaflets. We need to educate them to be peaceful.”
Early the following week, we interviewed Mustapha Saheb-Ettabaa, a former major in the Tunisian Army who runs a construction company. Saheb-Ettabaa has formed a liberal party to advocate for a republican form of democracy, with guarantees of individual freedom, separation of powers, and a clean separation of church and state.
He spoke proudly of the year he spent at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in training with the United States Army, and of his love for America.
“You have the best Army in the world,” he told me.
When I asked what he thought of Sheik Mourou, Saheb-Ettabaa had a ready answer. “Sheik Mourou speaks from both sides of his mouth,” he said. “You can’t trust him.”
“I know the Sheik very well,” he added. “I’ve known him for a very long time.”
Later that week, at a seaside open-air cafe north of Tunis, we had tea with Sameh, a landscape architect and blogger who wears the veil, speaks at least three languages, and is friendly with Tunisia’s Labor Communist Party.
I’d met Sameh the weekend before, at a conference between Tunisia’s revolutionary cyber hackers and a group of bloggers from Spain. The meeting was organized by the Tunisian Ministry of Tourism, in cooperation with a Barcelona advertising agency, to promote a tourist campaign to bring young Spanish tourists to Tunisia.
Among its other charms, the conference brought together a diversity of sartorial styles. The men, both the Tunisian cyber revolutionaries and the Spanish bloggers, dressed like Brooklyn hipsters. The Spanish women wore dresses cut to their waists, or that plunged down their backs or fell off their shoulders. They were constantly having to re-adjust themselves. The Tunisian women dressed a little more modestly, and of course Sameh wore the veil.
Sameh was one of the most delightful people I met in Tunisia. Together, on a pirate boat the conference attendees wandered through for twenty minutes, she joked that she had blonde hair and blues eyes, just like me, it was just that I couldn’t see them behind her veil and sunglasses. Later, at lunch, she tried to teach me the lyrics of the Communist Party workers song “The Internationale” in as many languages as she could. We made it through French, Italian and Arabic.
“Look!” she said at one point, interrupting herself. “A veiled Islamic girl in Tunisia is teaching you the Communist Party anthem in all the languages of the world!”
At the open-air cafe, Zied, Sameh, and I talked over tea about the unfolding story of the Salafist movie protest.
“Who are the Salafists anyway?” Sameh asked. “I really don’t think the term has any meaning.”
When I asked what she meant, she explained that the Salafists are not all alike.
There are the “soft” Salafists, she said, who want to live their fundamentalist lifestyle in peace, and have no desire to impose it on anyone else. The “hard” Salafists are the true radicals, who think they have a duty to mold society to their ancient ways. But there are very few of them, Sameh said, and all kinds of Salafists in between.
“These Salafists,” Zied said. “You know, before the revolution we never had them. I wonder where they’ve come from.”
A few days later I heard the most surprising news of all: That the Salafists may not even exist.
Zied had told me about rumors that the so-called Salafists are actually members of the former regime in disguise, trying to destabilize the country by stoking fears of a radical Islamic uprising. It’s not such a crazy idea. Former members of the regime infiltrated the protests in Casbah Square that drove the first interim Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi from office. Widespread perceptions of a radical Islamist uprising would provide a handy justification for the former regime’s re-assertion of authority. Over lunch on my last day in Tunisia, a local journalist told us he had heard those rumors, too, and had seen videos of “Salafist” protesters donning fake beards and traditional costumes before a protest.
And then, of course, as I wrote in my first dispatch, no one thought Tunisia was in any danger of a takeover by Islamic extremists. Everyone I spoke with—journalists, political activists, party leaders, bloggers—said Islamic extremism was among the least worrisome of the threats to the revolution’s success.
And so what to make of the movie, the Salafist protest, and the judge’s strike, which was over in a day? Was the movie a respectable work of art or an empty provocation? Were the protesting Salafists an ominous political harbinger, a violent distraction, or a counter-political operation of the former regime? Were Sheik Mourou and Al Nahda in cahoots, or would they split the Islamic vote? The story was like a mirage. It dominated the landscape, but you couldn’t tell if it was real.
At some point I told Zied we shouldn’t bother interviewing the director of the film. I didn’t speak the language and I didn’t know the culture. I would have no way to make sense of the movie, and no good questions for its director. I had reached the limit of my ability to understand what I was witnessing.
We were crossing onto Avenue Borguiba from a side street, on our way back to the hotel. Zied was smoking down another of his Marlboros.
“Maybe there’s a way to tell all sides of the story,” he said, “so the reader can make up her own mind.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe there’s a way to do that.”