Tunisian policemen stand guard in Tunis in June
Tunisian policemen stand guard in Tunis in June 2011. Tunisian police on Sunday broke up a mob of angry Salafists intent on attacking a TV network that aired a film on the Iranian revolution, raising fears of unrest with historic polls only two weeks away. © Fethi Belaid - AFP/File
Tunisian policemen stand guard in Tunis in June
Cecile Feuillatre, AFP
Last updated: October 9, 2011

Tunisia police thwarts Salafist attack on TV station

Tunisian police on Sunday broke up a mob of angry Salafists intent on attacking a TV network that aired a film on the Iranian revolution, raising fears of unrest with historic polls only two weeks away.

The crowd targeted Nessma TV for airing "Persepolis" -- an award-winning animation film they say is offensive to Islam -- in the latest attack by conservative Muslims against signs of secularism in post-revolution Tunisia.

"There was a first attempt to attack our headquarters by a group of around 200 Salafists, who were dispersed by police before reaching our offices," said Nebil Karoui, the head of the private channel.

He had earlier told AFP that the mob had attacked his offices and tried to torch it but he then clarified that he only feared they would do so.

The interior ministry's spokesman, Hichem Meddeb, confirmed the incident and said that up to around 100 people had been rounded up.

"Some 200 Salafists who were later joined by another hundred people headed towards Nessma to attack the station. Security forces stepped in and broke up the posse," he told AFP.

An AFP photographer said a second group of protestors arrived after the first one was dispersed to chant slogans against Nessma.

"After we aired 'Persepolis' on Friday, there were messages posted on Facebook calling for Nessma to be torched and our journalists to be killed," Karoui said.

"Persepolis" is an internationally-acclaimed French-Iranian animation feature based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical and eponymous graphic novel.

It describes the last days of the US-backed shah's regime and the subsequent 1979 revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeiny through the eyes of a young girl.

The airing of the film in the local dialect was a first in Tunisia.

"We are used to threats but what is alarming is that this time they put words into action," Karoui said.

"Nessma is the progressist channel in the Maghreb and we will not be deterred. We will continue to programme whatever we choose. We did not kick one dictatorship out to bring in another," he said.

Salafists -- whose Tahrir party has not been legalised -- are one of the most conservative and radical currents in political Islam.

Two hundred protestors on Saturday stormed a university campus in the city of Sousse, south of Tunis, after a female student was denied a place because she was wearing a full face veil, which is banned in Tunisian universities.

Many observers have voiced fears that the Arab Spring -- which started in Tunisia -- would herald the rise of Islamist hardliners across the region.

But the country's leading Islamist political party, Ennahda, condemned the attack, calling it an "isolated incident" that should not provoke concern about growing radical influence.

"We can only condemn this type of incident," Samir Dilou of Ennahda's political bureau told AFP.

"If people have criticisms against Nessma, they must express themselves in the media, not use violence."

Dilou said he had not seen "Persopolis" and therefore declined to offer an assessment of the film.

"When confronted with this type of incident, it is neccessary to apply the law. There is no need to be alarmed," he said.

Ennahda is considered a favourite in elections scheduled for October 23, where Tunisians will choose members of a constituent assembly tasked with crafting a new constitution.

Other elections challengers equally condemned the Nessma incident, including the Demcratic Progressive party and the left-wing Ettakatol, whose leader, Nadia El Fani, voiced "solidarity" with the station.

"The Salafists have not replaced the dicatorship of (former president Zine el Abidine) Ben Ali," he told AFP, while urging free expression proponents to speak out.

The extremists "will achieve their goals if we continue to fear," he said.

"We keep quiet thinking that we should not wake the beast, but the beast is there," he added, referring to radical elements within Tunisian society.

In June, six Salafists were arrested in Tunis after they stormed a cinema and broke its glass doors in a bid to stop the screening of the film "Neither Allah nor Master" on secularism in Tunisia.

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