Banning blasphemy: New Tunisian bill threatens free speech

Tunisia’s ruling party, the Islamist Ennahdha movement, seek to criminalise blasphemy.

The Ennahdha party filed a blasphemy bill on 1 August in response to what their leaders describe as “a continuous increase in number of offences against the Sacred”. The bill aims to “providing legal protection to the Sacred”.

Ennahdha also complained about the absence of “a blasphemy legal basis” during the trial of Nessma TV boss Nabil Karoui, who in May was fined for “transgressing morality”, and “disturbing public order after broadcast the animated film Persepolis which shows depictions of God.  Ennahdha believe he should have been convicted of “offending” religion.

The bill lists Allah, Prophets, the three Abrahamic books (the Quran, Bible, and Torah), Sunnah (the sayings and teachings of Prophet Muhammad), churches, synagogues, and the Kaaba (Muslims’ holiest shrine) as sacred.

“Cursing, insulting, mocking, undermining, and desecrating” any of these symbols could lead to a two-year jail term and a 2,000 TND fine (794 GBP). The proposed bill would also forbid the pictorial representation of God, and Prophets.

Hichem Snoussi, the Tunisian representative of the freedom of speech NGO Article 19, told Index:

In France, and Germany there is a law which prohibits the denial of the Holocaust. Such a law [a blasphemy act] could be passed … But, the “sacred” has to be defined in a very specific and detailed way. This definition should not be expanded, so that it would not stand in the way of art and creativity.

The move comes amid a fierce local debate about freedom of expression and religion, which culminated in the Tunis-based Printemps des Arts fair in June. The fair was accused by Islamists and the government of displaying artworks “offensive” to Islam. On 12 June, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture decided to temporarily close a gallery after ultra-conservative Islamists broke into the exhibition and destroyed three artworks.

“Today the debate on the “sacred” is part of electoral propaganda, and aims at diverting the public debate from its right direction,” Snoussi added. “We do not need chains. We need freedom to heal our past wounds.”