Blasphemy Cases in Post-Arab-Spring Tunisia (2011-2013)

October 26, 2016
Picture of Laura Anne Thompson, PhD Candidate in Religion and Anthropology.
Laura Anne Thompson, PhD Candidate in Religion and Anthropology, Harvard University

On October 26th, CSWR resident Laura Thompson presented on archival research relating to her larger dissertation project, which looks at a series of blasphemy cases in post-Arab-Spring Tunisia (2011-2013). Laura framed her talk by asking residents to consider the purchase of "semiotic ideologies" (Webb Keane's term) and "moral injury" (Saba Mahmood's term), two terms used to understand some Muslims' anger in the wake of the Danish cartoon and Charlie Hebdo controversies.

Drawing on handwritten documents, newspaper articles, and interviews, Laura took center residents on a journey through time using the lenses of blasphemy prosecutions in modern Tunisia. She began with the case of a blasphemy prosecution in 19th-centruy Ottoman Tunisia, in which a young Jewish Tunisian, named Batto Sfez, was charged with blasphemy after insulting a Muslim and his religion in the wake of a traffic accident. Sfez was ultimately executed under a Muslim religious tribunal, much to the displeasure of the Ottoman Sultan as well as to European powers who were progressively encroaching on Ottoman control of Tunisian territory.  Next, Laura took center residents next to 1904 Tunis, to a trial against a young religious scholar, Abdelaziz al-Thaalbi. As detailed in local newspapers, the allegations submitted against Thaalbi accused him of making emblematic Islamic reformist claims, such as criticism of Tunis religious scholars, whose instruction, he reportedly declared, "leads only to error (al-alāla)." Thaalbi was initially sentenced to death by an extraordinary session of the Muslim religious tribunal, though French authorities intervened and re-routed Thaalbi to a civil court, where he was charged with offense to public order and sentenced to three months in prison. Finally, Laura took center residents up to the present day: post-Arab-Spring 2011 Tunisia, and the broadcast (in Tunisian Arabic) of the French-Iranian film Persepolis, which details the Iranian revolution and its aftermath. Broadcast on Tunisian TV weeks before the first democratic elections, in which Islamists were slated to participate for the first time in the country's history, Persepolis's message was carefully framed by a televised debate following the film, entitled "Is Tunisia the Next Iran? "  This political framing, however, was in many ways eclipsed by a religious framing: protests and petitions decried the film's blasphemous depiction of God in human form.  The TV station's president was ultimately found guilty of offense to public order and sentenced to pay a fine.

Looking across these prosecutions, Laura identified several similarities. First, among the crimes: the crimes across these cases are public or potentially so. Furthermore, blasphemy accusations were not, even in 1856, sufficient explanations for a sustained prosecution: they were repeatedly contextualized in a need for public order and fears of societal or national division. Further contextual details also complicate the notion that blasphemy alone was sufficient to arouse popular passions against the defendant: in Sfez's case, we learn that months before his execution, a Muslim soldier had been controversially executed for murdering a Jew.  In Thaalbi's case, we learn that significant agitation around Islamic reformism, and the visit of Islamic reformist figurehead Mohammed ‘Abduh, had been making waves.   In the post-Arab-Spring cases, we see that the sudden return of previously oppressed Islamists, and a broader societal battle over the Tunisian public sphere, participated in a back-and-forth of which these prosecutions were only a part. In this way, a larger context likely encourages and perhaps produces these prosecutions.

—by Laura Thompson, PhD Candidate in Religion and Anthropology, Harvard University