Tunisia and Freedom of Expression

In an article titled Tunisians Battle Over the Meaning of Free Expression Eleanor Beardsley writes about an art exhibit in Tunisia which evoked sentiments from some Muslim men, prompting them to destroy many works in the exhibit. Nadia Jelassi created female sculptures and displayed them surrounded by smooth stones. The article details the following:

Jelassi’s sculptures featured female mannequins in conservative Islamic dress that included robes, with their hair covered. The work was surrounded by a bed of smooth stones.

Jelassi says everything was fine until the last day of the exhibit, when a man taking photos asked that some of the artwork be taken down.

“Of course we refused,” she says. “But before long he came back with a group of bearded men. They scrawled ‘Death to Blasphemous Artists’ on the gallery walls, and later that night broke into the building and destroyed many of the pieces.”

The men apparently thought the stones suggested that Muslim women wearing traditional clothing should be stoned, Jelassi says.

Soon, groups of bearded, hard-line Muslims, known as Salafists, began protesting around the country against what they perceive as un-Islamic art. Artists and secular Tunisians held counterprotests. Some of the confrontations turned violent.

Later on Beardsley quotes Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Ennahda party that captured elections in Tunisia last year, with respect to expressions that are offensive to people of faith.

This video wasn’t freedom of expression; it was freedom to attack what is sacred to others. We don’t see a contradiction between free expression and respecting others’ beliefs.

Grocery store manager Salem Amri added:

There are always barriers that we shouldn’t be allowed to touch. We Muslims have our principles.

Two intriguing stances are at play here. First is the idea of what is sacred and the other being principles. Going back to the art exhibit that assumed to be offensive, we find ourselves in a difficult situation. With any work of art it is important to understand if there is intent behind the thing. We can agree that a film directly attacking (X) has a purpose. However, in the example above the meaning was inferred, determined to be true and then acted upon in spite of knowing what the artist meant. That puts us in a difficult situation. Would any work be required to be evaluated prior to public viewing to ensure there is no possible way it could be interpreted as offensive? Who then becomes the authority and in turn doesn’t that diminish the very act of creating art?

Rachid is going to have a difficult time reconciling his idea of sacred with respecting others beliefs. If freedom of expression is necessarily tied to my belief, and is something I hold sacred, how can he possibly operate under a model of respect by eliminating me from participating in an act I define as sacred? Amri finds himself in a similar pit. Is his claim that no one other than Muslims have principles that should be valued? If not how does he reconcile forcing his principles on others while respecting their position of freedom of expression?

To be fair we should frame this within the context of non-physical acts, which brings a greater sense of irony due to the need to actually destroy the thing or the person due to their offensive product.

The appeal being made by individuals who hold to this form of censorship is that we value their beliefs above all others, even if we do not hold them. They are asking the Other to validate them through concession as opposed to holding the validity of their view as a personal truth. Their religious convictions seem to require the non-believer to affirm them as they simply can’t accept such a level of opposition.

If I choose to disagree, if I choose to hold the position that any belief system is irrational or that it is harmful, the right to express my offense to that system should not be suppressed by the very system in question. Is that not what they are doing by elevating the discussion? They want it to be known the impact to them, a freedom I doubt they would want denied by another’s position of being, for example, hyper-sensitive.

I have been privy to comments and stories which raise the question as to whether the freedom of expression is inherently a Western ideal. In honesty it is not something I ever questioned. Rather it was an expected and understood (T)ruth. While it is true the idea of limiting free expression is frightening it is also true that I embrace the opportunity to investigate why it is valued.

We cannot shout fire in a theater or bomb on a plane. Maybe the question of responsible speech within the idea of free speech is a better subject than deciding what should be banned. But even then, if I haven’t eaten in a while or am flying from too much caffeine, just about anything could offend me.

Count to ten. Go for a walk. Work out. Easy solution. And as pathetic as you my find it to be, the B movie Roadhouse can be referenced on how to deal with opinions we may find offensive.

Dalton: If somebody gets in your face and calls you a cocksucker I want you to be nice

Hank: [With resignation] Ok

Dalton: Ask him to walk, be nice, if he won’t walk, walk him, but be nice, If you can’t walk him, one of the others will help you and you will both be nice…I want you to remember, that it’s the job, it’s nothing personal.

Steve: Being called a cocksucker isn’t personal?

Dalton: No, it’s two nouns combined to elicit a prescribed response

Steve: What if somebody calls my Mama a whore?

Dalton: Is she?[everybody snickers]


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