Why Did Tunisian “Salafists” Attack Nessma TV for its Broadcast of “Persepolis”?

Analysis, posted 10.17.2011, from Tunis, Tunisia, in:
Why Did Tunisian “Salafists” Attack Nessma TV for its Broadcast of “Persepolis”?

Long-time French Arabist Yves Gonzalez-Quijano fleshes out the context in which the broadcast of the French-Iranian film Persepolis drew anger and even violence from some Tunisian Muslims, widely labeled “Salafists.”  Protesters found offensive Persepolis’s decision to portray God, who in one scene speaks to a little girl. The film was broadcast on Friday, October 7, 2011, on the private Tunisian TV station “Nessma TV.” It was followed by a one-and-a-half-hour debate.

Gonzalez-Quijano tells readers in a short abstract preceding the article, “Since its launch, Nessma TV has played the provocation card. Its choice to broadcast Persepolis, then, was not exactly innocent.” (“Depuis son lancement, Nessma TV joue la carte de la provocation. Lorsqu’elle choisit de programmer ‘‘Persepolis’’, ce n’est donc pas exactement innocent.”) Gonzalez-Quijano notes that the timing of the broadcast – a little over two weeks before the country’s first post-revolutionary, democratic elections – “rather clearly” provokes those that “claim to adhere to political Islam” (“se réclament de l’islam politique”). Gonzalez-Quijano suggests, though does not directly allege, that Nessma TV may have hoped to exploit and/or encourage the widespread fear of Islamism that already exists in certain segments of Tunisian society.

In his article, Gonzalez-Quijano aims to provide a background to what he views as the widely-recounted, a-contextual, and deceivingly simple story, in which a fragile, post-revolutionary Tunisia is “prey to the violence of those extremists of political Islam.” Gonzalez-Quijano thus briefly takes readers from a short history of other provocative broadcasts to details of Nessma TV’s creation.

Among those moments in which he believes that Nessma TV has pushed the figurative envelope, Gonzalez-Quijano lists the station’s broadcast of debates on sexuality along with its broadcasts of TV series “each one more explosive than the last.” He also notes an extremely controversial BBC-produced biopic on Saddam Hussein, in which the deposed head of state is played by an Israeli actor. Iranian series received airtime, despite the fact that they “raise the very thorny question of prophetic representation,” while Nessma TV broadcast, during Ramadan of 2011, a series on the Sunni-Shia schism, entitled, ‘‘Hassan, Hussein et Moawiyya.”

Gonzalez-Quijano also underlines the context on the inception of Nessma TV.  Created in 2009 “with the benediction of [deposed dictator] Ben Ali,” Nessma TV was financed by the Karoui brothers (Nabil and Ghazi) and wealthy, Saudi-linked, Tunisian businessman and film producer Tarek Ben Ammar, along with Media Set, belonging to Italian mogul, politician, and tabloid-fodder Silvio Berlusconi. Gonzalez-Quijano writes, “This foul-smelling mixture of genres between media and politics – Al-hamdu llilah! in France we wouldn’t see that! – explains without a doubt why Nessma – the fragrant breeze in Arabic – benefited from the exclusive appearance, in its studios, of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she passed through Tunisia shortly after the revolution.” (“Ce malodorant mélange des genres entre médias et politique – Al-hamdu lillah ! ce n’est pas en France qu’on verrait ça ! – explique sans doute que Nessma – la brise parfumée en arabe – ait bénéficié d’une apparition exclusive dans ses studios de la secrétaire d’Etat des USA, Hillary Clinton, lors de son passage en Tunisie, quelques temps après la revolution.”)

Despite the history of Nessma TV and its editorial line, the broadcast of the French-Iranian film Persepolis has widely received the sole credit for inspiring the “violent” reactions of “political Islamist extremists.” Gonzalez-Quijano deems it noteworthy that the “Tunisian Salafist attacks” on the Nessma TV headquarters do not qualify as the first time that the film has met with resistance from certain parts of a Muslim-majority society; in March 2008, Lebanese intellectuals and politicians lobbied for the broadcast of this same film on Lebanese television, against the protests of a number of clerics.

“Persepolis” is based on the auto-biographical graphic novel of the same title by Iranian-born French author and illustrator Marjane Satrapi. The film shows the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 through the eyes of the young Satrapi, who participates in marches against the Shah before witnessing with disillusionment new policies, such as the enforcement of modest clothing policies for women, along with the execution of her communist uncle.  The film has been particularly considered offensive by some Muslims for its physical portrayal of God; God is portrayed in Satrapi’s imagination, as a child, when God offers her a lesson on forgiveness. God is also later portrayed in an adult Satrpi’s dream, in a moment of great despair.

Gonzalez-Quijano suggests that the choice to dub Persepolis in Tunisian Arabic could have been equally interpreted by some Tunisian Muslims as an affront, specifically by those Muslims who are “fierce defenders of the Arabic called “classical” (also sometimes called ‘Qur’anic’ in allusion to the language used in the book revealed to Muslims)” (“des défenseurs acharnés de l’arabe dit «classique» (appelé parfois aussi «coranique» par allusion à la langue employée dans le livre révélé des musulmans).”)

Gonzalez-Quijano is an associate professor in the department of Arab Studies at the Université Lumière-Lyon II and director of  the Research and Study Group on the Mediterranean and Middle East (groupe de recherches et d’études sur la méditérannée et le Moyen-Orient – GREMMO).

Original Language Text: 

Yves Gonzalez-Quijano* écrit - Depuis son lancement, Nessma TV joue la carte de la provocation. Lorsqu’elle choisit de programmer ‘‘Persepolis’’, ce n’est donc pas exactement innocent.

Provocations salafistes en Tunisie (Le Figaro) – Tunisie: vent de haine contre ‘‘Persepolis’’ (Europe 1) – Des salafistes tentent de brûler une chaîne de télévision (La Dépêche) – Des salafistes attaquent le siège de Nessma TV en Tunisie (RFI) – Des islamistes s’attaquent à la télé après la diffusion de ‘‘Persepolis’’ (Le Parisien) – Des salafistes s’en prennent à une chaîne de télévision (France-Soir) – Une chaîne tunisienne attaquée par des islamistes pour avoir diffusé ‘‘Persepolis’’ (Le Monde) – Des islamistes déchaînés contre le film Persepolis à Tunis (Radio Canada) – Des islamistes radicaux contre la diffusion de “Persepolis” et l’interdiction du niqab dans des universités (Le Nouvel Observateur) – Offensive islamiste contre une télévision et une université (TF1).

Un innocent dessin animé

Cette rapide sélection de titres donne le ton : Tremblez ! Les hordes islamistes déferlent ! Protégez «nos» médias ! La Tunisie – dont il est clair qu’elle est implicitement fragilisée par la révolution – est en proie à la violence des extrémistes de l’islam politique. Une violence d’autant plus effroyable qu’elle se déchaîne contre un innocent dessin animé. Racontée ainsi, cette histoire, qui ajoute de l’eau au moulin (à prières ?) de l’islam-qui-nous-fait-si-peur mérite d’être replacée dans son contexte, et prolongée par quelques informations.

Nessma TV, la cible des manifestants tunisiens en question, ce n’est pas juste «la télé», comme le dit le titre du ‘‘Parisien’’. Créée avec la bénédiction du président Ben Ali, cette chaîne privée était financée, lors de son inauguration en août 2009, par deux publicitaires tunisiens, les frères Karoui (promoteurs de la Star Ac’ Maghreb), associés à deux autres investisseurs, Tarek Ben Ammar (producteur, Pdg de la société Quinta Communications), à égalité avec… Mediaset, la société de Sylvio Berlusconi ! En réalité, le montage est encore plus compliqué, et la présence du cavaliere plus importante que ne le montrent les seules apparences (pour plus de détails, voir cet article sur le site Babelmed). Ce malodorant mélange des genres entre médias et politique – Al-hamdu lillah ! ce n’est pas en France qu’on verrait ça ! – explique sans doute que Nessma – la brise parfumée en arabe – ait bénéficié d’une apparition exclusive dans ses studios de la secrétaire d’Etat des USA, Hillary Clinton, lors de son passage en Tunisie, quelques temps après la révolution (article http://international.daralhayat.com/internationalarticle/246891 dans Al-Hayat).