TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) – The trial of a Tunisian TV station for airing the prize-winning animated feature “Persepolis” and allegedly insulting Islam was adjourned by a Tunisian court on Monday until April 19.
The controversy over the film illustrates how Tunisia, the country that started the wave of uprisings that have swept through the Arab world this year, is struggling to work out the role of Islam in society after years of officially enforced secularism.
The Nessma TV channel aired the film, dubbed into Tunisian dialect, in October, prompting several angry demonstrations led by ultraconservative Muslims known as Salafis, culminating in the firebombing of the station owner’s house.
The trial opened Nov. 17 and was almost immediately adjourned until January when opposing lawyers engaged in heated arguments inside the court.
Iranian director Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning adaptation of her graphic novels about growing up during Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution won the jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and contains a scene showing a character representing God. Depictions of God are considered sacrilege in Islam.
Large crowds gathered outside the courthouse in Tunis on Monday both for and against the TV station, including bearded Salafis chanting: “Secularists, you have no place in Tunisia.”
“If the people of Nessma do not return to the right path, their activities will be halted by any means necessary, including violence,” said Mohammed Chammam, a young bearded demonstrator.
Tunisia’s dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali persecuted Islamists and rigorously enforced secularism until he was overthrown in January 2011. Since then, however, small numbers of Salafists have emerged propagating an ultraconservative form of the religion.
Their numbers are believed to be small, but they engage in highly visible and provocative actions such as occupying university campuses to protest restrictions on fully veiled women.
Tunisia’s elections in October were dominated by a moderate Islamist party, Ennahda, that had once been persecuted by Ben Ali and does not share the extreme ideology of the Salafists.
The party issued a statement Monday emphasizing its support for freedom of expression and saying that court cases were not the best way of addressing such questions.
Station director Nabil Karoui and several colleagues have been charged with “attacks against sacred values and morals and disturbing the public order,” and major Tunisian figures have rallied to their cause.
“This trial is a test for democracy because there is no democracy without freedoms,” Abdessattar Ben Moussa, the president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said outside the courthouse.
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