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Ruling Islamists in Tunisia introduce blasphemy bill

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia

The ruling Islamist party in Tunisia has introduced a bill that would outlaw insulting Islam, a move criticised by human rights’ advocates as threatening freedom of speech and religion. 

Protestors_in_Tunisia_4X3.jpg
Protestors in Tunisia
have been pushing for an Islamist agenda
Amine Ghrabi / CC BY-NC 2.0

Ennahda introduced the draft law to criminalise offences against “sacred values” in the National Constituent Assembly on 1 August. It would make “insults, profanity, derision, and representation of Allah and Muhammad” punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of 2000 dinars (US$1,236), with repeat offenders facing four years behind bars. 

The bill defines “sacred values” as “Allah the Almighty, his prophets, the sacred books, the Sunna of his last Prophet Muhammad, the Kaaba, mosques, churches and synagogues”; offences could be committed through words, images or acts.

Although “churches and synagogues” are included on the list, the legislation is being introduced to appease hard-line Islamist sentiments and is consequently far more likely to be used to uphold Islamist values.

Ennahda said that it would introduce such a law after large-scale protests by Islamists, who in June attacked an art gallery near Tunis that was displaying works they deemed offensive to Islam.

The bill was announced on 1 August by Habib Khedher, an Ennahda MP, who heads the committee tasked with drafting the country’s new constitution.

Eric Goldstein of Human Rights Watch said, “If passed, this draft law would introduce a new form of censorship in a country that suffered from so much censorship under the ousted president.”

It is the latest development that indicates the increasing strength of Islam in public life in Tunisia, which before the Arab Spring was one of the most secular countries in the region.

The absence of a specific “blasphemy” law up until now has not stopped the courts from punishing people for insulting Islam since the January 2011 revolution. Two young men were sentenced in March to seven-and-a-half years in jail for posting caricatures of Muhammad on Facebook.

Nabil Karoui, the owner of Nessma TV, was fined in May for showing the animated film Persepolis, which features a cartoon depiction of God.

Tunisia is the latest country to propose the introduction of a blasphemy law following the Arab Spring. Both Kuwait and Iraqi Kurdistan have put forward similar legislation, while in Egypt, where defamation of religion has long been outlawed, a number of people have been given heavy sentences for acts deemed offensive to Islam.   

International human rights law upholds freedom of expression and allows governments to restrict it only under narrow and clearly defined circumstances.

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