Tunisia culture minister vows to defend artistic

Mon Mar 19, 2012 4:38pm GMT

By Tarek Amara

TUNIS (Reuters) - Tunisia's culture minister, under fire for saying he would exclude sexy Lebanese pop stars from an annual music festival, has promised to protect artistic freedoms which are on the front line of a standoff between secularists and Islamists.

Tunisia, whose uprising against secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali sparked last year's "Arab Spring", has been ruled by an Islamist-led government since elections in October.

The rise of the Islamists has raised fears among secular Tunisians that their country, long considered one of the Arab region's most secular, may succumb to increased pressure from religious conservatives to ban certain films, plays or musical performances and even to censor art or photo exhibitions.

Last year, conservative Salafi Islamists attacked a theatre showing "Ni Dieu, Ni Maitre", or "No God, No Master", a film by secular Tunisian director Nadia Fani. Salafis armed with petrol bombs attacked the home of the manager of Nessma TV after the private channel showed the Iranian film Persepolis. They were angered by its depiction of God, which is banned by Islam.

But Mehdi Mabrouk, a sociology professor before he became culture minister, told Reuters he would defend artistic freedom against any attempts to undermine it, including by religious zealots.

"There will be no restrictions on creative freedom. It is not possible as long as I am a minister of culture," he said.

"I will condemn any attack on creativity. We will not impose any administrative controls or censorship over film or theatre, but civil society should support the efforts of the ministry through a peaceful demonstration and play its role."

Mabrouk said he raised no questions over the film "Baba Winou", or "Where is Father", by Tunisian director Jilani Saadi even though it includes several provocative scenes, including one where a cemetery is desecrated.   Continued...

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