Asieh Amini interviews Nabil Karoui, Tunisian media man who was fined because his TV station aired the animated film "Persepolis" which some Muslim leaders in Tunisia say insults Islam.
A middle-aged man dressed in a stylish suit with salt-and-pepper hair and small round glasses that do not hide his penetrating eyes has been the main topic of news in Tunisia in the two days that I was there for the press freedom conference, and he has accepted my request for an interview.
Nabil Karoui, the director of private television station Nasmaa, is a Tunisian media man who has drawn the anger of extremist Islamists in his country for airing the film “Persepolis.”
Persepolis, a film by writer and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi, tells the story of an Iranian girl whose life is thrown into upheaval by the 1979 Revolution in Iran.
In one part of the film, the little heroine turns to the sky and a god depicted as an old man with long hair and beard, demanding justice for the oppression her family and acquaintances are subjected to.
Islamists have pinpointed this exact section as an insult to sanctities.
I requested an interview from Nabil Karoui, who is quite familiar with Iran’s history as well as its current social and political situation.
Mr. Nabil, during these two days, they are talking about you everywhere. First let me say that I am very sorry about the situation you find yourself in. But to begin, let’s start with the [Tunisian] revolution, shall we?
Yes, because in fact there has been no revolution. This was a regime change, and even that, in my opinion, was temporary, because I believe they will return. A revolution has other characteristics. You do not see those characteristics here.
Did I understand you right? Do you mean to say that Ben Ali will return?
Yes; why are you so surprised? The Ben Ali family is still very powerful. They have lots of money and they know how to return.
Let us return directly to your current situation: what has exactly happened to you and your television station?
Sometime before the elections in Tunisia, we aired “Persepolis” on Nasmaa television. There are a million Islamists in Tunisia, some of whom are Salafis. They put up widespread protests against the broadcast of the film.
Before we examine the protests, let me ask if you deliberately chose this time, that is, after the recent political developments and the fall of Ben Ali, to air Persepolis?
Yes. Of course, apart from the historical similarities with the current situation in Tunisia that this film presents, it is a very interesting film, which I like.
But I did want the people of Tunisia to have the Iranian experience in mind. Whoever you talk to says: “This is Tunisia, it is not Iran, Egypt or Yemen. We Tunisians will not be deceived. What happened in other countries could never happen in Tunisia, because we have such a high number of educated people and intellectuals.”
And I wanted to show that, in fact, in a country like Iran, similar events took place, and there were people who said the same things. This film is the history of these people and it is very close to our situation now.
What made you think that your current situation is similar to that of Iran 33 years ago?
Didn’t Khomeini sit under the apple tree in Neauphle-le-Chateau (Karoui crosses his arms behind his head and lays back) while your people took to the streets for the revolution, and then he returned and became the leader? Well, the same thing is happening here in Tunisia today. Our Khomeini is Ghannouchi, who in fact claims that he is not Khomeini. The only difference is that he had crossed his arms behind his head in England instead of France.
What happened after you aired the film?
They took to the street shouting “apostate! Apostate!…” and attacked our television station. They claimed my mother is Jewish; I am Jewish; I am a Zionist; I am a Freemason and I am getting money from the United States.
By them you mean the Salafis?
They are the 6,000 mosques against me. Like all the Islamic fundamentalists you can see in other countries. Like Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden and the fundamentalists in Iran. Like the ones who created the episode with the Danish cartoonist and numerous other similar events. This is the same situation. At the Friday mass prayers that were held before the Haj season, in all the mosques, they said spilling my blood was permitted; that whoever kills Nabil, it is halal for them to take his home, life, wealth and even his wife; (he becomes charged up) and I suppose my daughter too.
When was this?
October 14, 2011, exactly the day when two home-made bombs were exploded at the foot of my home, and the walls crashed down and destroyed my home. Then they swarmed in and looted my possessions.
Weren’t there any police officers; didn’t they do anything?
It’s a good question (he laughs and continues). Yes, there were police officers, and in fact I saw a man with my computer under his arm jumping over the ruined walls. He saw the police in his path, looking at him, and said: “Move. Don’t you see I am trying to get through?”
How did the others react? I mean the Tunisian civil society, the media, intellectuals, or democratic political parties.
No one! (He affirms emphatically) No one! Neither did political groups say a word nor did I get any support from the media or journalists. In an instant I realized I was standing alone in an arena in a showdown with 6,000 mosques that have issued a manifesto for my assassination. I was standing on this side, and all the people who kept saying that the danger of Islamists is not serious… were now silent and could not be seen anywhere.
The newspapers had assassinated me. In their minds, with their silence, they had assassinated me.
Were you scared?
Of course I was scared! Who would not be scared in such a situation? One night, I was sleeping in my bedroom, suddenly my wife began screaming. Even though we had guards outside our home, two people managed to climb over our wall, and my wife spotted their feet from behind the curtains and began screaming. Once they heard our screams, they ran away.
Nabil, I do not understand. After all, in Tunisia you have a new government that claims that it is not Islamist and is in fact a secular government. Why were you not given any political support?
Because they claim they are not Islamist but in fact they are! (He enunciates sharply) The Tunisian government is an Islamist government and extends its support to Islamists. They even dragged me to court.
What do you mean? The government charged you?
No. Prior to the court case, because I felt severely isolated and also because the situation had become very risky for myself, my family and my job, and on the other hand I wanted things to settle down so that we could get on with our work, so I officially apologized. I said we do not intend to offend any individual, group or religion and if anyone was offended we officially apologize.
But this was not enough for them, and they dragged me to court; in a trial where 500 lawyers and legal experts were testifying against me, and I believe they were there at the behest of the new Tunisian government, I was finally given a 1,500-euro fine.
But interestingly, you should know that when I apologized and said that I did not mean to offend anyone’s religious beliefs, the very intellectuals that up until then had refrained from giving me the slightest assistance or support and were complete spectators, those very people suddenly attacked me and severely criticized me, saying: “Look how Nabil is apologizing to extremist Islamists!”
Did the episode conclude with the cash fine you paid?
Not one bit. The verdict was issued two days ago, and yesterday, on Friday (May 4), they announced this is not a fair verdict and it was not sufficient and we will not be satisfied by anything less than Nabil’s death.
Nabil, do you feel your security is threatened?
Of course, that feeling is with me all the time. They have announced, after all, that I must be killed. Spilling my blood is halal (religiously permitted). They have turned me into another Salman Rushdie. That very story is being repeated, with the difference that I am here, in Tunisia, right among them.
Are you going to stay in Tunisia?
(He answers firmly) Yes. Why should I go? I am standing firm. I want to stay and work.
Do you have a message for the Iranians who will read your words?
Just one thing; do not retreat, stand firm. We must be brave. This is the only way to proceed.
[translated from the original in Persian]