Attacks on art in Tunisia by Salafi Islamists are mainly driven by frustration over the injustices of daily life in the North African country rather than pure religious ideology, a Tunisian revolutionary singer said.
Emel Mathlouthi, whose songs about liberty inspired Tunisian pro-democracy protesters, said economic inequality was one of the main causes of recent violence and that if anything she had experienced more artistic freedom since the revolution.
Secular intellectuals have expressed fears about limits to artistic freedom in Tunisia after Salafi Islamists broke into an art fair in June and destroyed a handful of works they deemed insulting to Islam, then ran riot for days, Reuters reports.
“There are things happening but we are not sure that this is purely coming from Islamists or Islamic ideology,” Mathlouthi said after a concert in Baghdad on Tuesday where she was presented as the voice of revolutionary Tunisia.
“It is clear that they are puppets, because the most important thing that is driving people is frustration which stems from a lack of equality, a lack of justice,” she said.
“If everyone had a decent job, somewhere to live, then I do not think there would be this kind of problem.”
If anything, it has become easier for singers like her to perform and tackle political themes since the revolt that toppled Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali 17 months ago, she said.
Mathlouthi left Tunisia for France in 2008 to promote her music career which she said had been stifled under Ben Ali because she sang about liberty and corruption.
“Recently I sang on the Avenue Bourguiba,” she said, referring to the main street in Tunis where protestors gathered.
“This is something that would have never occurred during the time of Ben Ali. It is easier, certainly.”
Mathlouthi, whose dark, long curly hair and flowing silk dress made her a striking figure on stage, started the concert with eerie, romantic songs and ended with pulsing traditional music that got some members of the audience dancing.
She said she fell into the role of revolutionary singer quite by accident.
“I didn’t really think that much. I tried to be on the ground, I tried to take part in demonstrations. Afterwards, in some demonstrations, I was asked to sing. For me this was natural.”
She said that despite the inspiration that the revolution had provided Tunisia’s artists, the country still had a long way to go in promoting their talent.
“The arts are still not given the respect they deserve in Tunisia, despite the important role the arts had before and during the revolution. Above all, government support is absent, especially for young people and their creations,” she said.