Protecting God's Majesty and Public Decency in Contemporary Tunisia: Whom does blasphemy offend?

By Laura Thompson
Submitted to Session Individual Submission, 2020 Annual Meeting
Rel Stds/Theo
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper looks at the understudied prosecution of sabb al-jalala, or insulting the majesty of God, in postcolonial Tunisia (1956 – present day). Relying on participant observation in a Tunisian courthouse as well as archival research, this paper maps the shifting terrain in which particular blasphemous words become a matter to be heard before a cantonal judge. It seeks to historicize the jurisprudence for the prosecution of these cases, which are treated via the Tunisian penal code as attacks on “public decency” (al-akhlaq al-hmida, or bonnes moeurs). This paper argues that sabb al-jalala is consistently prosecuted only in the context of a larger crime that also violates important social norms – frequently in the midst of a drunken encounter with the police or within the context of a violent exchange rooted in a long-standing dispute (among families, for example, or neighbors). This paper further argues that the prosecution of these cases – and the clarity of the crimes in question - is complicated by two factors: the first, that blasphemous words – in which Tunisians slander the “religion of one’s mother” [din al-um] or the “religion of one’s god” [din rabbek] – are pervasive in daily life, though rarely prosecuted. The second complicating factor is that the blasphemous words muttered are never reproduced in the trial, out of a desire on the part of several parties to avoid recommitting an inauspicious act. This means that identifying the lines between blasphemy and insult is sometimes difficult, even for the sentencing judge. This paper concludes by comparing these blasphemous misdemeanors with more significant recent criminal trials against Tunisian defendants accused of “attacking the sacred.”