Tunis - The head of a private TV channel in Tunisia under fire from Muslims for airing part of a film they deemed blasphemous, apologised on Tuesday amid fears of post-revolution Islamist upheaval.
“I apologise,” Nessma TV president Nebil Karoui said on Monastir radio about Friday's broadcast of Persepolis, a globally-acclaimed animated film on Iran's 1979 revolution.
The offending scene concerns an old, bearded image of God, of whom all depictions are forbidden by Islam.
“I am sorry for all the people who were disturbed by this sequence, which also shocked me,” said Karoui. “I believe that to have broadcast this sequence was a mistake. We never had the intention of attacking sacred values.”
Tunisian police on Sunday broke up a mob of angry Salafists intent on attacking Nessma offices, raising fears of unrest with historic polls only two weeks away after the ouster of long-serving leader Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
In the latest attack by conservative Muslims in post-revolution Tunisia, a 200-strong crowd targeted Nessma for airing Persepolis but was dispersed before it reached the TV building.
On Sunday, Karoui had said the channel “will not let itself be intimidated and will continue to air whichever films it wants”.
The French-Iranian film is based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical and graphic novel about the last days of the US-backed Shah's regime and the subsequent revolution led by Ayatollah Khomeini.
Salafists - whose Tahrir party has not been legalised - are one of the most conservative and radical currents in political Islam, also in Tunisia which has hitherto followed a secular state model.
In June, six Salafists were arrested in Tunis after they stormed a cinema and broke its glass doors in a bid to stop the screening of the film Neither Allah nor Master on secularism in Tunisia.
Having apologised, Karoui nevertheless said he “never imagined that this would elicit such an outcry.”
“This film (Persepolis) has already been shown in its entirety in several cinemas in Tunisia and never elicited such agitation,” he said.
Death threats and calls to burn the channel's offices were posted on Facebook after the broadcast.
All the big political parties, including Islamist group Ennahda, have condemned the violence.
But Ennahda, the pollsters' favourite ahead of October 23 elections for a constituent assembly that will draw up a new constitution, said it was “shocked” by “flagrant attacks against beliefs and sacred symbols”.
The government called for “respect for sacred things”, and one of Ennahda's key election rivals, the Progressive Democratic Party, warned that “all subjects that concern ... the Arab-Muslim identity is explosive” in Tunisia.
A grouping of some 100 lawyers, acting on a citizens' petition, lodged a complaint against the channel on Monday and prosecutors have opened an investigation.
Moderate Muslims, too, were offended by the broadcast, with about 100 marching on Nessma building on Sunday chanting: “We are not bearded, but we defend Islam”.
“I do not pray every day, but we have our values. To show an image of God, I cannot accept that. Tunisia is an open country, but it is overall a Muslim country,” said protester Mohamed Touati, a telephone operator employee.
The satellite channel, launched in March 2007, has amongst its owners the Quinta Communications group of Tunisian cinema producer Tarak Ben Ammar, and Mediaset of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Mainly devoted to entertainment, it ventured into the arena of political debates after the revolution that unseated Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in January. - Sapa-AFP