The Carthage Seminars: Pluralism in Arab and Muslim Societies
Conference Abstracts


Randa ABOUBAKR – Professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University

Is the Digital a Freer Space?


My intervention will address the question of the role of the digital realm in extending the territoriality of actors and disseminating and globalizing local discourses and discursive practices.

It will briefly outline how the digital space evolved in the Arab region during the past couple of decades to be an extension of the territoriality of actors and ordinary people. Then I will outline the arguments promoting the challenges facing the digital realm as a place for agency, and arguments for the ‘relative freedom’ of that space and its potential, using some concrete examples.



Mustafa AKYOL – Senior fellow, Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity

Is There an Islamic Case for Free Speech?


In the past few decades, Muslim societies have often heard lectures about “freedom of speech” from Western governments or NGOs. In return, some Muslim intellectuals have pointed to the double standards of those Western governments on this issue — a popular criticism which sometimes can be valid.

But is “freedom of speech” really a value for Muslims themselves? And does it have roots in the Islamic tradition?

In his new book, “Reopening Muslim Minds: A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance” Akyol says “yes” to both questions — while acknowledging that there are some illiberal forces in the Muslim world who would say no. In this panel, he will highlight some of his key ideas about the value of free speech in an Islamic culture, and criticize the religious or political arguments for silencing “heretical” or “seditious” ideas, with some contemporary examples from the Islamic world, including his home country, Turkey, as well.



Atef ALSHAER – Senior Lecturer in Arabic and Cultural Studies, University of Westminster  

The Poetics and politics of popularity: The Case of the Syrian Poet Adonis and the Palestinian Poet Mahmoud Darwish 


This paper aims to shed light on two of the most important Arab poets in the second half of the 20th century, namely Adonis (b.1930) and Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008) as canon setters in Arabic poetry in the second half of the twentieth century. While the two poets are widely known in the Arab world, their importance stems from different factors. They have also gained visibility in the West, thanks to the accomplished translations of their works into several western languages, and to them being representative and embedded within socio-political structures that propelled them forward as eloquent proponents of their views. Therefore, this paper will argue that the two poets became well-known for various reasons, foremost amongst which is their noted talent in transforming the Arabic poetry tradition, and their productive and innovative use of global poetic innovations in the 20th century.

In addition, it is suggested that the question of political and cultural identity which has been fraught with contestation and tension in the Arab world became popular material for poetic and cultural productions. The poets situated their early poetics within this crisis of identity. Given that poetry was still the most esteemed form of expression and artistic admiration in the Arab world, their accomplished and notable poetic output gained attention, which they accentuated through further creations and affiliations with political forces that popularised their poetry and projected them as figures of literary and cultural authority. Meanwhile, the poets developed independent literary sensibilities that allowed them to converse with global literary traditions and trends, mainly western ones. With the openness, albeit limited, of ‘the global literary market’ to literary voices from other traditions, the two poets, Adonis and Darwish, being secular, lyrical and philosophical, became mainstream addresses in Arabic literature for any western forum interested in the culture and literature of the Middle East in general. Yet though they were both awarded several ‘international prizes’, the Nobel Prize eluded them, despite the enormous literary influences they wielded in the Arab world and indeed their undeniable innovative creativity, which is marked at several levels in the Arab world and beyond.

The presentation will consider and elaborate on the points raised above.



Amel BOUBEKEUR – Co-director and co-founder of ISSRA; sociologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales


Political mobilizations of Muslims are often seen as aggressive and radical, standing in opposition to modernity and Western cultural standards, especially through the import of a Middle Eastern Islamist model for identity claims. However, this is increasingly a completely different mise-en-scène from the Islamic identity that politically engaged Muslims are experiencing in Europe through new islamically inspired “artivism” (music, visual arts, etc.). These new kinds of Islamic cultural events allow us to understand how many European Muslims now make use of new public forms of expression of and intervention in Islamic identity in order to destroy the clichés that cling to Muslims, form new types of “Islamhood” to participate in the heart of the global public space beyond normative and ideological constraints and finally maintain a non demanding and non-oppositional to be politically engaged.



Joshua CARNEY – Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Media Studies at American University of Beirut

“Resur(e)recting a Spectacular Hero: Diriliş Ertuğrul, Necropolitics, and Popular Culture in Turkey”


The hugely popular proto-Ottoman television serial Resurrection Ertuğrul (Diriliş Ertuğrul, 2014–) is the culmination of a series of attempts by Turkish government broadcaster TRT to produce a historical drama in line with the values of the governing AKP. Far from being confined to the television screen, Resurrection is called upon by the government for multiple extra-textual engagements with the public. This talk traces some of the ways in which the serial has been used instrumentally by the AKP, blurring traditional distinctions between entertainment and official (state sanctioned) history, and intervening in political discourse. It first introduces the notion of prescriptive activation to describe the extra-textual use of media texts by those in power for political ends. Next, it examines the trappings of death that surround Resurrection, suggesting that the serial partakes in a representational necropolitics that fetishizes death for the nation. Finally, it explores the stakes of such representation, turning to a case in which text-inspired and literal necropolitics converge.



Omar FASSATOUI – Associate researcher at SciencesPo – Aix en Provence

Acculturation of rights and freedoms: Freedom of speech and religion in the post revolutionary Tunisia


Tunisia experienced a change of regime in 2011 and a democratic transition which is still underway and the best expression of which remains the opening of the democratic space and the remarkable improvement of the situation of human rights and freedoms including civil and political rights in the country since this transition. The country adopted a new constitution in 2014, which was the product of a constituent process resulting from the first free elections in the country’s history. The new constitution recognized several of these rights as constitutional rights in accordance with Tunisia’s international commitments.

Nevertheless, this democratic transition seems to have its peculiarities in terms of the question of religion and its impact on the understanding by the new power in place of certain freedoms, in particular freedom of religion and expression. Indeed, the examination of the post-revolutionary decade in Tunisia allows us to observe what we can call an acculturation of these freedoms. Acculturation being a process of changing something –or someone – in order to fit with a different culture. Tunisia, which has always stood out in its regional and religious context by a very original relationship between religion and positive law sometimes described as ambiguous, seems to remain in this ambiguity where certain rights and freedoms are guaranteed but in an original way compared to international standards.

The presentation of this paper will be an opportunity to see the history of the relationship between religion and law making in Tunisia since the country’s independence and then see through concrete examples how a certain understanding of the two freedoms, directly or indirectly influenced by the religious, is being confirmed by the Tunisian justice after the uprising of 2011. The paper will also be the occasion to stop by all legal and social challenges related to freedoms and liberties in Tunisia. It will also allow us to focus on the work of Tunisian civil society in a post dictatorship context.



Abdel Aziz HALI – Executive Editor of the geopolitics & international news desk at La Presse de Tunisie since 2010

The Alternative Media in Tunisia (Nawaat, Inkyfada, al-Qatiba)


In a Tunisian media landscape plagued by buzz, cronyism and political agendas, alternative media remain islands of excellence in a sea of verbal diarrhea and cerebral constipation.

If mainstream media, especially TV channels and radios, offer a low-end journalistic product under the influence of advertisers (commercial) and political lobbies, alternative media — having an associative status and funded by international NGOs — are financially and editorially more independent and offer a quality journalistic product.

From Nawaat (an independent collective platform) to al-Qatiba (an electronic newspaper), passing by Inkyfada (a Tunisian webzine, a project of the non-profit organization Al Khatt which finances it exclusively), in-depth reports (storytelling), investigative journalism & portraits are regaining their credentials with the aim of promoting freedom of the press and expression in Tunisia, and giving a voice to the voiceless.



Shady HAMADI – Writer

Is there an Arab diaspora in Italy?


Twenty years ago, the Arab immigrants that lived in Italy were ignored by the media. After September the 11th  everything changed. The typical Arab man did not look anymore like the one in Totò’s movie – an exotic person full of charm and stories to tell – but more likely they became someone to avoid or someone capable of organizing a terrorist attack.

Since then, people’s common sense started to transform. Now all the Arabs are Muslims and all women wear the hijab. Many undervalued Arab – Italian writers fought all these stereotypes by representing in their volumes the reality that they lived in their original countries, or they tried to deconstruct some of the most commons stereotypes around Arabs and Muslims in Italy. It is as well clear that some imagine of the “other” comes from the colonial experience. In this case, Alessandro Spina, nickname of  Basili Shafik Khouzam, spent his life writing about Libya at the time of the Italian colonization. He gave an internal prospective of the rural life and the relation between native population and Italians. His major work is “the Confines of Shadow”. Despite the importance of his work, especially regarding the historical importance and the fact that the book was written in Italian by an Arab speaker, it is now available just in the English translation on Darf Publisher. Spina is probably the most praised and forgotten “Italian adopted” writer. Even Claudio Magris, one of the main Italian intellects of this century, praised his work “for the poetic and the style”.

Different was the fate of Amara Lakhous, an Algerian writer that lived in Italy for many years before relocating to the USA. He is well known for the volume “Clash of civilizations over an elevator in piazza Vittorio”. Lakhous focused his work on giving an internal prospective about the relation between Italians and immigrants in Rome. In his work, he tried to highlight the contradictions in the Italian society.

With women stereotypes, we have a female presence given by Rania Ibrahim that wrote the novel “Islam in love”, in which she analyses the challenges of a relation between a Muslim woman and an English guy that was forced to convert into Islam to enable him to marry her.

We definitely can say that there is a cultural movement built by some, so called, immigrants or second-generation writers. Still, the majority of them are publishing their work with small publishers and, despite the cultural resistance that they are producing against stereotypes; they are completely forgotten or overseen by Arab publishers.

To fight extremism, could it be an option to build a bridge between Middle East and Europe by translating into Arabic some of these “arab-italian” writes?



Ismail KHALIDI – Playwright, screenwriter and theater director

Thick as Thieves: Settler Colonial Delusions & the Policing of Palestine in Popular American Culture


Palestine is one of the last taboos in popular culture. And while there have been important shifts  and breakthroughs in recent years, the chilling of free speech and cultural expression on the question of Palestine (and of Palestinians) continues, evolving accordingly. This policing is underpinned by implicit and explicit censorship and propaganda replete with racist and Islamophobic tropes, all generated and proliferated by two allied settler colonial regimes – Israel and the United States – who have in common creation mythologies based on their respective versions of ‘manifest destiny’ and the accompanying erasure/subjugation of the native/other.



Peter LIMBRICK – Professor of Film and Digital Media, UC Santa Cruz, USA

“New Networks for Arab Film and Video”


Much has been made of the way that funding for Arab filmmakers has shifted away from Europe (the traditional funding partner for postcolonial Arab and North African filmmakers) towards the Gulf states, with festivals and institutes in Dubai, Doha, and Abu Dhabi responsible for a boom-to-bust cycle of funding and support. This paper instead focuses on smaller organizations like NAAS (the Network of Arab Alternative Screens) and AFAC (The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture) which are attempting to build more durable, horizontal structures of support for Arab filmmaking and exhibition in the region. This paper will investigate the ways in which new networks are reshaping the terrain of the possible with respect to cinema and self-expression in Arab and North African contexts.



Moez MRABET – Member of The Tunisian Academy of Sciences, Letters and Arts – Beit Al Hikma, Teacher and University-researcher, actor, director, and cultural actor,

“Tunisian Theater from Dictatorship to Democracy”


Born as an act of resistance to the French occupier, the Tunisian theater has remained, since its inception at the dawn of the twentieth century, closely linked to political and social changes that Tunisia has experienced, putting, thus, this dialectic relationship of aesthetics and politics at the heart of its dynamic evolution. The last three decades were marked, in this respect, by two significant events in the history of the country, namely: the end of the Bourguiba era, father of the nation who made the theater a locomotive of Tunisian culture, deposed by Ben Ali in 1987, to make way for an authoritarian regime that imposed itself for nearly 23 years; and then the Tunisian revolution called “Jasmine Revolution” which engaged Tunisia since 2011 in a process of democratic transition, as disturbing as confusing.

In this conference, we will try, therefore, to question the influence of politics on the evolution of the Tunisian theater, both in terms of aesthetics, themes, practices and legal framework to organize them, and highlight the ins and outs of this “journey” from “resistance” to “protest” to find, finally, the path of “freedom”!



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