The YouTube phenomenon of the “Harlem Shake” has popped up in spots all over the world, but in Tunisia it’s more than just a curiosity or a fad — it has become part of a bitter rivalry between the secularists and Islamists striving to shape the identity of this North African nation as it transitions to democracy after years of dictatorship.
Videos posted by Tunisian students have provoked a violent backlash by conservative Muslims, condemnations from the education minister and hundreds of new copycat videos online.
The global Internet sensation involves a 30-second video showing first one person dancing, than dozens gyrating maniacally to the song “Harlem Shake,” recorded by Brooklyn disc jockey and producer Baauer. Thousands of new videos of everyone from Norwegian soldiers to Australian teenagers and now Tunisian students doing the “Harlem Shake” are now online.
Students in the U.S. have been suspended for recording the videos, and the American Federal Aviation Authority launched an investigation on Feb. 28 after one video was recorded on a flight from Colorado Springs. In Egypt, activists performed the dance in front of the offices of the ruling Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo, coupled with chants of “leave, leave.”
In Tunisia, the “Harlem Shake” craze comes just over two years since a revolution overthrew a repressive secular dictatorship and ushered in new freedoms, including for religious ultraconservatives known as Salafis who are eager to impose their will — even violently at times. Salafis are suspected in the killing of leftist opposition leader Chokri Belaid, an assassination that triggered the resignation of Tunisia’s prime minister earlier this year.
Tunisia’s experience with the video began with a group of students at Tunis’ El Menzah high school producing their own version, which then spawned a host of copycat videos all over the country.
In the El Menzah high school video, a single student dances to the song, quietly watched by others until the halfway point; then the video cuts to a whole slew of students, some in their underwear, some dressed as bearded Salafis, and some as Gulf emirs flailing around.
Opinions over the videos have been split, with some calling it immoral and provocative — even going so far as to call the students unbelievers and therefore marked for death — while others seeing it as typical of humor in Tunisia, where many retain strong secular tastes.
The video sparked an angry reaction from Minister of Education Abdellatif Abid, who last week announced an investigation of the principal of the school for allowing an “indecent” video to be filmed on the premises.
As students elsewhere across the country have tried to create videos of their own, they have often been attacked by religious conservatives.
In the coastal city of Mahdia, one student received 12 stitches on his head after being beaten following one of the attacks. In the southern commercial city of Sfax and in the resort city of Sousse, police have had to intervene and separate groups battling over the right to make a “Harlem Shake” video.
“This dance for us represents a way to vent, to forget for a little while all the stress we’ve been under for the past year,” said Sabiha, a 21-year-old university student who protested Friday in front of the Education Ministry against the minister’s investigation, performing a version of the dance.
Her colleague Saber, 24, who also did not want his last name used because of the tensions surrounding the song, said being able to dance like this was a fruit of Tunisia’s revolution.
“We wanted to take advantage of our newfound freedoms thanks to the revolution, after the years of harassment and repression,” he said.