Tunisian Prison Sentences for Offending Islam Proof of Conservative Islamist Government?

A Tunisian court sentenced two young men to seven years in prison for posting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook, reviving a debate over whether the country's new democratic and moderate Islamist government can maintain its promises of freedom of speech and secular objectivity.

The two men, Jabeur Mejri and Ghazi Beji, reportedly posted depictions of the prophet naked on the social networking website and were sentenced "for violation of morality, and disturbing public order," the justice ministry said. Mejri is in jail while Beji is still being sought by police and was sentenced in absentia, reported Reuters. The sentence was decided on March 28 but was not reported until Thursday via Tunisian blogs.

The court decision sparked criticism from human rights watchdogs amid concerns that the new moderate Islamic government is leaning away from democracy and toward conservative Islam that favors ruling by Shariah law and its controversial "blasphemy" clauses.

Two months ago, a Tunisian judge jailed a newspaper editor for eight days after he published a photograph of a soccer player and his nude girlfriend on the cover of a local tabloid.

In January, a television director faced as many as five years in prison for broadcasting the French animated movie "Persepolis," which contains a brief scene depicting God that many Muslims have deemed blasphemous.

Tunisia's new, post-revolutionary government was elected in Oct. 2011, following the Arab Spring protests and the ousting of then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and is currently led by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali, a moderate Islamist. The state is in the process of drafting a new constitution, which is believed to not be based on Shariah law.

However, incidents like the above have caused the secular population of the 99 percent Muslim nation to be skeptical, experts say.

The ruling Islamists have reportedly been under pressure from Tunisia's religious radicals, the Salafists, known for expressing their religious views in non-peaceful ways. Salafist groups were the ones demanding the arrest of the television station director, for example. Among their general demands are the imposition of Sharia law. Such aggressive tactics do not help the government in affirming its secular and pro-democratic image, according to local sources.

Moderate Islamists are reportedly trying to balance the interests of conservative Muslims as well as secular and liberal segments of the population, while observers, especially the West, continue to watch for signs of an emerging Islamist state.