Nadia El Fani: « In politics it’s alright to lose »

Interview with Nadia El Fani by Olivier Barlet

About her film Secularism, Inch' Allah
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You make a simple investigation on the hypocrisy that exists in religion as it is lived in daily life with a focus on Ramadan. Then there is a revolution and the nature of the film changes, directing its attention to the public debate on secularism. How did the transformation from the original project take place?
In fact, I did not start off with an investigation. I do not imagine my documentaries in that way. I went with the idea of an activist film committed to defending freedom and democracy in Tunisia since we had reached a point of utter disgust under Ben Ali. I lied about the subject and the title in order to get permission to film with the understanding that this may probably prevent me from returning to Tunisia. There was at the same time, this increasingly obvious manipulation of religion. Ben Ali let one of his sons-in-law open a radio station, Zitouna, which broadcast the Koran from morning to evening, and we saw people queuing to go to a new Islamic bank. I went to make a film about the atheists in Islam, and with Ramadan approaching, I thought I should explain to the world what a Muslim experiences in a Muslim country during Ramadan. I think no one is aware to what extent it is an obligation that takes precedence over everything, even one’s work schedule. Life is organised around the time that the fast ends. One gets the impression of a social communion around the fact that everyone must shop for food and then eat at the same time, so that there is a lot of social hypocrisy. I went to shoot about those who resist Ramadan. The film was called « Disobedience » and it was as much about the disobedience to Ben Ali as to religion. I wanted to find people who were not fasting, not necessarily artists or intellectuals who are accused of being an elite but also normal people who agreed to say so in front of the camera. And then I wanted to show the cafes, the hidden storefronts, etc. But for me it was most of all to denounce the collusion between government and religion, how the government used religion as a lightning rod and how religion was overvalued to gain ground in society. We were aware of the Islamisation of society. I realised that when we went to the people individually, things went relatively well, and that when we went into more collective situations, or for example, when we entered a cafe, people were a bit aggressive.
When people are talking among friends, they do not really hide the fact that they are not fasting.
True, and even socially, but it is mainly the men. It is visible in the film. The women who say that they do not practice Ramadan are generally from a highly regarded family. But anyway, in every family, there are some who do not fast and there is no problem. The fact that the Quran says: « If you disobey, you must hide it », the fact that it is written, is a kind of appeal to social hypocrisy. This makes people immature in their way of living, and obliges them to be hypocritical. This phrase has been repeated to me on every occasion. I almost titled the film as such, and I had used it as the subtitle.
The film has also changed titles several times.
I always have titles that are a bit strange and multiple… I really liked Neither Allah nor Master for its reference to anarchism and to Auguste Blanqui (1), a militant in French political history, and in the Spanish Civil War: one knew the position that one was taking. However, the title was very badly received in Tunisia, with the belief that I was attacking Islam. Though the film is the complete opposite, it is a film about mutual tolerance. The title Secularism inch’ Allah relates more to the theme of the film. I found it a bit soft! But changing the title while keeping a touch of provocation pulled the rug from under the Islamists who attacked me.
The Islamisation of society took place underground. Your film has become a means for the Islamists to reclaim the public space.
Yes, it is what happened after the film and we realise how important it is to know how to handle the media tool. In Tunisia, the Islamists use it much better than the progressives. They have so many computer engineers and technicians, people connected to the Internet. They threw around slogans, and probably paid people to get the messages on the Internet on a large scale. They were very strong, knowing that the best defence is to attack. The progressives were hopeless: they were drawn into issues that were not even theirs and on top of that they caved in. Starting from the premise that we are all Muslims, the debate was not about the place of religion in society, but to follow the way the Islamists wanted to impose it. The progressives did not refute them. It was important to defend the ability to declare that one is atheist. This would have allowed the possibility to gain some ground. They never dared to defend me on that point. It’s not about me, but I think that is how things should be said.
So you think that the electoral stakes were far more important to them than to defend the country’s diversity and freedom of thought?
Absolutely. And so they lost the vote. I get messages supporting me from all sectors, and often from believers. There were a lot of veiled girls at the pro-secularism rally, as well as people who held signs saying they were Muslims for secularism. But there were also the undecided who remained anonymous holding on to their religion. If they were told that it would be taken away, it is natural that they would react. They were told that I wanted to impose my atheism throughout the country. By not coming to my defence, they allowed these views to spread. I was far away and had health problems that prevented me from coming. I was then pulled into a machine, threatening to kill me, with terrible images on the Internet, taken away in a whirlwind. Everyone had their say about me, I was insulted, slandered: called a Zionist, a Mossad agent, and whatever else could be said. It was for me to justify myself. Islamists are the ones using violence and it is up to us to justify ourselves when they should be arrested and tried! We have never seen a layperson abuse an Islamist, but we have seen many Islamists mistreat laypeople.
Western media discourse adopts a clear separation between the Salafists, and the Islamists who present themselves as moderates. The Salafists are the shoot’em up, tear down the room where the film is screened, etc. You tend to blur this differentiation.
Yes, I am saying I do not understand what a moderate Islamist is. To me he is anti-democratic because he wants to impose his vision of religion on an entire people, where as in a democracy representatives are elected to decide the law. The law has not been written for 1400 years, there are plenty of laws to be written! I am hammering on the fact that Mr. Ghanouchi (2) is imposing himself as commander of the faithful, without a political office, and on top of it he is making all the declarations and deciding everything. I have a videotape of a meeting where he spoke about my film and all the while citing the wrong title, he called it stupid and claimed that it was against Allah. The manipulation of the mind goes far! He used slander and lies to disparage me, while criticising a film he apparently had not seen it. In the name of democracy, he should have condemned his military wing that is making these attacks. I asked him for months to support my right to make the films that I want, and to say what I want about my beliefs, but to no avail.
Ultimately, the film focuses on the public debate on the subject of secularism, which would oppose a Tunisia that declares itself as Muslim and Tunisia as a secular state.
The debate was not well formulated. To declare Tunisia as Muslim is to say that when the weather is nice the sky is blue! Tunisia is Muslim and on this point I agree with them completely. I am an atheist Muslim. I know that I am part of this culture in terms of identity. But the problem is a political one: only those who want to should have to observe religious laws; hence the separation of religion and state. Everyone must comply with the laws of the Republic. It is in this sense that I want secularism. They want religious laws to be imposed on everybody. For them Islam is political. Facing this expanded freedom there may now be a fear that there is one or two religious parties in a country in which people have become used to separating religion and state. Many of the young people who are not politicised do not understand the debate because it is inscribed in the society. There is a turn backwards with the Islamists who want Islam as the religion of the state. There was some ambiguity and this debate should take place in the constituent assembly.
I read recently the remarks of an Algerian lawyer who emphasised the importance of secularism…
Of course. Ghanouchi will not change the laws but the societal practices, so that in ten years, they will say that the law is no longer in compliance and it has to be changed! We know how a society changes; stop taking us for teddy bears! Tunisian Jews have remained very attached to Tunisia; there are Christians, Buddhists, and atheists. Even if they are only 5%, they have the right to live in peace, and in any case the society has the right to live freely.
And not to mention that secularism preserves the diversity of a society and in so doing ensures its cohesion, avoiding the creation of minorities that will ultimately rebel if they are discriminated against.
That’s the slogan I tried to disseminate in Tunis. I streamed my film on Dailymotion in Tunisia, with the phrase: secularism protects all religions and safeguards us from religious extremism.
You are now involved in a lawsuit, following the charges that you made. What is the argument behind these charges?
Violation of the sacred, of accepted standards of behaviour, and of religious teachings. Two months after the revolution an Enaahda lawyer managed to have porn sites blocked on the Internet, when everything was open, with the purpose of restricting freedom. He went on television to say that I had insulted Islam and Muslims. It’s easy to insult me having succeeded in banning my film in Tunisia. There were even demonstrations against me. My best defence is my film: Tunisians who saw it were disappointed because they were expecting something scandalous. I do not know what to do since the Islamists are able to turn everything I say against me. I only have my voice! I have been able to hold on because I have a great deal of support, but I cannot disseminate my point of view. The press has returned to the era under Ben Ali, ululating Ghanouchi by calling him « Sheikh » from every direction.
You find yourself in a very lonely place as you bring a particular vision to cinema: within a confrontation of ideas you put yourself on the screen and assume your relationship with the people who are filmed.
But hasn’t that always been the case? I do not subscribe to a lackey cinema: I have complete freedom, at the risk of being wrong. The documentary film gives instant gratification: during the filming, while editing, etc. The fiction film suffers from the shackles of the script, and during the editing process as one could not do what one wanted because of the lack of means. I film with almost no money, with no pay and with the difficulties of completing the film, but that suits me. I did not want to hide behind the camera. I was asked why I did not go see so-and-so, but I make documentaries to give my opinion. One has forgotten what political cinema is!
Politically-committed filmmaking is criticised for telling people what to think but people are enraptured by Michael Moore who thinks for the spectator by fragmenting the words of the people who are filmed.
I try never to hide my intentions. Even if I film while saying that I am not, I keep my actions in the film. If I walk into a café among people who are not fasting [during Ramadan]it is so that it cannot be said that this reality does not exist. In my film Bedwin Hacker, I was told that this is not true. Here, this is real. I had to film the argumentation that took place between us, although I realise that they have the right not to want to be filmed. Of course I tried to ensure that their faces could not be recognised.
When you are accused of throwing oil on the fire, and of encouraging the Islamists, ultimately what is at stake is the question of a compromise or of their radical positions. You refused to compromise, at the risk of losing the fight.
Yes, because in politics, it’s alright to lose. We can make mistakes. The important thing is to learn from them. It is a defeat for the left in Tunisia, which did not even uphold its values. It cannot even say that the society was not ready to accept its position! It did not take a position! As if the people were not intelligent enough to debate. For me, everything is urgent; everything goes forward at the same time. Everything is connected. In order to have political freedom, freedom of conscience is the first of freedom.
The Constituent Assembly is elected for one year before returning to the polls: Is this the time for public debate?
They have one year to put the broken pieces back together. I was against the union or national coalition. In a year, Tunisia will not be back on its feet yet. So I was in favour of letting them govern, even knowing that it would be chaos. However, in the Constituent Assembly, the opposition could have 60% because they have only 40% of the seats. This allows opposition to unjust laws. If there’s a coalition, everyone will suffer the consequences.

1. August Blanqui disseminated his ideas through his journal Ni dieu ni maître (Neither God nor Master) founded in 1880. The expression became the anarchist slogan and to a lesser extent other elements of the labour movement.
2. Rached Ghanouchi, a moderate Islamist, is head of the Ennahda, the leading party in Tunisia.
Interview held at Festival d’Apt, November 2011.

This translation, from French to English, by Beti Ellerson is part of a partnership with her excellent blog on african woman in cinema: []///Article N° : 10584

Les images de l'article
Nadia El Fani © Véronique Martin

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