Tunisia, the country which set the “Arab Spring” in motion, is often hailed as the finest exemplar of new-found Arab democracy. But for Nadia El Fani, a Tunisian filmmaker living in France, the country’s awakening comes with a heavy price.
If she were to return to her homeland, El Fani risks arrest and up to five years in prison after Islamist lawyers filed a police complaint against her for a film she created, titled “Neither Allah nor Master.” The film, a lucid account of Tunisian life immediately before and after the fall of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, deals with the thorny subject of Islam in the public sphere.
Even before the revolution, state secularism — the heritage of the country’s first president Habib Bourgiba — began giving way to Islamic incursions that deprived secular Tunisians of liberties they considered trivial for decades, El Fani argues in her film.
Predictably perhaps, the film caused a veritable scandal when released in Tunisia in April 2011. Two months later, dozens of Islamists attacked a cinema which was screening the film in Tunis, breaking down the front door and shouting “God is Great.”
El Fani arrived in Tel Aviv this week to discuss her film with a local audience and debate issues of religion and state in the Democracy and Religion Conference organized by the French Embassy.
But as her intention to visit Israel became public, El Fani came under attack from her own supporters in the liberal, secular camp, an attack which was – in a way – more painful than the first, on her movie. El Fani explained her decision to come to Israel in an impassioned letter to her left-wing detractors.
‘When you live in a dictatorship where no one has the right to unite, to talk, and the Islamists have mosques where they can collect hundreds of people and brainwash them, it is much easier to engage in politics than for people on the left.’
“I know how delicate the Palestinian question is, and to what extent the slogan ‘we are all Palestinian’ resonates from Tunis to Cairo,” she wrote.
“In reality, this slogan is the unifying factor in the fantasy of Arab unity. For my part, I long considered boycotts the most effective response to the thorny question of occupation. I don’t believe so any more. On the contrary, I believe that this course of action increases the isolation of progressive, peace-supporting Israelis who, like us, wish for a Palestinian state.”
Today, a year and a half after the revolution, can we say that democracy failed in Tunisia?
No, on the contrary! The democratic process is underway. It will take time to learn democracy, to instill the exchange of ideas, of accepting differences. Democracy isn’t just free elections … [Laws regarding] blasphemy cannot exist, because if we do not believe in God there is no reason to respect religious law which we do not acknowledge. The democratic process is long. I am saddened by what is happening in Tunisia today, but I have not given up on democracy.
People say that Tunisia is the best example of a revolution in the Arab world. Do you agree with that assessment?
Of course. It was the first [revolution] and it surprised and astonished the world. It was pacifist, using slogans espousing universal values such as liberty, dignity, employment. At no point was religion evoked during the four weeks of the revolution.
Yet you, personally, cannot return.
That’s alright. In a struggle one needs to learn how to pay the price for things. I will not renounce [my positions] so as to avoid prison or a trial. It is precisely because I did not renounce them that they [the Islamists] are so violent towards me. So I will continue to fight, just as they continue to fight.
But what does this mean for people like you, who do not believe, and who do live there?
Laïcité (the French term for state secularism) is not a question of believing or not believing. When I describe myself as an atheist it’s just to point the finger at our problem of religious practice. Laïcité simply means that religion should not mix with politics. Religion should not be evoked to create laws. This is the only way to live in peace as citizens, and I see Israel as no exception to this firm belief.
Do you think we can apply laïcité in Tunisia? After all, it is a much more traditional country than France.
I don’t see why not. Turkey has been a secular country for over 100 years, luckily. This does not prevent a party with Islamic tendencies to assume power. But this party acts within the confines of the law. This is also true for many things about Israel, but [Israel[ is not a secular state, contrary to what they say.
What prevents these ideas from taking root in the Arab world?
We are in the midst of a battle of political Islamism that wants to take hold of power. It’s all a question of power, all over the world. Every person fights for his ideas, his ideals, on how to run the country. They want to run the country on a religious basis. I oppose this.
“I know how delicate the Palestinian question is, and to what extent the slogan ‘we are all Palestinian’ resonates from Tunis to Cairo.”
Do you doubt that in Israel the religious extremists influence (Prime Minister) Netanyahu’s politics? I think the problem of religious extremism is global. I don’t believe that it’s limited to Arab countries.
In the film, we see that this process began before the fall of Ben Ali.
Of course. When you live in a dictatorship where no one has the right to unite, to talk, and the Islamists have mosques where they can collect hundreds of people and brainwash them, it is much easier to engage in politics than for people on the left, who are democrats, and who are forced to rent halls. It was illegal to rent halls, to conduct debates, whereas in the mosques they did whatever they wanted!
‘I long considered boycotts the most effective response to the thorny question of occupation. I don’t believe so any more.’
To that, you can add money from Qatar and Saudi Arabia, supported by the United States. The Americans support Israel, but they support the Islamists too, and that should be said.
Do you think that perhaps the revolution was also partially directed against the idea of laïcité? After all, there was a kind of secularism in Tunisia.
That is exactly the problem today in defending women’s rights and state secularism. Bourguiba and Ben Ali both used these two issues to profess a pseudo-democracy. Ben Ali, especially, used the personal status code — which was favorable to women — to say ‘You see, we have women’s rights.’ He also said ‘I fight the Islamists.’ But as I mention in my film, it was Ben Ali who instituted the call for prayer on television, where all the programs stop. It was Ben Ali who ordered cafes to be covered so as not to be viewed during Ramadan.
There are many more examples showing that Ben Ali fought against laïcité, which was already a fact when he ascended to power. He helped state secularism disappear.
That’s what we call dictator’s ‘double speak’. Just like, today, Bashar Assad says ‘It’s not me who is killing.’