The case of Nadia El-Fani

29 July 2011

"Freedom is a battle," declared the Tunisian film maker Nadia El Fani in 2002. In the same interview she said that "Tunisians have a strong sense of humour and a love of freedom." Anyone familiar with Tunisia and its people can only confirm these statements. Unfortunately, the Jasmin revolution, positive in many ways, has brought Islamic extremism back home either through the Muslim Brotherhood or, in its most extreme form, the Salafist ideology.


Nadia El-Fani’s documentary Ni Allah ni maitre, which denounces Islamic extremism and defends secularism, was screened on 18th May 2011 at the Cannes Film Festival. This film has become one of the first victims of Islamic censorship in Tunisia. El Fani is the subject of two accusations: first of all, her guilt is assumed because she is avowedly atheist and secondly, because the documentary is said to have insulted Islam.

On 26th June 2011, hundreds of Islamic extremists blocked the entrance of the AfricArt Cinema at the screening of Ni Allah ni maitre in Tunis. The slogans of the demonstrators were unequivocal: “Tunisia is an Islamic state” and “Allahu Akbar”. An invitation from the event organisers inviting protesters to watch the film before judging it was rejected out of hand. Even more serious is that the Tunisian police advised against screening the film and intervened late and indecisively when the attack took place. The thirty Salafists arrested during the riots were soon released. Sadly, Nadia El Fani will now have to appear in court.

Tunisian adviser Monaem Turki, along with two other colleagues, has requested the opening of an inquiry against the director in order to prevent further screenings of the film in Tunisia. Both Turki, infamous for his appeal to the Tunisian Internet Agency to close certain pornography sites in the country, and the other officials characterise the film as blasphemous and against Islamic values. A statement made by Turki during a television interview in which he claimed he had only read press reviews of the film, and not yet seen it, is also troubling. On 13th July 2011, a prosecutor from Tunisia’s court of first instance confirmed that it was launching an investigation into El Fani.

In a statement made public on 8th July 2011, the Tunisian Ministry of Culture, chaired by Beschaouch Ezzeddine, stated that "the film did not receive any state subsidy, either before or after the Jasmine revolution". The Ministry document also highlighted the importance of "verifying any information before spreading it to avoid provoking or disturbing public opinion." Meanwhile, the courageous director has opted, in a decision bordering of self-censorship, to change the film’s title from Ni Allah ni maître to the less controversial, but more ironic Laïcité, Inch'Allah (Secularism, God willing ).

Meanwhile, the website of political party, En Nahdha, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, has formally condemned the assault on the cinema. However, it still argues that the film represents an anti-Islamic "provocation.” An article has appeared on the site by Lotfi Al-Akhal, who describes himself as a "Tunisian engineeer living in Osaka, Japan", opening with the following words, "The number of Tunisian cinemas screening the film Ni Allah ni maitre, produced by extremist atheists (who call themselves artists) worries me greatly. This is because many critics have ignored the seriousness of this crime, which is not only against the Tunisian people and their Revolution, but also against all those men who describe themselves as believers in Allah”. The author strongly attacks not just atheists, such as El Fani, but also secularists who, in his opinion, have caused only harm to humanity. Al-Akhal’s message is clear and unequivocal: "Islam has risen and it's time to get serious. For this reason, all Islamic parties and movements (especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey and Malaysia), as well as scholars, experts and citizens must take considerable measures to eradicate dependence, and spread new points of view which will allow a new world order based on Islam."

The events surrounding film maker Nadia El Fani in Tunisia, alongside recent death threats against the Tunisian director Nouri Bouzid, should make us think. Before the Jasmin revolution, Ben Ali oppressed his opponents regardless of their political or ideological stand, but Tunisia never saw sentences for blasphemy or apostasy. I am firmly convinced that young Tunisians, women’s activists and intellectuals, who have been the soul of the revolution do not deserve to pass from the dictatorship of Ben Ali to a dictatorship and censorship in the name of a radical interpretation of Islam which stands poles apart from Tunisian tradition.

On 21st September of this year, Laïcité, Inch'Allah (sic) will be released in France. It would be desirable to organise screenings of the film in Italy and Europe more generally, as well as to launch a campaign for freedom of expression and universal human rights in Tunisia and other countries in the region. This would safeguard all those on the southern shore of the Mediterranean who have been fighting for a better future, but are now at risk of falling into a dangerous Islamic "democracy".