From the Editors
An exploration of secularism and public religiosity in post-revolution Tunisia, Nadia el Fani's Neither Allah, Nor Master serves more as a vehicle for an intellectual who poses as a victim of Islamism. The film attempts to probe into the question of fasting and alcohol sales during the Islamic month of Ramadan when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset, and when many liquor stores close their doors. The premise is simple: an atheist Tunisian is at the mercy of the Islam-of-the-Islamists who compel people to fast and avoid drinking for Ramadan. But while the film never backs down from this victim prose, the exhibited evidence demonstrates the tolerance and general indifference among Tunisians for those who decide not to fast, consume alcohol and even leave the faith.
In an opening scene, seated among her friends in her Tunisian apartment, Nadia el Fani conveys her warrior spirit. The Tunisian ancien regime had behaved weakly toward the Islamists, she tells us. By way of evidence she points to the adhan broadcast on state television since the late '80s. Islamists and their families may contest her appraisal. In her exceptional The Force of Obedience; The Political Economy of Repression in Tunisia, French scholar Beatrice Hibou relates the concession afforded Islamists:
"Certain documents have revealed the inhuman conditions experienced during the 1990s…mistreatment and torture that have sometimes led to the death of the victims or their suicide; solitary confinement that sometimes lasts for years on end; overcrowded prisons; the absence of any bed or space to lie down; sleep deprivation; poor food and malnourishment; lack of sufficient water; the difficulty or impossibility of maintaining any contact with the outside world; poor hygiene and the spread of disease; negligence or laxity in medial monitoring and sometimes even the complete absence of this or any medical care; development of drug addiction, the use of psychotropic and neuroleptic drugs; forced labour in conditions of near-slavery; the banning of prayer; systematic and humiliating body searches; promiscuity, sexual aggression and rape; a ban on studying or receiving letter or parcel; isolation, restriction of visiting rights and 'basket' rights (food and clothes brought by one's family), and so on. Everything is done to grind people down and dehumanize them."
The Ben 'Ali regime imprisoned thousands, drove many into exile and harassment was interminable for anyone associated with the banned Islamist bloc al Nahda. One freed Islamist told Hibou, "They steal our lives from us, they refuse to let us play any part in social life." This aggressive policy was supplemented with hostility toward public piety, most notably a campaign against the veil, which presented civil servants with the option of either removal or loss of employment.
But for el Fani - a savior of secularism - this aspect of the regime apparently does not merit attention. The televised call to prayer, for instance, is in her eyes not a cynical gambit, but, rather, inexplicably marked the advent of an Islamist assault on Tunisia's putative secular values facilitated, no less, by a regime that marketed its otherwise fierce repression of Islamism. Whatever one may think of their politics, it is arguable that no segment of Tunisian society was more repressed than partisans of al Nahda. But apparently for al Fani, the Tunisians who have been unfairly treated were those who were made to suffer through the adhan. At this moment, she declares her "war" with the Islamists.
This opening scene is symptomatic of el Fani's quest to "prove" that Islamic norms are being imposed on Tunisians. An avowed atheist and daughter of a communist positions herself as the righteous victim in a nation sliding toward intolerance of those who live outside Islam. el Fani would be on stronger ground if she launched her project after the October 2011 election of al Nahda to the forefront of Tunisian politics. But al Nahda's rise is not the spark since she began filming three months before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. The revolution just happened to fall into el Fani's lens. The fact that el Fani positioned herself as secular victim under Ben 'Ali raises questions about her motives. Is el Fani truly probing into Arab society as an internal critique or just another Muslim "reformer" with an eye toward a Western audience ever eager for another player in the cottage industry of "native informants"? el Fani's recent decision to speak in Israel and declare her new found opposition to the Arab boycott may add further weight to questions about her motives.
In any case, el Fani offers scant contemporary evidence, if any, that an irreligious lifestyle is threatened in post-revolution Tunisia. Rather than serving as a medium to explore the dynamic discussions and debates on Islam in the public space since the downfall of the regime, el Fani adopts too confrontational an approach and too self-assured a comportment so as to obstruct thoughtful engagement with the subject. In the end, Neither Allah, Nor Master is a film that projects its own hostility.
Surprisingly there are no interviews with Islamists (she makes do presenting only fellow secularists echoing her mantra) and, instead, with a cameraman-in-hand she traffics from one scene to the next during the month of Ramadan 2011. Our narrator informs us that Islam prohibits eating, drinking and, yes, even sex (the Qur'an "goes that far" we're told). Many Tunisians may be surprised to learn that this most celebrated of months is portrayed as an annual ritual of oppressive norms adhered to by agentive-less beings. If Habib Bourguiba once drank orange juice to mock fasting hours, el Fani appears baffled that all Tunisians do not follow his lead.
Heading to a corner store, for instance, el Fani prepares to stock up as alcohol sales are soon to be discontinued. This presents a moment for her to feign questions to answers she already knows. Why the closure? Isn't this a forced closure? Only for the man behind the counter to politely explain that it is their holiday akin to Christians taking Christmas and Easter off. This answer does not satisfy and al Fani plays up the Dinar: But imagine the lost income! Her argument transitions from secularism to purely materialist grounds as she attempts to dictate the interest of others by edging them toward an answer she wants. Never once does she appear to recognize that the gentle soul she's badgering may have his own considerations (including not working during fasting hours in the Tunisian summer and, as he explains, business slumps during Ramadan). A Muslim man selling alcohol is obviously not a fundamentalist, but that does not mean he is oblivious to his faith. Even when he concedes the point, after initially believing it to be the case, that law may not mandate closure, he still conveys - with ambivalence toward el Fani more than anything - his own intention toward shutting down. This is hardly a case of state-mandated observation of religion (akin to, say, American Blue laws), but personal practice no different from a Jewish man closing for the Sabbath.
But el Fani, who suggests that Islamists do not respect secularists, often exhibits a latent contempt for fasting Muslims. Visiting a textile factory where an all-women team works while fasting, el Fani can be heard (the cameraman is absent here and she holds it herself) offering condescending words of praise to the fasting women: "May God aid you". By presenting the image of fasting working women her intention is clear: fasting is a burden and ditching it would be liberation. Maybe for some. But el Fani cannot seem to fathom that pious Muslim women value their religious obligations, including those that appear as a burden to outsiders. In this scene, as in much of the film, el Fani's appears to base her documentary not on the ostensible constraints opposed on non-Muslims during Ramadan, but on how fasting is a weighty relic best left aside. So the argument isn't secularism but about a way of life. el Fani, akin to Islamists, holds in low esteem those whose lives and choices differ from her own.
Moving along we are taken to a restaurant with blinds pulled to hide the patrons (a common practice even under Ben 'Ali). el Fani walks in with her cameraman and it isn't long before an employee tells her to turn it off as many of the people do not want to be filmed. el Fani nearly shouts "Why?!" Why indeed? What is the point of filming people who break the fast? If Tunisia truly was secular would these people have anything to hide? That appears to be the question and there is a serious discussion to be had. This Ramadan, for instance, reports from Tunisia indicate that the Islamist-led troika has directed police to force the closure of restaurants during fasting hours. It is a shame that el Fani misses an opportunity to delve into these issues with a humble understanding toward the compromises that all societies, including in the West, must make in negotiating boundaries of public displays that float majority sensibilities. Instead el Fani argues with the employee about how the Tunisian constitution does not mandate the practice of Islam (a point he concurs with) and quickly leaves.
This same scene is played out repeatedly as al Fani attempts to provoke resistance rather than discussion and the viewer is left with little else.
The documentary quest to explore Ramadan in public life culminates on the alluring Tunisian coast. It is Ramadan but men and women, old and young, are swimming in Western bathing suits - bare bodies and all - without any public consternation. el Fani and her comrades stage a picnic, pass along food and cigarettes (another Ramadan No-No) and play the darbuka (an Arab drum). The picnic is staged in solidarity with Moroccan activists who were arrested for floating fasting hours. But this is Tunisia and not Morocco and if al Fani wanted a dramatic clash with an Islamist or the authorities she went home disappointed. As the narrator concedes, the beachside feast "aroused nothing but general indifference." So much for a "war" with suffocating state Islamism.
One may reasonable assume that el Fani made this documentary hoping to be a martyr, a renegade, a rebel, contrarian et al; but this is a figment of her imagination at being at "war" with a (as yet) nonexistent enemy. Salafis have no love for her and will shout her down, but the average Tunisian demonstrates nothing but courtesy, understanding and, rather, indifference to how el Fani lives her life - faith or no faith. A Taxi driver, for instance, tells her that atheists can take their matter up with God and her fasting Tunisian relatives similarly agree that fasting is a personal choice (their son jokes he's fasting-light). Accusing other Tunisians of being hostile to her atheism while constantly roaming around conveying her disregard if not latent adversity to the pious is pure projection bias.
And that's the only appeal of this film. It demonstrates the fundamental decency of the Tunisian people. The Salafis may be the loudest voices, but time and again el Fani's own camera exhibits life in Tunisia as that of tolerance for difference, civility in disagreements and a general joie de vie in practicing an Islam that predates the satellite variant of Salafism.
There is a lot to be said about the ruling Islamist-led government whose intentions are suspects and which has raised the ire of many Tunisians through its unwillingness to clamp down on Salafi violence and threats. The latter have grown bolder and often act with impunity in, say, burning down alcohol stores. And Tunisia may one day be the feared inhospitable land to secularists and atheists. But this is far from the reality at present and, further, certainly only an contrived threat under Ben 'Ali.
In the end, el Fani may have appeared to prove her point when Salafis attacked individuals at a theater screening and she alleges a forced exile as Islamist lawyers lined up against the film. Salafi violence and efforts by relatively moderate Islamists to venerate Islam as an off-hands subject are real threats to a liberal future. But Tunisia remains far from a fundamentalist society and the next elections may throw out al Nahda and bring in a secular coalition headed by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, who has been fierce in condemning Salafis. The violence and threats are not exclusive to el Fani and a worrying portent, but any fair discussion about Islamism and Salafism should recognize the complex layers of religiosity and secularism in Tunisian "life as lived" (to borrow from Charles Hirschkind), that there is no catch-all to sum up the "Tunisian experience" (if one can speak of such), and, lastly, recognizing the history of repression irrespective of politics. Islamist radicalization was partly fueled by brutal repression and the crushing of any avenue of political engagement that may have cultivated liberal streams. And one should remember that Salafis represent 10,000 in a nation of 10 million. State action may finally be mobilizing against them and they are alienated from most of society. Even al Nahda won 37 percent of the vote (and among eligible voters only 17 percent); a strong showing but far less than the 65 percent Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi (Nour party) amalgam in Egypt. As of yet there is no Islamist majority in Tunisian politics.
The so-called Arab Spring is responsible for numerous documentaries. It is a safe assumption most will be worth skipping. Neither Allah, Nor Master is worth seeing. While the film should be viewed with a critical eye given its many faults, it is an interesting look into the dynamics of discussion in an Arab Muslim nation. Instead of the asinine soundbites of "what Muslims think and do" as often portrayed in the Western media, the documentary illustrates that Arabs and Muslims are no less diverse and fragmented in their opinions and practices within (or without) their faith. el Fani may also be letting her guard down. The title of the documentary has since been changed to Laïcité Inch'allah after controversy over a title that appeared to be insulting toward Muslims. El Fani made the decision herself and conveyed her opinion that she did not mean to offend Muslims and sought to move beyond the controversy. Beyond the cute "God willing" evocation of French secularism, this change demonstrates that el Fani is aware that needless confrontation or discourteous language does not facilitate discussions, but, rather, polarizes and obstructs debate. She would have served her documentary a lot better if she recognized this lesson earlier. And there is another thing the documentary does get right: Its closing caption after a filmed debate on Islam and secularism in the proposed constitution: "It's only the beginning."
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