The Battle for Bizerte & the Salafi Debate

Seeking answers for individual concerns was echoed in the audience’s questions. One member of the audience explained that her son-in-law had just bought a house in Tunisia but now wondered if the situation would remain stable. Latif reassured her that he thought it would. Another gentleman proclaimed to a bemused audience that he would have welcomed the Salafists’ efficiency here in the UK in dealing with his own dilemmas on numerous occasions. With reference to the tendencies of Ansar Al-Sharia, another audience member observed, “some of them sound like the Mafia in New York City.”

On a more serious note, Latif praised the strength of the Tunisian administration but not its government:

“These people who take power now in Tunisia, they don’t have any political experience and this is why we fight ourselves without a real government.”

Latif explained that he was able to get such direct access by spending a couple of months gaining the Salafists’ trust. He continued to outline that this was not the first time he had dealt with the subject of emerging fundamentalism. He first tackled this subject two years ago and described the surprised Tunisian reaction at the time.  In Latif’s own words they exclaimed:

“Do we have these kinds of people in Tunisia?. . . No way, what are you talking about?”  

The timing of the film’s completion is another significant point, as it saw the climax of fighting between officials and the Ansar Al-Sharia in the area. Consequently, the group was banned, labeled a terrorist organisation and many of its members were forced underground.

Conscious of the film’s negative impact in its depiction of ultra-conservatives and some of their violent tendencies, Latif was quick to contextualise the Salafi phenomenon and defend Tunisia as a whole:

“This is one small angle of Tunisia. . . . Still in Tunisia we believe in a democratic solution, in a political solution.”

With some fragments of certainty, much of the discussion revealed nevertheless an ongoing identity crisis in the country. Latif reflected:

“Since our independence in 1956, what does it mean to be Tunisian? We don’t have one definition of who we are, we are Muslim, Arabic whatever…”

While media and TV industry professionals accounted for much of the audience, it was divided on the topic of the consequences of Salafism in Tunisia and beyond. Some voiced concern for the increasing signs of fundamentalist groups like Ansar Al-Sharia while a representative from Islamic TV dismissed them as, “a tiny group” and “a temporary phenomenon.”

Latif seemed to predict the decline of fundamentalism in Tunisia, stating:

‘Thank God Islamists come to power just after the election –  if not, next election they would be 99% saying “always we are hated”. . . . We are in the beginning of revolution; it’s a process.’

Had Latif’s life been endangered during the making of this film? Had he received death threats? These questions were particularly related to his journey to Damascus in pursuit of a young Tunisian jihadist who disappeared there.

Sensitivity towards the way the Syrian crisis was conveyed became the final topic of discussion. With some determined to bring the focus back to Tunisia, the resounding question seemed to be: when dealing with Salafism, where do the boundaries lie? According to Latif, one thing is certain:

“The stories continue and the battle did not end.”

Latif is currently working on another documentary researching the causes and effects of Tunisian Jihadists in Syria.