Swiss film director Naim Cherni talks to Ayla Bongaertz for CAGE about Islamophobia, his Syrian-based film and why it’s important as a Muslim activist to keep working and speaking out despite sometimes overwhelming odds.
In 2016, the Swiss government opened a case against Cherni and two other Swiss citizens accusing them of making propaganda for Al Qaida, after they produced a two-part documentary in Syria, filming an inner Islamic perspective in the fight against IS ideology.
The case was covered extensively by the media, but up until now, the perspective of the accused filmmakers has been missing.
What follows is an interview with one of the accused, Naim Cherni, a Swiss self-taught filmmaker based in Switzerland and The Netherlands.
He has produced documentaries in countries like Syria and Bangladesh on topics such as the war in Syria and the Rohingya fleeing Myanmar. He is currently working on a joint project about asylum seekers returning to Syria.
How did you get started as a filmmaker and what you personally find important when making films?
I’ve travelled several times to Syria since the beginning of the revolution. I took my camera with me and documented my journeys. That’s how I got into documentaries. I like to communicate through images and video; it addresses the heart directly.
Citing dry facts doesn’t move people. So I translate my impressions during filming to the viewer, but more importantly I provide a voice to those often drowned in the entertainment focused media in the West. The cult of the perfect body seems to be as important as the persecuted Rohingya minority in Myanmar, or the struggle for freedom and self-determination of the Syrian people. But I’m not having it.
What project are you currently working on?
“Al-Oudah / The Return”, is a doc-film about a Syrian refugee returning to Turkey and Syria after having waited 2.5 years in Germany for legal status. We accompanied him to the Greek-Turkish border, where we first were threatened at knifepoint by a smuggler, then arrested by Greek border police, who claimed we were smugglers.
The story is worth the struggle however. The EU-TR deal made it nearly impossible for families to follow their relatives to Europe. So a growing number of refugees return the way they came in. They are frustrated at being unable to reunite with their loved ones.
Depression is widespread among the refugee community. It was touching to see him opening up – he had few people to talk about his time in Germany. He was an outcast from society and at the same time was struggling to meet the high expectations from waiting family members back home. His smartphone was the only connection to them. It’s silly how refugee deals are made over numbers, while it is humans lives they decide upon.
In our current media climate, do you feel that your perspective as a bicultural Muslim is adequately represented?
There are certainly journalists who make an effort to understand the Muslim community in Europe – they are realising it is part of society. However the majority prefer sensationalism. “Sex-Jihad Terror” is a common headline in Switzerland, and these stories sell well.
I grew up in two different worlds. My mother with her German roots and artistic vein has shaped my character as much as my Muslim father, who is an immigrant from Tunisia. When it comes to Islam and West, I’m able to put things into either perspective. This has an influence on me as a filmmaker. I am to provide an accurate picture of Muslims and the Islamic world, while bearing in mind the perspective of the West.
Could you tell me a bit more about the case and films concerned?
During 2015 in Syria I investigated the conflict between rebel groups and the Islamic State (IS) organisation. Having observed the group closely since 2013 and being personally affected through the loss of several close friends of mine, who were killed by IS, I decided to deconstruct their narrative in the documentary “Al-Fajr As-Saadiq”.
While filming I met Dr. Muhaysini, a prominent and independent figure among the rebel spectrum. With the goal of providing an authentic source to talk about the issue, I set up an interview with him, where he explained in detail his personal experience trying to negotiate with IS in an effort to prevent bloodshed. Realising they were resistent to any reason, he called upon all rebel groups to take up arms against them.
However back in Switzerland, Federal Prosecutor Michael Lauber, who frequently visits his colleagues in post-coup Egypt, decided that the production was spreading Al-Qaida (AQ) propaganda, and charged me and two fellow board members of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (ICCS) with the said claim.
In 2.5 years he and his apparatus of state detailed in almost a thousand pages how I fail to measure Islamic law by Western standards and how I allegedly provided a platform to high ranking AQ representatives.
The struggle to prove the claims is understandable. Neither the documentary nor the interview mentions or features any member of AQ. Dr. Muhaysini himself is neither on the EU, nor Swiss (Seco) sanctions list and denies his US designation.
The Swiss media played along nevertheless, granted a few keen exceptions. We’ll see if the judges consider public opinion or facts.
What is your relation to the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland?
The Council funded the documentaries in Syria along with humanitarian projects. Being the largest Islamic grassroots organisation in Switzerland and being unapologetic in communication and media advocacy, the government struggles to get along with the ICCS. Publicly defending Islamic values comes with a large target sign.
This case may very well be an attempt to silence our voice, but a conviction wouldn’t change a thing. As long as you read “minaret-ban” in the Swiss constitution and attempts to compromise core values of Muslims are frequent, there will be resistance.
Has it been more difficult to do your work since the gov. Opened the case?
Several countries issued an entry ban for me, quite likely on Swiss request. But where a door closes, another opens. I get to speak to many lovely border officers, in the UK for example, where I was invited to a three-hour ‘tea’ session. I gave my fingerprints and DNA rather involuntary though. Same applies for my phone code. Having read Muhammad Rabbani’s case a few weeks before however, I did not feel the wish to prolong my ‘tea’ session.
Has there been any solidarity from leftist movements in Switzerland?
Not more than expected. One investigative journalist from the leftist magazine WOZ wrote in an article that the case “crosses a line”. He quotes Swiss leftist attorney Marcel Bosonnet saying ‘the Federal Prosecutor’s Office does not judge the act, but the views’, and this would mean that ‘thoughts aren’t free anymore’. My surrounding circle of supporters and friends, Muslim and Non-Muslim, stand behind me and express their discontent at the absurd actions of the Swiss government.
Why do you think is necessary for for you to do your work?
Muslim filmmakers in the West have a unique insight into the Islamic community here. Listening to our voices might help understanding what some media and politicians want you to consider foreign. When you understand something it is less likely to cause fear. That way we can all laugh at those silly headlines together.
This trial and all the media attention must have been stressful. Could you describe the impact it has had on you?
I reacted defiantly at first and, although not my intention, I was admittedly fascinated by the media storm the film caused, as it really portrayed the media’s obsession with Islamic topics. The motivation behind the film was clearly ignored which, to a certain degree, caused me to be angry and disappointed.
Then, after taking a step back and reflecting my position, I realised I was too emotionally invested. I was dancing the dance of provocation and reactionism, rather than soberly analyzing the situation. I stand behind what I did and I always will. This security leaves me peacefully facing the trial and might come after.
I’m more certain of my path than ever. I’m at peace with myself and my actions. In order for us to continue to bring such stories to light, others might struggle too. In a way, I have matured.
What have been some reflections that you could leave with our readers around what it means to be a Muslim activist today, and what advice would you give to those facing the ‘terrorism’ label for doing social justice work?
If one can stand behind every act, you’ll find peace with whatever gets thrown at you. To the journalists celebrating this ‚scandal‘, which is in effect an attack against freedom of the press to report on crucial stories, I say: Do your thing; it might however backfire one day.
What will you do if you lose the case? The max penalty is five years.
My attorney will prepare the appeal, I’ll have a lot of time to read, write and draw.
The trial of Naim Cherni and two others takes place on the 16th and 17th of May in the Federal criminal court in Bellinzona, Switzerland.
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