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Jihadists, a Divisive Movie in American Theaters

A documentary aiming to shed light on the Salafist ideology while showing the daily horrors of living under Sharia law in the Sahel region of Africa has caused controversy in France. It was initially banned for anyone under 18, before the age-limit was dropped to under 16s. The polemical movie will be shown in certain cinemas in New York and Los Angeles until February 4.

The movie Jihadists (Salafistes) is the work of Franco-Mauritanian journalist Lemine Ould Mohamed Salem and French director François Margolin, and has divided public opinion in France. This negative reaction is partly due to the fact the movie gives the floor to political leaders from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Salafist religious authorities. The interviews are interspersed with propaganda and jihadist videos and amateur footage recorded during the September 11 and Charlie Hebdo attacks, all without any voiceover or commentary. France-Amérique sat down with co-director François Margolin to find out more.

France-Amérique: What is the objective of your documentary?

François Margolin: Salafism is a minority movement within the religion of Islam. This ideology promotes a return to the practices enforced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, and is spreading rapidly. The last ten years have seen this branch take hold in Syria and Iraq, but also in France, Germany, and the United States. We wanted to show that the terrorists who carry out attacks are not mad, but rather driven by conviction.

Following the attack against Charlie Hebdo, the term “Salafist” was splashed across the front pages of newspapers, and a rational discussion became even more urgent. In this documentary, for the very first time we see Salafist leaders explaining their ideas, the types of attacks they want to organize, and how they intend to transform society.

I had already met some of the AQIM leaders while filming The Opium of the Talibans in 2000, and my Franco-Mauritanian co-director had contacts in the countries we visited. We were best-placed to speak with these people, who are often very difficult to access and unwilling to talk.

Why are you trying to explain the Salafist movement?

The families of the victims of the attacks need to understand what drives the terrorists, but they are often met with an absence of reasons. After November 13, 2015, the then French prime minister Manuel Valls declared that “any explanation was an excuse.” This is foolish. In that case we may as well stop teaching history and science!

This documentary is not justifying the attacks, but rather explaining why people decided to blindly kill New Yorkers (because they worked for a bank in the World Trade Center) and Parisians (because they were at a rock concert at the Bataclan or having a drink on a terrace). It shows that the Salafist movement forbids both alcohol and music.

By way of introduction, you state that the movie “may be shocking, but we believe it is necessary.”

Our message is shocking because Salafism is an ideology no one wants to hear about, and which is glossed over after each new attack. We have to stop thinking that these terrorists are lone madmen. It would be the same as using Hitler as the sole explanation for Nazism.

After the attacks in Nice in July 2016 and in Strasbourg in December 2018, the French interior ministers merely said that the situation was “complicated.” For several weeks afterwards, the reasons given centered exclusively on the terrorists’ personal problems. And yet some 20 people were arrested and questioned for the attacks in Nice, and we later learned that the Strasbourg killer had been preparing the attack for some time. These were not just simple criminals.

Are you not worried the documentary offers a platform for the ideologies of Islamist leaders?

When we discuss controversial topics such as this, there is always a small risk that a handful of fanatics will be impressed. This was not the case with Jihadists. Ours is not a propaganda movie, it does not resonate with jihadists, and we are not publicizing the people we interview. As for the violent images, this is a non-issue. Not only did we edit them, but many people have already seen them.

Our documentary is structured clearly. We alternate between erudite, articulate leaders and images of violence and murder. What’s more, our position is laid out at the start and the end of the movie. The work is in memory of the victims of the attacks in France, and we remind viewers that Salafism is a small yet dangerous movement.

I have always thought we should avoid burying our heads in the sand. We should not think twice about showing perpetrators or dangerous people. Nor should we censor ourselves; we will never resolve our problems by denying them.


U.S. release: January 25, 2019
Running time: 75 min
Director: François Margolin and Lemine Ould Mohamed Salem
U.S. distributor: Cinema Libre Studio 


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