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The convenient explanation for the recent religion based violence in Algeria is that the country is xenophobic and that the population is hostile to religions other than Islam, confirming the long-held view that these problems are inherit in the Islamic faith. Unsurprisingly, this view is simplistic as it ignores what I think are the two forces behind religious sensitivities in Algeria, the first is the historical context and the second is the poor management of recent governments in dealing with inter-religious violence.
On the historical context, during France’s occupation of Algeria France has deliberately tried to culturally and religiously influence the local Muslim population while maintaining a quasi-apartheid rule that disadvantages local Muslims who opposed assimilation. The Muslim population responded by growing ever more suspicious of what they thought as thinly veiled attempts at converting them to Christianity. Several laws sought to define multiple classes of citizenry based on religion: Napoleon’s 1965 law and the 1870 Crémieux decree both set limits on the rights of Algerians based on religion. These laws denied Algerians fully citizenry unless they denounced their Muslim religion while granting local Christians and Jews full citizenship . Such mixing of religiosity with citizenship would later influence inter-religious events between the three religious groups for the rest of the colonial period.
Algerians though would have none of it as very few people accepted conversion. Community leaders sensed the possible breakup of the Algerian community were a large number of Algerians convert en masse, so they wrote and fought relentlessly against these laws. The famous Algerian scholar and head of the Association of Algerian Scholars Abdelhamid Bin Badis wrote that accepting the French Citizenship amounts to treason. He then issued his famous poem, whose first lines assert the Muslim and Arab dimensions of the local population. An Amazigh himself, he regarded Islam and the Arab language as a force that would unite Algerians and assert their indigenous identity whatever their ethnic background*. Ibn Badis, his association and the multitude of cultural output they worked for would later be a contributing force in the thought that led to the Algerian Independence War 1954-1962.
During that war, the Kabyle region played a central role in the resistance movement in the Djurdjura mountains. The French attempted to break this resistance militarily and by exploiting the stereotypical Amazigh-Arab conflict (This practice of exploiting tribal conflicts had netted the French fruits in some parts of the country, such as in Arris, Batna). Again the Christian religion was always viewed susceptibility as it was seen as being rammed down their throats to break the lines of the Algerian revolution, and worse, establish a separate Kabyle political entity that would break the Algerian soil into two easily manageable halves west and south-east of the Kabyle region.
Since then, Algerians developed what could be called as simply, frankly, a phobia towards the Christian religion especially in the Kabyle region. Far from the typical view generally held outside Algeria and sometimes inside Algeria outside Kabylia, the Kabyle region harbours in its mountainous ranges some of the most devout Muslims in Algeria. Béjaïa is fondly remembered a centre for Islamic scholarship and political influence during the Hammadid dynasty and the Islamic School of Tizi-Ouzou produces a considerable number of Imams for mosques all over the country. Muslim leaders inside the Kabyle region and outside it view any Christian activity as another French attempt at breaking up the region and exploiting it for political purposes.
It is important to note that pre-existing Christians (a considerable number left over from the Algerian war until the Algerian civil war 1991) continued to live relatively in peace in their teaching and administrative posts. The sensitivity is towards Christian missionaries that seek new converts, often exploiting their poverty and disillusion with governments that denied their cultural roots and failed to develop one of the most densely populated regions in Algeria. The missionaries are thus always viewed with great suspicion (Sidenote: a cursory look at some of the Christian websites discovers such gems as “The North African countries are some of the last great havens for Satan, they must be converted!”). With ever increasing sensationalised reports of Muslims turning to Christianity the chaotic response of successive governments provided further fuel to the fire.
Far from having a clear policy towards these missionaries, Algerian governments and ministers of religious affairs often acted emotionally and showed a response that can be characterised as wholly anti-Christian, rather than just anti missionary attempts at exploiting the Kabyle problems. The Algerian Muslim population is not as homogeneous as it is often portrayed. Historically, significant Zaouia Sufi and Ibadi orders always existed. Currently, Muslims can be categorised in multiple currents: in addition to the historical groups, new radical, Salafist and Muslim brotherhood groups emerged. The safest group for the government are some of the mild Sufi Zaoui orders: largely apolitical and confined to ritual practices of the religion. These orders now control the ministry of religious affairs and many of its mosques throughout the country. Given that this current was at forefront of the fight for Algerian identity during the colonialism years since 1830, it should come at no surprise that it acted in continuation with the same mentality. Worse, electorally discredited governments and ministers of religious affairs felt under pressure to confirm their adherence to Islam by mindlessly oppressing Christian groups.
The government’s response to the recent burning of the Christian apartment in Tizi-Ouzou is a perfect example of this behaviour. Rather than attempting to calm down the local population and avoid further religious violence, the government ignored the criminal act of burning down the apartment and concentrated on criminally suing the Christian owner for not having a license to use the premises for Christian congregations (his fault). The act sends the message that it is acceptable for citizens to take the law into their hands and burn down Christian places, putting aside the question of whether licensing laws are adequate in the first place (they are, given that they equally apply, by the text of the law, to Muslims places of worship). This behaviour fuels feelings of religious oppression in the Christian community and encourages further provocations.
The religious conflicts in Algeria that appeared as of late are evidently quite complex and require great political skill to resolve in the future. No simple formula will be a solution. Calming down feelings of hatred and phobia will takes years of conditioning the local population that it is acceptable to have a Christian as your neighbour and that not all Christians are French neo-colonialists. The government’s response to feelings of sociocultural and socioeconomic disillusion should be through active economic and cultural development throughout the region and not through populist battles against groups of Christians. Real attempts at exploiting the Kabyle region for political purposes should be fought politically, not religiously.
[* It is sad that Ibn Badis’s poem was later used in the independence years to justify denying the Amazigh dimension of the Algerian identity. Such an explanation ignores the historical context of Ibn Badis’s poem that sought to unite Algerians against a common danger. Ibn Babdis was always proud of his Amazigh roots and would be greatly troubled were he to learn how his poem was used.]
Update: See the comment below on the history of the day.
Yennayer is an Amazigh celebration in Algeria and other places where there is a significant berber population – it is currently under way as it is usually celebrated between 12-14 January of each year. My admittedly quick lazy searching did not prove me otherwise: I wonder whether it is the oldest celebrated day in the world, is it? It has been celebrated since the Amazighs’ victory over Ramses III in Tlemcen in 950 BC, 2960 years ago. Read more about it here and here. The French Wikipedia has a more comprehensive entry in French.
The Kabyle region have been campaigning for a long time for an official recognition of the day. Recognising it as an important cultural event in Algeria is surely a great asset to the country.
On an autumn day of September 2001 I arrived at Heathrow Airport, London from Algiers for the first time in my life. Only two weeks after the 9/11 events, the arrivals terminal looked very busy with passengers forming a long queue the spun like a snake around metallic posts, although in hindsight the long queue may be due to the strict controls being applied in the paranoid post 9/11 world of air travel. Barely a teenager, I was quite excited at the opportunities that lay ahead but very anxious at the prospect of being interviewed by border control, having heard plenty of horror stories. Legend has it that many people were interviewed rudely, held here for hours and days only to be rounded back home at the soonest available flight. I had applied and was granted a visa, but the visa application itself said that getting a visa is no guarantee for being accepted.
The atmosphere at the queue was unbearably tense. Security guards kept going back and forth moving people to interview rooms. The hall had numerous windows with one-way mirrors suggesting that all passengers are being watched. I waited patiently for my turn and made sure that I stare at no guard or mirror – yes, I was quite scared. Being of mixed Berber and Arab heritage, I look unmistakably middle eastern, brown of the North African variety, but not necessarily like the 9/11 hijackers. But you never know, we always all get lumped in the same bag, even Sikh and Indian people were racially abused and shot at after 9/11.
At the end of the queue stood a steward directing passengers to one of several border control desks as they become available. When it was my turn he looked at my posture, looked at my hand holding the green Algerian passport, and asked me to come to a small queue he held behind him. I discovered that I was joining several other passengers all of the same prototype: young, brown and male. An old Algerian in a suit in the “normal” queue got furious at the steward and asked him to clarify the treatment. I understood from the gestures of the steward and what few words I could pick up that it is “policy”. The old man still moved around angrily demanding answers and asked for the manager. I thought he was a noble and brave man but I was scared that he will get rounded up for defending us.
Meanwhile, our queue moved unbearably slow. Out of all the control desks one was dedicated to us. Once my turn came, the steward pointed me to the desk, at which sat a typical old British man with white hair. The old man lifted his forearm up, then with his back hand facing me he gestured with the index finger for me to come to the desk. The gesture was clearly made to intimidate me, but having the typical Algerian hot blood his manners made me more confident and gave me a rush of adrenaline to prepare for a shouting match that I thankfully restrained myself from getting into.
At the desk, language problems immediately manifested themselves. He looked at me in the eye from above his spectacles as he asked me something in English which I spoke very little of, so I just replied with my broken English: “I do not understand” in a je m’en fous way. I could hear him mutter a frustrated “Jesus Christ” as he held his head in his hand, flipping my passport with the other. Upon realising I was Algerian he asked me in French “Where is your Visa?”, I spoke French so I gave him the page number. Then came the flood of questions: how long are you staying? where are you going to study? for how long? where will you be staying? Who is waiting for you at the airport? do you have a French passport? and so on. Flipping through my passport, he phoned somewhere, from his gestures I assumed that he was establishing the authenticity of the passport. I stood there for over 15 minutes, then he stamped on my passport and asked me to join an adjacent room for a “medical” check.
Another queue at the room, again those being queued were of the same prototype. The “medical” check involved another examination of the passport and asking a few of the previously asked questions. The last question was whether I took vaccinations as a child, to which I replied in the affirmative. At baggage control, somehow I was again singled for a “random” check, which was quite thorough. I had a small bottle of high quality honey confiscated and was referred to have a “check” on my file in case the same “offence” was committed again, but somehow another staff asked me to just pack up and go, finally into the country. All in all, getting through border control took 3 hours of stress, and I am told I had it easy.
Throughout the next eight years I was more or less subjected to the same treatment (minus the special queues) every time I flew into Heathrow. Flying out always had me removing my belt, my shoes, nearly routinely getting singled out on the side for a thorough body check. Once I was pulled into a room where I had a border control officer “quiz” me about various subjects: What I thought about Islam and Bin Laden and other questions of that sort. I could barely hide a mixed face of frustration and laughter throughout the “interview”.
This profiling is, to me, too real not to assume it is not systematic. Some random checks may pick up the odd non prototype conforming passenger, but I have a hard time believing that all old ladies, young girls and businessmen were subjects to the same treatment. Therefore forgive me for chuckling and sadly shaking my head whenever one of these racial profiling debates flare up. In a discussion with some of my English white friends, some think that it is not a big deal and that I am not being targeted. This makes almost pull the lethal “but you’ve never been black or brown so you don’t know” card.
The profiling is already done in practice, and is undoubtedly codified in some internal memos as recently discovered in the United States. The question should not merely be whether racial profiling should be done or not, but whether 8 years (or perhaps more) of it have prevented terrorist attacks and whether the moral costs justify the small or non existant security gain. It need not be said that for all the profiling that I and people like me were subjected to in the UK, it is British men that caused the 7/7 bombings in London. These people would normally whiz through the specially marked EU border control desks at Heathrow. Any suggestion of racial profiling for British people in the UK or for Americans in the US will be laughed out of court. For a would be terrorist, the problem of getting citizenship of the target country of attack is a side issue. History shows us that no amount of bureaucratic paperwork prevents ideologically motivated attacks. Security measures are just a smoke screen that serve to discourage the target countries from seriously thinking about their acts on the international stage and the hate they generate.
But here is the cracker though: suppose that racial profiling was “officially” approved, and that the next attacks (god forbid) are committed by a non racially profiled attacker. The embarrassment this potential scenario would cause to the authorities is unthinkable. It remind me of the embarrassment, frustration and total loss that the French experienced through the Algerian War 1954-1962.
At the start of that war, Algerians took to the mountains to fight against the French military. The French stepped up security measures and installed checkpoints everywhere. The Algerian fighters countered by wearing their wives’ clothes to get past the controls. Then in the Battle of Algiers, key to the Algerian attacks were Yassef’s girls, totally european’ised and blending well with the white Pierds Noirs, some of them even took a habit of flirting with security guards as they got though their checkpoints to plant bombs everywhere in Algiers. When the French lost the war they discovered that all along numerous white French and Pierds Noirs, men and women alike helped the Algerians all along and were instrumental in moving key Algerian fighters around the country and for organising money collections for them.
Digging through the writings of various historians of 20th Century Algeria, one almost always unearths some dirt. I admire the spirit of the Algerian revolution against the French to a great degree, but I wish we were told the whole story in our educational programmes. The story I was given is that of heroic fighting, ample dedication, determination and brotherhood. Much of this true, but a large piece of the picture was not painted, and many details were swept under a neatly woven carpet of historical perfection*.
In particular, the events that happened directly at the ending of the revolution during the course of the year 1962 remain a mystery, with conflicting accounts from various historians inside and outside the country. So much happened too quickly to untangle: French Army factions breaking away, FLN internal strife, false fighters, Harkis, Pieds Noirs run anti-independence resistance movements, opportunists trying to get the best booties and the list goes on. It all ended in a blood bath where so many were killed in sometimes shameful ways, unfolding one of the dark chapters of the revolution.
Mobs would go through urban areas and extra judiciously kill anyone who was suspected of being complicit with the French side against the FLN. Sometimes false fighters would aid in these operations to get some credit and snap a couple of photos to gain Mujahid status. The benefits of the status were substantial in the newly created socialist state: a life long renumeration, free transportation, medical care, priority when importing goods (e.g a car or a fridge…). Some of these people would go on and hold high offices in the state, only for their back-story to be revealed decades later, much to the confusion and astonishment of the Algerian people. Accusations and false reports still spread to this day. It is all still a mess to be sorted.
Many suspected Algerian Muslims, Jews and Christians were targeted during the mob killings. Some Jews and Christians continued to live in the infant state even though the majority left. I do not believe that the FLN and the revolution had an inherently racist or xenophobic agenda. While digging through history books, specifically Mohamed Harbi’s “La Guerre d’Algérie”, published in 2004, I came through a letter from the FLN written to the Jewish community in 1962. The FLN tried to engage the Jewish community and appealed to them to side with the Algerian revolution. The FLN was sympathetic to the plight that the Jews suffered at the hands of the Nazis and Vichy’s government. It aknowledges the help of many Jews that were in the cause of the revolution.
Harbi was a high officer within the FLN, served in the first government after the independence and later fled after Boumediène’s coup of 1965. The letter led me to find another written in 1956, two years after the start of the revolutions. Excerpts of the letters appear below.
From the translation of the first letter (1956) (all emphasis is mine):
The National Liberation Front, which has led the anti-colonialist revolution for the past two years, feels that the moment has arrived when every Algerian of Israelite origin, in light of his own experience, must without any ambiguity choose sides in this great historic battle. The FLN, authentic and exclusive representative of the Algerian people, considers it its obligation to directly address the Israelite community and to ask it to solemnly affirm its membership in the Algerian nation. This choice clearly affirmed, it will dissipate all misunderstandings and extirpate the seeds of hatred maintained by French colonialism. It will also contribute to recreating Algerian fraternity, broken by the arrival of French colonialism.[…]
Without going too far back in history, it seems useful to us to recall the time when the Jews, held in less consideration than animals, didn’t even have the right to inter their dead, the latter being secretly buried during the night wherever this could be done, due to the absolute prohibition against the Jews having any cemeteries. At precisely this period Algeria was the refuge and land of freedom for the Israelites who fled the inhuman persecutions of the Inquisition. Precisely during this period the Israelite community was proud to offer its Algerian fatherland not only poets, but consuls and ministers.
It is because the FLN considers the Algerian Israelites the sons of our Fatherland that it hopes that the leaders of the Jewish community will have the wisdom to contribute to the building of a free and truly fraternal Algeria…
And from the second letter (1962):
The Algerian problem is at a decisive stage. We want to address this appeal to you, in the face of the hysterical and racist clamor of the fascists who claim to speak in your name, declaring that you are French and that you are all participants in the criminal acts of the backwards colonialists. You know full well that this is both a gratuitous declaration and a policy of mystification that should fool know [sic] one, and even less so you, who are Algerians.[…]
…Recently, in Oran, demonstrations provoked by young hotheads in the Israelite neighborhood took place, followed by fires set in stores belonging to Muslims. These acts are the clearest illustration of how some of you attempt to thoughtlessly align yourselves with the racial policies of the ultras. Will you today make yourselves the accomplices of the backwards colonialists by rising up against your Algerian brothers of Muslim origin?…[…]
Israelite compatriots, many Israelites are active in our ranks. Some among them were interned, others are still in prison for their acts in service to the Algerian cause. Algeria’s independence is near; independent Algeria will need you and tomorrow you will need it, for it is your country. Your Muslim brothers honestly and loyally offer you their hand for solidarity coming from your direction. It is your duty to answer.
These letters are not new, I am not trying to break new ground or rewrite history. They were just found by a curious mind digging back through the history of his country. These letters do not excuse the treatment that Jews or anyone endured after the revolution, what they show is that the Jews were not targeted because of their religion, they just shared the fate that anyone that was suspected of complicity and treason with the French did.
[* For the record, I don’t believe Algerians are unique in this. Some French still believe that colonialism is great, the British believe they delivered prosperity everywhere throughout their empire, and some Americans think they ought to deliver democracy or freedom or something wherever there is oil. Nationalism is sweet like that.]
In an earlier post about the Swiss Minaret ban, I mentioned the problems that actions like this ban pose to advocates of Democracy in the Arab world. I believed that oppressive regimes will turn to criticising the ideal of democracy that is often lectured to them by Europe et al.
Well, that didn’t take long. As reported by the AFP and commented about at The Arabist , the Egyptian foreign affairs minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, weighed in… literally asking Europe not to give any more lessons on democracy, and declaring that the human rights record of the Egyptian government is good. More direct words could not have been spoken by him. The quote, given below, is just too rich!
Egypt’s top diplomat said on Thursday that a Swiss vote to ban the construction of minarets was a “grave mistake” and Europe could no longer lecture his country on human rights.
“The Swiss people will some day come to realise what a grave mistake they have made,” Ahmed Abul Gheit told Egyptian television in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.
“The human rights situation in Egypt is good… Europe cannot talk to Egypt about its human rights record at a time when Switzerland is supporting a ban on minaret building,” Abul Gheit said.
“People who live in glass houses should not throw stones,” the minister said in the interview which focused on Egyptian-European relations.
On Sunday, more than 57 percent of Swiss voters approved a right-wing motion to ban minarets on mosques, a decision that was met with an international backlash and charges of intolerance.
Abul Gheit expressed “regret that there is an increasing fear of Muslims in (European) societies as a result of the acts of some groups,” in allusion to attacks committed in the name of Islam.
Undoubtedly the guy believes he struck a very big note and achieved a huge political point for the Egyptian government. Undoubtedly the voice of democracy and reform has been dealt a blow in this row and has been pushed a step back in its quest to counter the government plans. The president’s son is being groomed to replace him, amid more clampdown on the people of Egypt and more closing down of the political scene to make it almost impossible for any opponent to run. The government has reacted negatively to Ahmed AlBaradei’s initiative and has been trying with great effort to sabotage a possible candidacy by Amr Mousa and others.
So, again, thanks to the Swiss People’s Party, and thanks to any more xenophobic measures like this that may come in te next months/years!
Let me start off this blog by a somewhat unrelated post. I just couldn’t pass up the chance to demonstrate what I’d like democracy *not* to be. Somewhat unexpectedly, the swiss voted to amend the constitution to face the threat of four cone shaped structures and an application for two more. I am hard pressed to think of a worse way to waste time. Will this “face the threat of islamisation” in anyway? I can’t see how, setting aside the question that such a threat even exists. Does this open another front against the ordinary Muslims in Europe? Yes. The Maghreb Political Review and Laila Lalami’s excellent articles delved into the wrongness of this more than I’d like to here, but I’d just like to concentrate on another often forgotten effect of actions such as these.
Namely, that votes like this give more ammunition to democracy haters in the Arab World. The fine example of direct democracy in the world is using mob rule to code into law disallowing ordinary Muslim tax payers to build what they find delightful. And, unfortunately, due to the economic conditions, much of Europe is heading with sure steps towards a decade of right and far right politics. Is it a testament of human nature that people turn more xenophobic when under pressure?
The leader of the MSP, Mr Bouguerra Soltani has been embroiled recently in a controversy because a Swiss human rights organisation wanted him sued on Swiss soil for alleged torture. People in the Middle East and North Africa view such interference with endless suspicion, and what better way to further these fears than by votes such as these.
The leaders of the Swiss People’s Party ought to be ashamed of themselves for providing such a fine example of how democracy should not be.