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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.]

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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.

Zidane

Image courtesy of L'équipe

Zineddine Zidane, the French footballer of Algerian origin has recently visited the Algerian training camp in Southern France to support the team after spending his career as a French player. His visit comes at a time when he is sharply criticising the French team and its sub-optimal performance in the qualification stages. He still commands the respect and affinity of both peoples across the Mediterranean. Zidane is among a rare breed in this regard: Zidane’s coming to peace with his dual Algerian French identity was not easy. Events that happened during his career highlight the long held question that has yet to be answered for good: what is an Algerian-French and can there be one?

The two countries, Algeria and France, are not strangers to enmity. After a bitterly fought war and 132 years of colonialism, Algerian gained its independence amid cries of triumphalism and anti-French feelings. There were nuggets of Algerians who identified themselves as French throughout that era, Ferhat Abbas declared that “France is me” in 1936 as he tried to theorise a framework where a civilised Algeria is part of France, but he abandoned that route and joined the resistance later in despair. Some Algerians fought with the French against Nazi Germany forces in WWII and gained French citizenship along with a few who were accepted as part of a naturalisation scheme. Thousands of Algerians fled the country in the aftermath of the war, dubbed “Harkis”: Algerians who collaborated with the French against the resistance.

Harkis were considered the lowest form of life by Algerians after Independence, and they struggled in France, forming the bulk of  “les banlieus”: deprived ghettos where poverty and unemployment run rife. Zidane was born in such an environment in Marseille, so he suffered greatly in his early life as a French. His parents were accused of being Harkis (Harki is the ultimate street insult in Algeria today), a charge he had to live with and vehemently deny for many years during his career.

Today, Harkis and other Algerian dwellers of les banlieues still live with the lost feeling of not being French enough to get jobs and opportunities.  Algerian immigrants and their sons are still the favourite target for French politicians: current president Sarkozy infamously described them as “filth”. The current “debate” about “French values” is seen by many as a charge against these people. Recently a minister declared that “Muslims should dress better, find jobs and stop using slang and wearing baseball caps backward.” . For many French Algerians it seems that nothing they can do can change this treatment: Rumours ran wild when it was suspected that Jacque Chiraq, the then French president, only coldly shook hands with Zidane after the world cup win of 1998: supposedly Chiraq wanted to send a signal.  During his career, Zidane was always a favourite target of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National: The French team is not French enough, they would routinely charge.

Across the pond, culturally Algeria is still very much tied to France. Algerian literature is bilingual, and for many years the French side was arguably winning. The administration still uses French as the main language despite years of Arabisation efforts and laws, a fact easily verifiable by surveying the current government websites.  France remains the favourite destination of Algerian intellectuals. Yet, the issue of Algerians who hold the French citizenship remains a hot populist issue in Algerian politics: there is a feeling that they shouldn’t be trusted or given high civil posts. Others, like the former Algerian prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi conjure that Algeria has been ruled by a “French cultural army” that was prepared an implanted before France left Algeria, and that this army keeps the country under French influence.

So it seems that in both countries the dual Algerian-French identity has repeatedly been a victim to a bloody history and decades of populism, chauvinism and sometimes outright fascism and racism. When in France, few Algerian-French openly celebrate their Algerian ancestry in their professional life, when in Algeria, an even fewer number admit that they hold French passports. This affects a large number of people: on paper, there is no shortage of people who hold or who are entitled to a dual Algerian French dual citizenship. There are 3 million by some estimates.

But there is hope that this seemingly contradictory identity can be some day fully accepted at least in Algeria. In the current Algerian football team that Zidane visited, nearly all of the players hold a second citizenship, mostly French. Top team players who became household names after the recent qualification to the world cup, such as Ziani, Antar Yahia and Matmour,  were all born and raised in France. Perhaps Football will be the venue through which Algeria will learn to accept that Algerians who live in France can be a great asset in their efforts towards modernisation and development.

Half of the the upper chamber of the Algerian parliament will be renewed on this 29th of December. The upper chamber was created after the November 1996 constitution. Its aim is to balance the popularly elected lower chamber, acting as a collective of “wise” senators who would champion human rights and rigorously counter any abusive appeal to popular opinion by the lower chamber, i.e in the style of the UK’s House of Lords.

In practice both chambers are tightly controlled by men who are loyal to the President. The upper chamber routinely rubber stamps any laws the lower chamber passes. Its president, Abdelkader Bensalah, is a staunch believer in the president’s program. When he was president of the lower chamber, he has been known to try and squash any sign of oppositions laws. The presidential third is used to reward personalities of all types with little regard for expertise, intellectuality or diversity. The President is in a position to offer some seats to win support and neutralise potential opposing voices – most lately the president is rumoured to have offered Djamila Bouhired a senate seat, and he might well do that to counter the criticism that her letters have garnered. In the letters she complained that representatives are paid way and beyond any veteran or John Doe Algerian is paid.

Constitutionally, the upper chamber has 144 members, one third is directly appointed by the president, and two-thirds (2 x 48) are elected by an electoral college formed by elected officials at the provincial and mayoral levels. Each province is represented by two senators. Half of each of these two sections of the senate is renewed every three years, i.e. half of the presidential third, and one senator of each province.

The senate mirrors the results of the previous national provincial and mayoral elections. This has the effect of rendering the senatorial renewal the most dull and totally predictable of the already predictable Algerian elections. Parties have some wiggle room to form alliances and vote for each other’s candidates but that has never caused a major upset.

This year, only five parties are seriously contending for the senate in four fronts. The five parties are the historical now mercurial FLN, the (Secularist? Capitalist? Opportunist?) RND, the islamically inspired MSP, the nationalist FNA and the Trotskyist Workers’ Party (PT). Louiza Hanoune’s Workers’ Party has pledged its votes for the RND in a bizarre alliance. The presidential alliance triangle (FLN-RND-MSP) are not running together. Only the FLN and the RND stand any real chance of winning a substantial number of senate seats. The FLN stands to win a majority since it won a large proportion of the last provincial/mayoral elections. The MSP, as usual, just hopes for the president to award two or three senate seats from the presidential third for their loyal support within the presidential alliance. Four of their elected senators are up for re-election, and it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get them back by doing behind the scene deals with either the FLN or the RND.

The FFS under the historical Hocine Ait Ahmed and the RCD are boycotting the elections, a position they took since Bouteflika’s ascent to power.  Ennahda/ElIslah, two islamic parties that were once one do not stand any chance of winning. They both suffered internal struggles because of government meddling and the inflexibility of Abdellah Djabellah, their leader at one point. Both parties have now been in effect successfully obsoleted.

The RND-PT alliance has created a handful of hotly contested seats against the FLN, notably in Skikda (historically Islamically inspired and the city of origin of Djaballah’s movement), and El-Tarf (usually FLN controlled). The absence of any substantial differences in the policies of RND’s and FLN’s senators make these electoral fights largely decorative. The RND-PT alliance is bizarre because it joins a Trotskyist party with the RND under Ahmed Ouyahya, a man who always stood for privatisation and less rights for workers and who always infuriated both the PT and the union organisations in the past.

The RND-PT alliance is yet another major set back for opposition forces. It appears that Louiza Hanoune is trying to get under the umbrella of the government should any major shakeup of the cabinet occur. One notices that the political sphere, with the major political forces all under Bouteflik’a sphere of power closely resembles the homogeneity of  Boumediene’s era, in which the FLN played the role of the one big party under which multiple currents coexisted and shared power. The immediate logical question to such a setup is the question of succession.

Consitutional reforms to combat this concentration of power are badly needed. While it is true that virtually no amount of textual laws can prevent a dull political scene, some steps can help mitigate its effects and encourage a more lively debate. A six months obligatory rotation of the presidency of the two chambers among the top represented parties will empower the small opposition. This will create a rotation of six presidencies over three years, and that will be hard to control  as it is not easy to manipulate election results to create a senate or a congress where the top six forces are pro government. The presidential third should be abolished, and the number of elected senators should be doubled to make it possible for parties that have relatively few provincial/mayoral representatives to win seats.

One would argue that after Bouteflika’s partial success at relinquishing control from the military, he should actively try to create a political scene in which power can be rotated among parties. It is only when that happens that Algeria’s claim at being a democratic state will have any legitimacy.

Short Description

Commentary and views of an Algerian about the Middle East and Algeria, Democracy and Human Rights, Islam and Reform, as well as whatever pair of topics the author wishes to write about.

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