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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.]
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.