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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.

The minaret ban in Switzerland continues to draw much ink and cynic reactions in the Arab world. The ban provided another opportunity for authorities  to regain the tempo domestically on the issue of democracy and human rights.  Echorouk, Algeria’s populist most popular Arab newspaper carried two scathing opinion pieces. The reactions lambasted the West for its “hypocrisy” towards human rights and its perceived high horse attitude towards the Arab world. They cite multiple issues and come to the conflusion that the West is not different from the Arab world after all – only more intelligent, in its anti human rights campaigns. Pieces like this suggest that the western human rights demands are just post colonial meddling in internal affairs.

AqassemThe first piece is written by Fayssal Alqassem, one of the most popular journalists in the Arab world. His syndicated column is printed in almost every Arab country. He is one of the BBC trained journalists who helped shape Aljazeera’s image with taboo destroying programmes. In his piece, titled “The Myth of Indiviual Liberty in the West” he is as usual, abrasive and confrontational. He amusingly subtitles his column “Careful, a camera is watching you”.  He contrasts Arab countries’ anti-Human Rights record, describing it as rather dumb and too obvious –  with the West’s, which is according to him cleverer, by using technology such as DNA databases and cameras in public places. The latest minaret ban is just the west accidently getting into the dumb anti human rights ways. Some selected quotes (paraphrasing):

I don’t want to suggest that the Arab countries’ have a crisp human rights record – far from it. But the Arab intelligence and security institutes are still behind in terms of technology and logistics of spying, monitoring and citizen surveillance , at least the Arab can try and evade his country’s incompetence. But in the “west”, who is often riding the moral high horse on human rights, citizens are under surveillance 24 hours a day. The big brother that George Orwell warned us from is watching everywhere. Rarely can you walk through a street in Europe without noticing dozens of cameras watching even the ants. In London alone there are more than 4 million cameras…

And then some attacks on the United States:

Uncle Sam does not only want to monitor his citizens alone, he wants to monitor the whole world. We need not cite the spying network and its surveillance operations around the world […] I also want to congratulate Europe on their new European law that makes it possible to allow the CIA to get access to , lawfully, the banking details of  its citizens.

I don’t know what law he is referring to, that is scary if true. Fayssal’s punch line is rich:

Oh George Orwell, if you still lived you’d wish the old soviet style surveillance tactics are still in force instead!

The second piece is written by Fawzi Oussedek, a local Algerian journalist. He titled it “Human rights in Switzerland, melting like chocolate in Minarets [sic]”. He contrasts the perceived reaction of the West, governments, institutes and individuals alike towards the Minaret ban with their reactions to any similar measure in the Arab and Muslim Worlds. There are a lot more Muslims in the West than say, Christians in Muslim countries so the difference in reactions seems even more absurd to him. On Western reactions he says:

Since the Minaret ban I have been waiting the views of human rights organisations […] that made a habit of criticising some places for their human rights record […] since the ban I have been listening to commentators in the west trying to justify the unjustifiable […] Governmental reactions amounted to only expressing mere dismay, a tactic that they used to diplomatically evade their moral stance on human rights.

Then he contrasts this reaction to reactions towards the Muslim world:

I wonder, what if such a vote was made in a Muslim country to ban some other religious symbol, what would be the reaction? simply, we will hear many descriptions about the whole muslim world, from backwardness to being hateful, the reaction can amount to using economic pressure sometimes, and to scare the countries in question by threatening to include them in the “black list”!! […] but in Switzerland some considered democratic referendums as saintly, it’s just sometimes possible to use them unwisely – evading the moral stance towards the ban.

The author then suggests that the muslim community try and fight this ban all the way in Swiss and European courts.

The ban and other similar measures around Europe, such as the previous veil ban in France , France and Netherlands’ flirtations with banning certain types of clothing and Britain’s “English Defence League”  will provide more fuel for criticism, and will sadly have ramifications on democratic reform in the whole Arab world.

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.

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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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