Dossier 14-15: Algeria - In Defense of Intellectuals

Publication Author: 
Marie Chaumeil
September 1996
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Today, in Algeria, the execution and murder of women, foreigners and intellectuals by Muslim extremists have become systematic. Such typically fascist acts have given rise to feelings of outrage. Logically, therefore, one would expect that the most lucid would rally around a struggle against such a political vision or, at the very least, in defense of the memory of the victims. Instead, in the French left-wing press it is not uncommon to read harsh criticism about the role of those intellectuals who remain in Algeria and their assassination evokes little compassion.

Two Lines of Argument Underlie the Attitudes of Such Critics

1) By working in their country, especially in the institutions of the state, these men and women, journalists, professors, school principals and deans of universities, lawyers and physicians, have put themselves at the service of a system which is brutally repressive, unjust and corrupt. By accepting to be functionaries they are deemed to have joined the category of 'the enemy of the people', and therefore, their physical elimination seems justifiable.

2) In addition these intellectuals live cut-off from the people, no longer sharing the lifestyles or values of the people, nor do they represent any real social force.

Whereas to me, an ordinary witness of events since 1962, these arguments, which are presented as being self-evident, appear to be highly debatable and, in my opinion, there is an urgent need to question them.

In response to the first set of accusations, a simple historical contextualization will help us analyze the concept of 'serving the state'. In 1962 when, after eight years of war, Algeria gained independence, the Algerians deeply desired to serve their country; i.e., to breathe life into the state for which they had fought.

Even though the state rapidly turned out to be undemocratic, the majority of educated citizens desired to participate in the process of building up the country - to open schools, to provide health care for the people, to build what was necessary - in short, to fight against the misery and ignorance inherited from the colonial period. While there is no doubt that the initial enthusiasm provided an alibi for an abusive power, this too needs to be seen in perspective. The Algerian government did not always have the negative image it possesses today; in the eyes of the people, certain proposed projects did enjoy legitimacy (in particular, the mass literacy and free health care programmes).

To the second series of accusations, one can respond with the following: it is true that by nature intellectuals are attracted to values which are not dependant on religion but is this reason enough to conclude that they are alienated from people's concerns and incapable of mobilizing support as the Islamist fundamentalists do?

How is an Algerian intellectual different from a Japanese intellectual, or from his Russian or Canadian counterpart? To be an intellectual requires a conscious breaking away from social norms. Conducting research in archaeology, working in molecular biology, unravelling the mysteries of the manuscripts of the 12th century mathematicians of Bajai'a, all imply an existence devoted to the disciplined pursuit of rational and systematic knowledge and this life is not the life of the male peasant, nor that of the woman worker assembling television sets. Are we comfortably and passively resigned to the division of labour? How? The division of labour - an old debate - is outrageous if it is not based on the principle of competence. What is deplorable here is not that there are intellectuals in laboratories but that all those who could have moved up the ladder, because of their intrinsic ability and their willingness to work, did not have the opportunity to do so. However, over the last thirty years, despite facing difficulties of all sorts, some people did nevertheless emerge with minds open to the problems of knowledge, to those of the world, to those of their country. Thankfully they did not disappear into the peasantry, much to the vexation of the anachronistic Maoists. Bravo to the doggedly determined generation of first teachers who shattered the ignorance into which the people were plunged during the colonial period. Let us not become party to the process directed against intellectuals under all darkened skies. Finally, by what right have certain confused minds appropriated the people's question in order to condemn the vital and lifesaving exercise of intelligence!

Let us denounce, and quickly so, another aspect of this criticism: that is that the finer sensibilities of the intellectuals find the simplicity of the people intolerable. How does this classification function here? Let us examine the concept. We come up with three possible variations:

a) The people are simple just as childhood is simple (oh Freud!) and they are becoming good little people - unpolished and naïve; or else,

b) The people are simple, as in simple-minded, and naturally they show themselves incapable of any understanding, in short they are simpletons. If an intellectual is the one who writes and publishes his ideas, who could have written this sinister and paternalistic nonsense? Do we find these in the texts of sociologists like Liabes, or psychiatrists like Boucebci?

c) Thirdly, it is possible that the people are simple in the sense of possessing a deep rustic simplicity that intuitively (Ah, long live intuition! Down with reasoning!), senses the real values, those which one can immediately trust; values rooted in the land, in race, in blood and in implicit identity. Well there, yes, we are up against a dangerous simplicity as it has its roots in popular superstition and serves as a refuge for the ideas of the extreme right. Since Spinoza, we can no longer ignore the fact that populist thought flirts with superstition; the mode of prejudice swayed by its passions, clinging to symbols or to effects rather than focusing on root causes. The Algerian people are no less susceptible than others to this chimera and Algerian intellectuals must guard the people against such spontaneity.

Let us ask a first question. How would putting the intellectuals on trial change the historical situation? How would it help in comprehending the continuum of reality, the singular depth of the use of violence (of all types - physical, political and symbolic) in Algerian society?

And now let us ask a second question: what is in fact the relationship between Islamist fundamentalism and the people and how do we define the symbiosis between the FIS and the people? It is true that the bulk of the FIS cadre and supporters - consisting of all those who were left alienated and excluded at the fault of the education policies in the 70s - live close to the people, but we are never told about the nature of this union nor how it functions. They make us believe in a political idyll and if we doubt it, we become agents of the government, a part of the nomenklatura. Let us try instead to understand the basis of the relationship between FIS and the people.

The essential factors which drive this relationship are physical violence (it is pointless to describe this, it is dazzlingly clear), corruption (oh yes!) - hidden but nonetheless real (buying votes at elections, 150 dinars for a pro-FIS vote, the equivalent of a day's work; the use of positions in the administration for distributing favours), and finally through prohibitions - the royal way of hijacking minds - a method which is best implemented in the mosques, schools, colleges and universities; wherever the youth are.

In a religion of purification such as Islam, it is easy for a threatening preacher to manipulate the licit and the illicit (the 'yadjouz' and the 'la yadjouz'). Let us consider a few practical examples of these injunctions. From now on, going to the hamman (public baths) is unworthy of believers because it involves nudity. This is no minor injunction. It means that personal hygiene becomes impossible. How do you clean yourself properly in our overcrowded apartments, where the people are too poor to install a water tank to overcome the frequent cut-offs in the water supply? This ban has also abolished a centuries-old tradition of community living. The joyous and occasionally steamy promiscuity of the hamman was like a party, a respite from life's daily worries. Even the most secluded woman had the inalienable right of having a bath once a month in order to purify herself but henceforth the hamman, a secular place of purification, has been converted into a source of impurity.

In the same context of day to day living women have been forbidden to wear makeup. This strikes at the heart of popular Arab culture. Which women, no matter how poor, would like to come out without her eyes made up, without a hint of perfume? The sophisticated tradition of personal care and beauty that the people managed to preserve in their daily lives - how has it been affected by Islamist fundamentalism?

Of course, there is a ban on songs, especially the songs of those who have no voice, who only have access to brothels and dives, raï music. The suffering of the wretched does not have the right to make itself heard - that voice which, having nothing to lose, dares express the oppression suffered in an inhuman society. For the people, Islamist fundamentalism represents the mourning of their own history.

While these bans distort the meaning of life, others are blatantly criminal, like the one in the summer of 1990 when there was a typhoid epidemic in one of the regions of the country. The doctors recommended that people chlorinate water before drinking it. The Islamist fundamentalists spread the rumour that this practice was not permissible as it would prevent them from having children. From the sterilization of water to genital sterilization! That's great logic.

There will of course be retorts to these examples: we will be told that the Islamist fundamentalists are playing an important role by helping the deprived, by helping all those whom the exploitative state neglected; that one cannot deny. Huge amounts of foreign financial aid, immense amounts of money from the bazaars,[1] and corruption have enabled the establishment of a network for social aid. But shouldn't one ask whether this is an act of charity as preached in Islam or a medium-term political investment? I am inclined to side with the second hypothesis as these do-gooders seem to me to be quite selective: they do not embrace all those who are marginalised. They especially ignore those whose destitution questions the restrictions and taboos of Algerian society (abandoned children, unwed mothers, women who end up on the streets because of divorce, AIDS). This solicitude defines for itself what it considers to be social priorities and can therefore transform a child care center into a mosque (it happened in the district of Asphodeles in the city of Algiers). Islamist fundamentalism has no intention of resolving the enormous problems facing Algeria (demographic problems, the chronic shortage of water, the foreign debt…). It is manipulating the desire for justice, for the introduction of morality in public life, only to further its own game and further confuse the issues.

One must therefore have the courage to draw two conclusions:

a) The symbiosis of the Islamist fundamentalists and the people is comparable to what students of ecology study in the relationship between a parasite and its host organism, the former lives off the strength of the latter which it exhausts slowly but surely until the host dies; we are dealing here with a malignant relationship.

b) If this political trend indicates the state of misery to which the Algerian people have been reduced, it can in no way represent the alternative that so many are hoping for.

Let us therefore refuse to become party to the latest mystifications propagated by the populists and demagogues who are galvanised by questionable motives; let us refuse to share space with those who shoot at any who dare to learn and think; let us say no to this form of bigotry; this criminal vision of God and of the world.

September 1994

Note: 1. I.e., the trader class.