Why Death of a Nation's Conscience Has Met With Cold Indifference

In Algeria's Killing Fields: Many Causes Underlie Assassinations of Journalists and Intellectuals
Elie Chalala

I know that they pursue me and will kill me. It is a matter of time; I will be killed in a month or two or less... but I prefer to die for my ideas than on a bed of illness or aging." So said Lounes Matoub, the Algerian singer and poet, only days before his assassination. Lounes' name can be added to a long list of Algerian intellectuals and artists, 70 of them journalists, killed in a "swords against the pens" campaign.

Civil wars in the Middle East claim lives. That is nothing new: more than 150,000 died in the Lebanese Civil War. Nor is it unusual for major political figures, like Algeria's President Mohammad Boudiaf, assassinated in 1992, to fall victim to violence. What has struck many observers in the recent Algerian scenario is that unlike other regional civil wars, from Lebanon to today's Sudan, one finds unprecedented targeting of intellectuals and journalists.

When Lebanese and Egyptian Islamists waged their campaign against intellectuals and journalists, they were condemned by a large segment of the Arab world's intelligentsia, and hardly endeared themselves to the ordinary Arab. During the Lebanese Civil War, despite 15 years of vicious violence, only two intellectuals (both Marxists) of national stature were assassinated, and their deaths caused reverberations felt beyond Lebanon. Although Egypt had no civil war, the government of that country had been the target of extremist fundamentalists, who aimed at political leaders, foreign nationals, and secular intellectuals. When Egypt's secular author Farag Fouda was assassinated in the early 1990s, his death sparked both an Egyptian national and a pan-Arab debate on the sanctity of the intellectual, unleashing an anti-terrorism campaign endorsed by most Egyptian intellectuals. The present Algerian outrage, however, appears to elicit an alarmingly different reaction; despite the killing of more than 80 Algerian intellectuals, the only reaction has been general outrage at the violence engulfing the country.

What then accounts for this apparent ambivalence toward the plight of Algerian intellectuals and journalists? Studies, press reports, and published interviews with those concerned point to four factors: historical precedents for targeting intellectuals; linguistic duality that has diminished readership and precluded the emergence of broad-based literature; pseudo-religious justification that does not discriminate between those who wield gun and pen; and a lack of government commitment to protecting the intellectual and journalistic community.

Few acknowledge that today's Algerian Islamists are not the first to target intellectuals in that nation's history. Both the French colonial power and its local supporters, as well as the revered nationalist leadership which fought for independence from the French, hunted down intellectuals; the French committed their crimes during war for independence, the Algerian leadership during the war and after.

In 1954, the French unleashed their local agents to assassinate scores of intellectuals, hoping to stem the support the intellectuals were generating for the independence movement. At the same time, the Algerian revolutionary leadership, represented by the National Liberation Front (N.L.F.), killed many intellectuals for being late to join the armed struggle. Present generations of Algerians may not recall this history, or realize that the now-prevalent "demonizing" of intellectuals, the ridicule with which they are treated, and the violence directed against them are all, ironically, a legacy of the anti-colonial movement.

Those surprised by the lack of backlash against the killing of intellectuals, such as the protests in Lebanon and Egypt over similar assassinations, may be unaware of the unique linguistic duality of Algerian letters; most writers work solely in either French or Arabic. This duality is important from the aspect of intellectual production as well as readership, stranding the intellectual outside the popular consciousness. Prior to liberation, there was a concerted effort to limit intellectual discourse to French alone. Following liberation, a largely inferior "crash course" in Arabic language was introduced. This duality in linguistic experience has resulted in a class of writers inferior to their counterparts in either language, and likewise a readership insufficiently prepared in either language. The high degree of illiteracy today among the Algerian population by default leaves a large segment unaware and unconcerned about the plight of the intellectuals; the remaining literate classes have suffered in their linguistic preparation, and are left divided into two distinct groups, those who read Arabic and those who read French.

Writing and reading in Arabic remains an elusive goal for the majority of Algerians even after 36 years of independence. The Arabization programs, introduced at particular levels after independence, did not fare well in supplanting French. Experts see three major causes of the program's failure: teachers more equipped to preach ideology than to teach; official policies which stress religious education and texts while shying away from enlightened Arab intellectual traditions; and perhaps, most importantly, inadequate policies not geared toward Algeria's particular needs. Algerian university graduates, as a result, form an army of unemployed, unable to find jobs in the Francophone professional and managerial ranks.

Ironically, after 36 years of independence, the French language may well be stronger than it was under colonial rule. While acknowledging French as the dominant language of business and public administration, students of Algerian literature believe that linguistic dualism has led many intellectuals to experience an identity crisis, and particularly a sense of guilt from writing in the colonizer's language. This guilt, some argue, was fostered by government policy during the formation of the central state, when leaders incited hostility between Francophone and Arabized intellectuals. Both reactionary policies of Arabization and a dissonance stemming from use of the colonial language have stifled the creation of literary works that could have formed a shared cultural identification. Such a shared cultural identification would have been the heart crying out against the violence visited upon more than 70 journalists and other writers.

Besides historical precedents and linguistic duality, religious justification emerges as a third force, drawn from the writings of a group of militant theoreticians who fail to distinguish between those who would attack Islam with the gun and those who use the pen. When words are seen as doing harm to the fundamentalist cause, those words are the moral equivalent of violence and thus merit a violent response.

Islamist leaders like Abbasi Madani have been leading the crusade against Algerian secular intellectuals. He is a founding member of the Islamic Salvation Front (F.I.S.) and currently calls for a non-violent approach in opposing the government. In the past, Madani blasted secular Arab intellectuals like the Syria's Michel Aflaq, and Egypt's Salama Moussa, Taha Hussein, and Toufic al-Hakim, claiming they turn people's attention away from Islamist intellectuals like Egypt's Hassan al-Bana, according to journalist and author Mohammad Qawas, writing in the Arabic daily Al Hayat.

Sheikh Ali Balhaj, another founding leader of F.I.S., has also shown little respect for democratic ideals, labeling them blasphemy and claiming that democracy leads to "moral decay," a cause of the "decline of civilizations." Balhaj views the intellectual as an enemy, condemning the "deceptive foreign cultural invasion whose purpose is to brainwash the new generation and clean it of whatever is authentically Islamic" through "the gangs of literary figures, media people, authors, and artists who have no other concern except to slander Islam and its people," Qawas cites from an article in Al Munkiz [the Savior] magazine, former publication of the F.I.S.

Thus, there is a literature of violence, or as it has been metaphorically referred to by one eminent student of Algerian politics, George al-Rassi, a "culture of infidelity." Writing in the Lebanese An Nahar Cultural Supplement, al-Rassi said "Only a short distance separates infidelity from slaughtering, a distance that can be crossed easily."

The words of one emir, leader of one of the many armed groups in Algeria, illustrates further the extent of the "culture of infidelity:" Calling the Algerian regime itself "infidel," the emir and his group do not differentiate between "those who fight with weapons, funds, or lissan [tongue], and believes in no dialogue, cease-fire, reconciliation, and no security contract with the apostates." A major premise of this literature is that the "the Muslim is worthier of being slaughtered" than the non-Muslim, a statement with deadly implications for Algerian intellectuals, because most, if not all, are themselves Muslims not affiliated with the opposition's fundamentalist version of Islam. As for the ideological affiliation of the dead journalists, Al Hayat newspaper published a breakdown: 30 percent liberals; Leftists 18 percent; and Islamists only 6 percent. The remaining 45 percent were of "mixed" ideological backgrounds, an ambiguity typical of intellectuals but tantamount to "infidelity" in the eyes of fundamentalists.

The very ambivalence of government and the corruption of the security forces, as well as the probable intrusion of rogue elements into these forces, have made these crimes in such astounding numbers possible.

While a few theories explain the government's failure to protect journalists and to insure conditions that deter these murders, the official indifference does not distinguish between journalist and non-journalist. Intellectuals, journalists and citizens are equal prey; the 80,000 plus victims of Algeria's civil war remain a bitter testimony to the government's inability to protect all its citizens.

The Algerian government has abandoned its journalists and intellectuals for a long time, but with new privatization policies, they have dropped even further on the priority list. Attempting to comply with the guidelines of the International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.), the Algerian government promised to privatize almost every sector except the oil and gas industry. This development translates into reduced support for the cultural community, including resources vital to protecting journalists. When the opposition started hunting down journalists en masse in 1993, the pressure mounted for the government to set up a protection program. The government responded to this call in 1994, providing protection in hotels for about 500 journalists and their families. But July of 1998, the government had tried to evict the journalists from their safe havens in preparation for an Organization of African Unity summit. In protest, journalists mounted a 21-day hunger strike, which ended July 24, following a government decision to provide a safe shelter far away from Islamist strongholds. Nonetheless, 400 journalists fled Algeria and settled abroad, mainly in France, and hundreds abandoned journalism altogether.

The government has also made several decisions that marginalize culture and the arts. On February 21, 1998, the government changed the name of a movie theater from that of the Andalusian poet Ibn Zeidoun to the name of one of the terror's victims, according to Abd Al Ali Razaqi, poet and journalist, in an article published in An Nahar Cultural Supplement. The same source mentions that the government has evicted the Council of Copyrights from its quarters and given the space to the "Higher Islamic Council," although the center was built by funds collected from authors.

The terror besetting Algeria's intellectual and journalistic community continues. Hardly a day passes without a dozen or more Algerians killed, and while some journalists enjoy relative safety for the moment in protected hotels, there is no assurance that any one of them can escape the daily violence just outside. And so they go on, exiled in their own country, physically and culturally isolated from the very people whose struggles and concerns it is their profession to express.

This is a long version of an article about the plight of Algerian intellectuals, from which several articles were adapted, some of which appeared in national newspapers and magazines, including a shorter version in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, no. 24 (Summer 1998).

Copyright © 1998 by Al Jadid

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