“We are at war and we must act accordingly,” says the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal. After the Brussels attacks, the stormy reaction from Sansal leaves no room for doubt about what he believes is the appropriate response to the threat of jihadist terrorism. The method should be cultural, he says, but adds that there must also be a “military response.”
Sansal, who in 1990s Algeria opposed the rise of Islamism that buttressed the authoritarianism of the Bouteflika regime, was fired from his job at the Ministry of Industry because of his position against the government. At the heart of his work has always been the denunciation of Islamic fundamentalism, eventually arriving precisely at the prospect of a military response. You can see that route through the course of his novels.
After Les Serment des Barbares (“The Oath of the Barbarians,” 1999) and The German Mujahid (2008), Sansal earned a nomination for the Nobel Prize for literature with 2084: Le Fin du Monde (“The End of the World,” 2015). In it, he imagines that a large part of the world, called Abistan, is subdued by an authoritarian Islamist regime in the wake of a ferocious holy war. Daily life is marked by endless pilgrimages and public punishments. The novel deals with the dramatic reality presented by the Islamic State and registers, beginning with its title, in the same dystopian vein inaugurated by George Orwell in 1984.
We spoke with Sansal and asked him about it.
Do the authoritarian regimes of the 20th century help us to fully understand the jihadist threat today?
Keen to the lessons of his historical period, Orwell observed how we were all destined to live eventually under totalitarian regimes. So with his famous novel he tried to decode the structures that organize totalitarian society: the role and profile of the leader, the manipulation of history, language and so on. Since the first time I read 1984, in the ‘70s, I wondered what similarities there were between the book and what was going on around me.
In Algeria, I first witnessed the establishment of a police and military system and then the emergence of a system equally as threatening but was religious in nature. So I began to think about the possibility that the elements on which Orwell concentrated could also be applicable to the faith-based totalitarianism that was emerging in my country. Only if you understand the context of the problem can we find a way to fight back and take the path to freedom.
In The German Mujahid, which provocatively suggests a parallel between Islamism and Nazism, you talk of the rise of a new political-religious phenomenon in the suburbs of European cities, like what happened in Brussels. What is it about?
Yes, to research the childhood of the character Malrich, the son of a Nazi war criminal who fled to Algeria after 1945, namely to the outskirts of Paris, I traveled to those places. I went there and I met the residents, parents and friends of these kids recruited by Islamist preachers in the most radical mosques. In the suburbs, the fact that many non-Muslims have chosen gradually to move elsewhere ended up feeding the communitarian tendency and sense of isolation that you see among immigrant families.
In this context, the influence of the Islamists, who have gradually replaced the traditional Islam of peace and solidarity in immigrant neighborhoods with some kind of bizarre DIY, nervous, aggressive Islam spread by ignorant imams capable only of repeating “Allah Akbar,” has grown into the dramatic situation in which we find ourselves. In many of these neighborhoods the entire community is held hostage by a grotesque Islam, a facade, which you can see through, of long beards for men and the gandoura and the veil for women. They’re symbols meant to instill fear and respect with the aim of attracting small core of the neighborhood, to transform them, as happened for example in Paris and Brussels, into terrorists.
In the world you described in 2084, time seems to stand still. It’s almost an evocation of the atmosphere in most Arab countries, which, despite the Arab Spring, seem immersed in an eternal present that has fueled the growth of Islam. Is that the case?
In many countries of the Arab and Muslim world, clocks stopped a long time ago. And in any case it is a world that does not operate on the same dial as, for example, Europe. The landscape is dominated by a political deadlock that’s able to survive a significant shock, but that can never lead to definitive changes. Not surprisingly, the children of the powerful elite, as in Algeria, live far away, often in the United States and Canada. And when they return to their country to take the place of their parents at the head of this or that apparatus of the regime, they express a paternalistic mentality toward their compatriots, whom they regard as children who will never really grow up and take responsibility. And besides, if that were to happen, these caid would lose all their privileges. So, at least initially, in many cases it is preferred to align with the Islamists because they keep society in line, as happened in my own country, to spin the situation in religious terms. Lately, however, “the bearded ones” have tried to take all the power.
Your positions have sometimes been criticized as Islamophobia, and there are those who compare you to Michel Houellebecq, the author of Submission about an Islamist government winning control of France. How do you respond?
I’m not Islamophobic. I only refuse any authoritarian ideology, religious or secular. Of course I fight and I will continue to fight with all my strength radical Islamists. Maybe we’re just missing a word to describe what I feel and write. We should coin a neologism, “Islamistophobia,” but it doesn’t sound good. In any case, freedom also means being able to say that you do not love the Wahhabi Islam of Saudi Arabia or Islam, period, without hating anyone. People have the right to criticize everything, including religion and above all religion, as they see fit. As for Houellebecq, I do not know what to say. With his novel he has been involved in these issues but has now moved on. For me it’s different: This is my main source of inspiration.
I started writing in a country at war because of the Islamists — radical political Islamism. I grew up in this conflict. The message of jihadists has focused heavily on Western guilt, but you must be very careful not to consider torturers as victims. The real problem, however, is the fact that the West does not oppose more forcefully the ideas and values of the jihadists, if not those regarding trade and money. If you do not vigorously defend the values of individual freedom and democracy, this war is already lost from the start.
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