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Algeria: Understanding the political nature of armed fundamentalism

Thursday 15 August 2013, by siawi3

Source: Open Democracy ( section ’Comments’)

by Karima Bennoune

Thank you for taking the time to read and respond to my article. I have never before replied to comments posted on a piece that I have written, but a few of them so misrepresent what actually happened in Algeria that I feel a responsibility to reply and attempt to set the record straight.
As to the thesis advanced by Emilio to explain the violence in Algeria in the 1990s, this is an old cliché. known as the “qui-tue-qui “ or “who killed whom” thesis. It is like the Algerian version of Holocaust denial in the way in which it seeks to erase the actual experience of many victims – and their understanding of that experience – and in fact to exonerate the guilty parties and their murderous ideology. The advocates of the“qui-tue-qui “ suggested that no one knows who authored the terrorism in Algeria in the 1990s, and that perhaps some or all of it was carried out by the state (or through its manipulation) to make the fundamentalists look bad. The local version of 9/11 conspiracy theories, this notion was unfortunately taken up by some on the left in the West and even fed by international human rights groups. All this has terribly undermined many victims’ attempts to get their history recognized, and the perpetrators held accountable. While I am not naïve about the reality that in many countries intelligence agencies infiltrate armed groups, having listened to so many victims and researched extensively on the ground and in the literature produced in Algeria and abroad about these events, it is clear to me the Algeria’s armed fundamentalist groups were entirely culpable for their own atrocities.
The jihadists themselves made little effort to hide their crimes. “When you hear about killings and throat-slittings in a village or town,” GIA commander Abou el Moundhir explained in his group’s international newspaper, “you should know … it is the application of GIA communiqués ordering [us] to do good and combat evil.” (Those who deserve to die,’ Agence France Presse, available at http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/3gia.htm.) He assured readers his men only killed “those who deserved to die.” There is no question that the state too had blood on its hands for its own abuses that included extrajudicial executions, some 8000 forced disappearances, and torture, as I very clearly state in my article, but its armed opponents’ atrocities were widespread and systematic to use the terms of international criminal law, and unimaginable.
On this topic, Cherifa Kheddar, the president of Djazairouna, the Algerian Association of Victims of Islamist Terrorism is indignant and very precise. For her, legal responsibility on the one hand and factual or moral attribution on the other, are two distinct questions. “The state is responsible for all whose security it failed to guarantee. But, for the advocates of the qui-tue-qui, those people have no proof.” Kheddar and other Djazairouna members did extensive work on the ground during the darkest years of the dark decade among the ordinary, often poor men and women of the Mitidja, otherwise known as “the Triangle of Death,” the zone of Algeria worst hit by fundamentalist violence. “The day after the massacres, we went to the places where they happened and people not only described the terrorists, but they knew who was a member of the Islamic Salvation Front. They recognized the terrorist of the neighborhood who was there killing.”
Without hesitation, Kheddar who is both from a family victimized by fundamentalist terrorism, and is also a very principled critic of the Algerian government and has suffered as a result, calls out those who do not have her firsthand experience. “Now if people who were not there want to testify in our place, that is something else. If they meet the affected families, the one whose son was killed by the Islamists will tell you he was taken by the Islamists.” In the small villages where abuses often happened, everyone knows everyone else’s business. She recounts what local people would tell her on the ground in the Triangle of Death after any given atrocity in the 1990s. “When we go to a village and talk to a woman, and ask, ‘how do you know it was the Islamists?’, she will say, ‘the cousin of my husband was with them and the cousin of my husband was a terrorist.’ When, for example, I had friends whose children were taken by the security services, they say, ‘I knew my son was taken by the security forces.’ There is no confusion in the minds of these citizens.” She believes, based on extensive fieldwork and experience, that the vast majority of the victims were killed by the fundamentalist armed groups.
Why is there so much denial elsewhere that fundamentalists killed here?, I asked her back in 2010. Djazairouna’s president says it is difficult to comprehend because it flies in the face of the evidence. “The Islamists never said, ‘It was not us.’ They took responsibility publicly. There were lists posted in the mosques.”
As to Kouider’s comment, I am struck by the degree of the personal vindictive directed at me and this simply illustrates the level of hatred that is still flowing from those who seek to justify the terrible crimes of Algeria’s fundamentalists by misrepresenting the truth.
Most of the victims of fundamentalist atrocities in Algeria were not privileged but rather poor or working class or lower middle class people who lived in the most dangerous neighborhoods and could not afford security or exile. The victims I interviewed in places like Blida and Sidi Moussa were mainly underprivileged people. In my article, I make no attempt to speak for all Algerians, but rather to enable as many Algerians as possible to be heard themselves – especially those whose voices are almost entirely excluded from the debate in the West.
Especially appalling is the use of the term “eradicators” to describe people who dared to stand up to fundamentalist brutality and were often slaughtered for it, or suffered terrible years of unceasing threats – talk about blaming the victim. As a journalist pseudonymed (due to the risk) H.Z. wrote of the epithet “eradicators” in the Algerian newspaper Le Matin in 1994, “this term designates those who peacefully oppose the fundamentalist social program… Thus, supporting democracy, political pluralism and modernity means you are an eradicator! Being against the instrumentalization of Islam for political ends means you are an eradicator! Yet… it is fundamentalism that eradicates.” As the feminist anti-fundamentalist activist and social worker Kheira Dekkali explained, “We are eradicated, killed, had our throats cut, and they call us eradicators.” The secular, left, democratic, intellectual sectors of the population who most visibly stood up to the extremists, the people that Kouider seeks to vilify, were mostly unarmed – they never killed or threatened to kill anyone. They were trying to defeat fascism in their country, armed only with their pens and their voices.
There is, as I have repeated, no question that the state also killed and disappeared and tortured during the 1990s, and indeed failed to protect the population or to adequately assist victims. But the vast majority of the violence came from the fundamentalist assault on the Algerian population. I encourage anyone wondering whether this is true to go to Algeria and talk to victims themselves as I have done. I could not care less if Kouider attempts to smear me as a pseudo-academic, because in actual fact, I have done my homework in the field. I have interviewed many of those who say they were victims of non-state terrorism and of those in smaller numbers who say they lost family members to the state. I am horrified by the gross human rights violations which they all suffered, by the lack of justice for these victims, and by the additional abuse to which they are subjected by those who try to erase their history. One of the things which remains vital is that there be a Truth Commission in Algeria to further clarify the historical record and to allow all these victims’ experiences to be systematically documented, something which victims groups on both sides of the conflict (those who lost family to the fundamentalists, and those who lost family to the state) in the Coalition of Associations of Victims of the 1990s have been long working together for. http://www.algerie-disparus.org/cfda1/images/pdf/declaration_signatures_frar.pdf
(By the way, here is the Coalition’s account of what happened in the 1990s from the linked declaration which is available in French and Arabic: “In the 1990s, our country experienced a bloody war fought by the Islamist armed groups against society which caused hundreds of thousands of victims. Unarmed citizens, who were not protected by the state, were the principal targets of assassinations, torture, disappearances, mass rapes and massacres.
In its fight against terrorism, the state engaged in massive and indiscriminate repression of the population, including arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial executions, torture and forced disappearances. 8000 people “disappeared” after being arrested by state forces. No investigations have ever been carried out to determine the fate of these disappeared persons, or those who were kidnapped by the Islamist armed groups.”)
In the meantime, there is a pressing need when writing and speaking about Algeria, and when thinking about what important lessons its difficult history of the 1990s can offer us today in contexts like Egypt, to actually engage with the facts and the testimonies of those who lived these events, rather than recycling conspiracy theories based on old, unsubstantiated rumors, which do a terrible disservice to all who lost their lives in Algeria.


A response to comments criticizing the article by Karima Bennoune (published on siawi on 31 July -article No5843): ’Killing the Arab Spring in its craddle’