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A Dangerous Dualism: The Myth of Two Algerias

[Image of a square in Wahrane. Image by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène/Flickr] [Image of a square in Wahrane. Image by Maya-Anaïs Yataghène/Flickr]

In his last column for the magazine Rupture, the writer and journalist Tahar Djaout introduced his dichotomy of an Algeria divided between “the family that advances and the family that regresses” (“la famille qui avance et la famille qui recule”). This was in May 1993, just before his assassination. The dualist representation expressed in this phrase puts those who advance modernity in opposition to those who defend authenticity. In the Algeria of 2015, this problematic dichotomy is still relevant and is expressed in various forms, despite the end of the civil war and the considerable social fragmentation that history has bequeathed. Take, for example, the notion that there is an opposition between political Islam and secularist progressism. Firstly, to reflect on the resilience of this dualist imaginary is to try to understand how it feeds contentious discourses that sustain the pervasive fear of a new wave of violence. Secondly, such an analysis allows us to see the durability of caricatures and civilizational claims that reproduce the symbolic violence of the colonial period. 

The Weight of the Past 

If it is useful to revisit the colonial history of this dichotomy between modernity and tradition, it is mainly because in 2015, France remains generally associated with the former term. As Edward Said has discussed with greater nuances, the colonial enterprise depended on a division of the world into Occident and Orient that attributed reason, modernity, and power to the “West,” while relegating the “East” to tradition, superstition, and apathy. Moreover, this colonial dualism mirrored an anti-colonial dualism in Algeria that pitted imperialism and acculturation against a search for authenticity and the introduction of autocentric development. Even though the imperative of resistance guided this strategy, it was nevertheless inseparable from certain strategies of power. Algeria surely provides a good example of the pernicious effects of bureaucratic capitalism or a policy of cultural homogenization. 

This dualism influenced the perception of the struggles for power in independent Algeria. An example of this is when sociologist Ali El Kenz invoked the existence of two dominant paradigms that marked the nationalist movement and the Algerian state, one of language and one of production. Moreover, the mythical hostility between modernity and tradition is alto rooted in the civil war that struck the country during the 1990s. While the “décennie noire” was in rooted in a convergence of economic, political, and socio-cultural factors, it has been depicted as a struggle between zealots fighting for Islamic authenticity and guarantors of statist modernity. Far from expressing the complexity of a conflict where the forms of violence were multiple, or where the political killings, manipulations, and crimes led to a sense of extreme confusion, the persistence of this simplistic dualism is expressed in the caricatural opposition between secular éradicateurs and fundamentalist terrorists. At the same time, the partisans of a political solution (including nationalist and Berberists, Islamists, and secularists), came together at San’t Egido in 1995, and were subsequently marginalized as the violence of the war intensified.  

The “Francisés” against the Populace

The dichotomy between those who are self-proclaimed modernists and those who defend authenticity is still relevant in Bouteflika's Algeria. Undoubtedly, there are other fractures (linguistic, geographic, generational) that mark the country. Nevertheless, the dichotomy appears to intensify as political blockages worsen and the economic situation seems likely to deteriorate due to the falling prices of hydrocarbons. Abdelfattah Hamdache's fatwas testify to the return of a takfiri rhetoric that targets the apostates and the westernized elite. Indeed, the salafist preacher has gone so far as to call for the assassination of writer Kamal Daoud last December. He is far from being the only voice to adopt this tendency. Echourouk, the most-read daily newspaper in Algeria, recently published a series of articles that denounced the position of the “Frenchified” (francisés) medias, which were accused of taking sides with the blasphemers.

It goes without saying that fundamentalists' renewal of verbal threats in Algeria is a worrying development - especially given that intellectuals were targetted with violence during the civil war. At the same time, however, we should not overlook another form of violence, this time symbolic. The distinction between Algerian believers and occidental apostates responds to a symmetric representation of society that opposes the modern elite to the popular masses that Islam has dulled and is subjected to feudal ways of thinking. It is common to hear certain journalists, writers, or scholars propose exceptionally violent analysis depicting an immature and uncivilized population that is prone to riots (“jacqueries”), without any properly “political” framework. One particularly well-known figure, Kamel Daoud, has written many columns for the Quotidien d’Oran during the last year, where he characterizes the Algerians as “a people that is three-quarters ignorant (ignare), careless of the land that will be handed down [to the next generation], bigoted, dirty, uncivil.” This dualist representation opposing modern Algerians to the backward masses is not limited to the francophone elite. Moreover, by highlighting the problem of so-called Algerian mentality, it reactivates a binary reading with colonial roots that essentializes the current situation.   

The Ambiguous Cartel

What about the Algerian regime? Organized as a cartel in which the different components (military, technocrats, businessmen, and politicians) work together to guarantee the perpetuation of their benefits, it does not propose any form of organized ideology. If anything, it is highly heterogeneous and prone to contradictory discourses. Thus, its spokespersons can alternatively invoke the different registers of authenticity and modernity.

Internally, this dichotomy serves to produce the very legitimacy that the regime otherwise lacks. Bouteflika therefore assumes the role of a defender of tradition - whether this results in launching an offense against French-language schools (as he did in 2006), or in his support for zawiyas. Inversely, the recent project of law that Tayeb Louh has defended, which condemns domestic violence, it has been presented as a “war between modernity and obscurantism” that the Ministry of Justice in the National Assembly has waged. Externally, the cartel positions itself on the side of “modernity.” When a policy concerns the economy or the question of democracy, it espouses the dualist imaginary that accompanies any reformist enterprise. Thus, the cartel presents itself to its European partners as a civilizing influence aiming to educate a backward people through teaching them the values of productivity, voting, or gender mixing. 

Aside from this discourse, the cartel also benefits from the general climate, as Da’esh saturates the media with objectively terrorizing images and as the control of women’s bodies has again become a question of public debate. In this context, the ambiguity of the cartel is at its height. It hunts down terrorists and legislates against domestic violence, but it allows salafist threats to go unpunished and tolerates the pro-Kouachi demonstration that Hamadache and his henchmen organized in the middle of Algiers. This is enough to ensure that the climate of fear can gain steam, most notably in the milieu of the francophone intelligentsia. Both the guarantor and beneficiary of stability, the cartel has much to gain in the tension that opposes “two Algerias,” a mystification that it continually maintains to ensure its role as an arbitrator.  

France and International Partners, and the Caricatures They Create

It is impossible to discuss the persistence of the dichotomy between modernity and tradition without underscoring the role of Algeria's international partners in this process. As noted earlier, these actors actively intervene in the process of “upgrading” the national order, which is celebrated in the name of “reformism” and “modernization.” This process thus implies the participation of states, intergovernmental or supra-governmental organizations (such as the United Nations or European Union) as well as non-governmental organizations, especially when they support the cartel on the road toward democratic consolidation. 

Unsurprisingly, France is at the forefront of promoting caricatural visions that reveal both the persistence of the older colonial imaginary as well as the power of new anxieties. Observers tune in with special interest when Kamel Daoud or Boualem Sansal speak of Islamic fascism and the passivity of Muslims. Certainly, these authors who have been bestowed with awards from the Hexagon confirms the beliefs and fears of their audience. Amidst alarming cries that announce the explosion of an Algeria undermined by clans and fundamentalism, one can nevertheless find the time to laud the “youth that wants to bring Algeria into the digital age.” The myth of two Algerias is thus forged through a complex relationship with the ex-colonial power, where rejection and fascination mix to reproduce a series of caricatures portraying “good” and “bad” Algerians. Moreover, the conflict between these two groups also serves to reaffirm an imagined geography of the “clash of civilizations.”

The Mobilized Margins

In conclusion, it is helpful to remember that questions of religion or culture are not the only preoccupations of the margins of the Algerian society, who are more concerned with questions of dignity, social justice, or ecology. The mobilization against fracking at the beginning of the year in In Salah was not merely a demonstration of the injustice inherent in labeling Algerians as “dirty” or “uncivil.” It also showed the vulgarity of the authenticity/modernity dichotomy as it mixed various strategies such as participative democracy, communal solidarity, sit-ins, and collective prayers. Here, we can see that repertoires of contestation do not follow the misleading categories certain intellectuals and politicians have posited.

In addition to overlooking the plurality and needs of Algerian society, the dualist imaginary sharpens the polemics around figures at both extremes, whether they concern Hamadache or Daoud. It deflects our gaze from systemic issues. Yet, to return to Tahar Djaout, he did not ignore these fundamental stakes. In Les Vigiles (1991), the last novel he published before his death, he consecrated several pages to the painful rupture between the inventor Mahfoudh and his brother Younes, who had become a fundamentalist. Nevertheless, his critical stance was not limited to religion. He also portrayed the insanity of the bureaucratic system, the gangrene of clientelism, the renunciation of revolutionaries, and the exile of elites. Contrary to the writings of the journalist, who is swept away by the urgency of political combat, the novelist refused to stop depicting the world in all of its complexity. 

[This article was originally published in French and translated by the author.]

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