Algerian intellectuals defy extremists, rally for anti-takfir law
Tunis- Algerian writers and intellectuals showed support for a proposed law that would ban takfir — the Muslim practice of excommunication — to protect free inquiry and civil discourse.
The campaign comes after writer Rachid Boudjedra was strong-armed into disavowing his secular views on a television programme broadcast by Algeria’s Islamist-leaning An-Nahar channel.
Boudjedra, a professed atheist, was forced to declare himself a “Muslim” and repudiate his communist views after being interrogated by journalists masquerading as policemen. The incident was filmed with hidden cameras.
“They were two horrible hours for me,” Boudjedra said. “I got a tremendous fright. I thought these guys could be terrorists ordered to assassinate me… I prepared myself to die.”
Boudjedra was filmed telling his captors “I’m a Muslim” before being forced to repeat the shahada, an Islamic creed said to declare one’s faith in God.
The scene shocked many Algerians, including Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s brother, Said Bouteflika, who is widely seen as the power behind the ailing Algerian leader. Said Bouteflika joined protesters denouncing Islamist bigotry and expressed his support for Boudjedra.
Boudjedra, who has been described as a “progressive, anti-Islamist writer and intellectual,” has a controversial reputation. During the Islamist insurgency in the 1990s, when Islamists carried out a “swords against pens” campaign, killing dozens of singers, writers, journalists and other intellectuals, Boudjedra did what few secular intellectuals dared: He stayed in Algiers and walked the streets with an assault rifle under his coat.
The author of “The Repudiation,” Boudjedra joined Algeria’s war of independence in 1959 when he was 17. He is one of the few Algerian intellectuals to declare himself an atheist.
“I’m not Muslim. I do not believe in Mohammad as the prophet,” he told a local television interviewer in 2015.
Boudjedra, who is from a wealthy conservative family, is also a communist. He has written several books and is the author of numerous theatre and film scripts, including “Chronique des Années de Braise” (“Chronicle of the Years of Fire”).
For many intellectuals, the televised episode featuring Boudjedra showed how far Islamists had gone in setting the norms of society.
“I fear more censorship from the people (than the government),” said theatre producer Slimane Benaissa. “People are harsher in their sanctions than the government. The government assails us for political issues and for being in the side of the opposition. We can deflect that by varying writing and creation styles.”
“What we go through now is normal because we intellectuals plunged into dormancy and withdrew into silence and indifference,” said Boudjedra. “We got tired. We had fought and struggled but we asked for what result?
Others are desperate for an answer to why Algeria defeated Islamists on the battlefield decades ago only to find them a dominant force in society years later. Algeria’s military overcame a 15-year struggle against Islamist extremists in the 1990s and 2000s that claimed the lives of an estimated 200,000 people.
“There was a military victory against terrorism but the cultural front has not been freed,” said Algerian poet Achour Fenni. “Terrorist discourse dominates the media and the public space. We have come into a new stage of terrorism. Only intellectuals can fight this kind of war.”
H’mida Ayachi, who has written books about extremist Islam, said the country has experienced “a resurgence of political Islam disguised as social conservatism.”
“It is the conservatism that has taken over the country’s politics and is occupying the public space,” Ayachi said.
Algerian novelist Amin Zaoui said: “The street, the enterprise, the university, the school, the media, the language and the dress code are almost totally Islamised,” he said “This is a menace against any project that puts society on a path of development, modernity diversity, dream and optimism.”
“When I say ‘Islamised society,’ I mean that most ideas and values embraced by people living in the midst of this society have embraced the Islamic State’s ideology,” Zaoui added.
While the proposed anti-takfir law is a step in combating Islamisation, leftist intellectuals were careful to point out that more needs to be done to fight intolerance.
“A law banning takfir would be useful only when it is perceived as part of a deep critique of the whole system of belief that justifies takfir,” said writer Youcef Benzatat.