Today's date:
Summer 1995

Islam Is the Only Road to Salvation

Ahmed Ben Bella is one of the last historic leaders of third world independence movements. Ben Bella was both prime minister and then president of Algeria from 1962 to 1965. After a coup in 1965, he was arrested an imprisoned until 1982. He was awarded the Lenin peace prize in 1964. Since 1982, he has been chairman of the London-based International Islamic Committee for Human Rights and has re-emerged as a key figure in brokering a peace agreement between opposition and the Algerian government through the so-called "Roman Platform," an accord signed on January 13 in Rome which united the eight Algerian opposition parties on a program to end three years of civil war. Ben Bella was interviewed for NPQ in Rome by Igor Man of the Italian newspaper La Stampa. Man first met Ben Bella in Algeria in 1963.

NPQ: Do you think you will return to Algeria?

AHMED BEN BELLA: Of course. And if God is willing, quite soon. Algeria is not breaking up. It is obvious that taking the country from a state of war to being a lawful state won't be easy. But peace isn't elusive. I'm optimistic because I'm pragmatic: Neither of the two sides, the military government nor the Islamic front, is capable of winning. If they continue to fight, they will both bleed to death. Peace does not include a vendetta; there will be neither winners nor losers. The army remains the main axis of power, the historical memory of the release from colonialism. Islam is the road to salvation. The only road.

NPQ: Am I to conclude that you foresee an Islamic Algeria?

BEN BELLA: Yes, Islamic, but under the sign of the choura, or consultation of the population commonly known as democracy.

NPQ: Yet the examples we see so far of rule by sharia, or Islamic law, are anything but commendable. It is hard to imagine an Algeria that is basically non-religious and culturally modern forcing people to wear long skirts or beards, with women kept behind closed doors, amputating the hands of thieves and banning satellite dishes. Does Algeria really want to step back into the Middle Ages?

BEN BELLA: In the West there is a tendency to confuse fundamentalism with integralism. Fundamentalism means, semantically, the recovery of the cultural foundations of Islam. Integralism is pure totalitarianism, ideological and political. Of course, many Islamists stop at the surface; they don't go deeper. While it is necessary to look our contemporary society in the face, the real problems aren't the use of the veil or the banning of satellite dishes, but the corruption, the lack of housing, the blindness of the bureaucracy. Our liberation must be cultural. Everything is contained in the Koran, but it is necessary to know where to look, reading it carefully, serenely, faithfully and intelligently.

The recovery of our culture is fundamental. It also forces us to review our lexicon, in the philosophical sense. For example, we always have talked about "development" or about "national savings" and "gross national product." But real development is that which places man at its center. It is poetry, literature, music and prayer. What is the growth of the GNP worth if it neglects man and his spirit? To neglect man is to offend God.

NPQ: When did you have this cultural revelation, this meeting with the Koran?

BEN BELLA: I've always lived as a good Muslim. But I barely knew French and I couldn't read Arabic when I was young, so I couldn't read the Koran. Yet as a child, I remember that I woke up at four o'clock every morning to the call of prayer. All of my young life was filled with sacred chants, with the unique music of the verses of the Koran that my mother recited by heart, having learned them by ear.

With time and struggle, I was able to learn the language of the Prophet. But what you call my "cultural revelation" I owe to treason, to 18 years of imprisonment following the coup in 1965. The authorities moved me from prison to prison, always in silence, never once uttering a word. During the fourth transfer, I told them I wouldn't move again, that they could kill me. And so I remained in that prison house for 18 years!

Even one day in prison is too much if you don't respect yourself inside. Wrapping me in a cover of obsessive silence, they wanted to drive me mad. But I had obtained a copy of the Koran, and reading it, meditating on it, day after day, without ever tiring, strengthening myself, I saved myself

The silence was filled with the Word; it was canceled out with the music of the verses of the Koran. So, you see, I am optimistic about the future of my country, of the eternal Algeria, not only because I'm pragmatic, but above all because I carry within me an enormous amount of lightweight luggage: faith.

NPQ: Don't you worry that integralism will overpower fundamentalism? What about the growth within the Muslim world of hatred for the West?

BEN BELLA: If and when the West understands that the Gulf War has terribly wounded the Islamic world in general, but particularly the Arab world, it will find the right words with which to communicate with those it has humiliated with its fierce imitation of the Crusades. It is not a question of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. It is that the West has violently set back what was very nearly a post-industrial society - Iraq, which was the pride of all Islamic people. You have humiliated and beaten an honest, serious, hard-working people. And with the embargo, you have signed the death sentences of the weakest: the poor and the children. If you were to think about the words of your Pope on this matter, the venerable John Paul II, maybe peace would arrive more quickly; not just in Algeria. And, at last, there would be a little more order in the world.

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