Laughing at God in North Africa
TAHAR BEN JELLOUN was awarded Le Prix Goncourt in
1987. He is the author of six books of poetry and 10 novels, including
L'Enfant de Sable, La Nuit Sacrée and L'Homme Rompu. The author
is also a member of the Haut Conseil de la Francophonie.
Tangiers - When critical thinking is abandoned,
leaving the field open to all sorts of extravagance, when doubt absents
itself, man relinquishes his status as an individual and melts into the
crowd to become but a negligible element, stifled and unrecognized. Dialogue
Ideological extremism of a religious or political nature, or both together,
includes the refusal of any kind of dialogue. The "Other" does
not exist except to the extent to which he enters the citadel of certitudes,
never dreaming of leaving it and even less of voicing a rejection or admitting
to an error. Society is viewed as a monolithic bloc with all its exits
sealed in advance, for it senses danger, a threat emanating from outside
communicated by those elements of society that have strayed away.
This citadel, within which we barricade ourselves, defines its enemies
in simplistic terms: The individual as an uncommon entity, a person free
in thought and action; and all thoughts are other, alien to his own (philosophies,
religions, literature, art, poetry and laughter).
It is laughter that creates the necessary cracks in all construction.
Not only is it peculiar to man, but it is the special attribute of the
man who is free. Laughter marks the birth of doubt-it is an admission
of the fact that there are other modes of thought and life, too. The use
of humor signifies a questioning of the self, the appearance of a less
tense face of despair.
By its very essence, laughter is anti-religious-in other words, anti-totalitarian.
It mocks the sacred and urges the prisoners of the authoritarian system
to become aware of their condition. In The Name of the Rose Umberto Eco
has shown that the demise of religious fanaticism is caused by the ability
to laugh uproariously, which means an end to respect for dogma and for
all that is sacred. Thus, laughter is intolerable.
There is another enemy, systematically so, of extremism-subjectivity.
Voicing one's individuality, demonstrating it in one's own individual
manner, expressing it according to one's own rules, making it an asset,
an identity-these then are what become unbearable for extremism whose
aim has always been to make society uniform, to gather it under the same
banner, and to exclude from it each and every sigh born of the individual
Among those condemned are all artists who draw on their subjectivity to
find the elements of their creations, all rebels and all those who aspire
to a private life. Doesn't the Koran recommend that we be wary of poets?
From the moment that you have to be told how to dress, what to wear, what
should be the length of a woman's dress or the color of a man's thought,
from the moment that someone has the right to interfere in your private
life, that you are told that you are under surveillance and that someone
can intervene at any given time to bring order into your lives, subjectivity
is likened to subversion or even to indecent assault!
As it is, religion imposes its prohibitions. It would be no exaggeration
to say that, at the base of all monotheistic religions, you find a totalitarian
logic. It is far from rational, but you finally give way-out of fear or
through faith, knowing that God is the only judge. But when men substitute
themselves for God, taking the initiative to speak and act in His place,
the very foundations of religion itself are weakened by this encroachment.
However, that is another matter for debate.
Islam, since its inception, has been subject to various currents. None
has done it greater harm than what is called the "fundamentalist"
or "extremist" current. However, the Egyptian or Algerian militants
who gather under the banner of Islam do not use these terms. The Algerians
refer to the notion of "salvation" in the sense "to save"
(ingad). Others speak of "Hamas," that is, "enthusiasm,"
or "nahda" (renaissance); they speak of "fraternity"
(the Muslim brotherhood), of "justice and goodness" (adl wa
ihssan; al ihssane is the gift of self); or even of "al islah"
(reformism, restoration). In most cases, these are expressions of a moral
THE POLITICS OF RELIGION | More specifically, in the case of the
Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), it is more a question of politics
than of religion. This is a political opposition party which is trying
to seize power through any means, including the most brutal violence.
Born out of the rejection of single-party totalitarianism and pervasive
corruption, developed in the most underprivileged sections of society
which bore the brunt of the consequences of the single-party government's
administrative errors, the FIS movement fed on all these disenchantments
and on the major cultural rifts that independence failed to bridge. The
most severe disappointment was that of identity. Islam had been the binding
force during the freedom struggle; it was called upon once again to help
in the struggle against a new form of invasion-that of "foreign ideologies."
The feeling of being dispossessed is very real and not a new one (the
Ottoman influence, French colonization and, finally, the single-party
Muslim cultural values can help consolidate an identity which has been
ill-treated by history and which finds it difficult to adjust to modern
life. It all depends on how these values are analyzed and interpreted.
For a long time, they have been ignored or neglected by Algeria. That
is why, today, a section of the youth is identifying itself with these
values and clinging to them. It could be said that there is no tradition
of Islamism in this country. It is a recent movement with more political,
rather than strictly religious, motivations. However, the same is not
the case in Morocco.
THE CASE OF MOROCCO | Moroccan society has never broken with Islam.
Its politicians have never attempted to separate themselves from religion
and have never proposed any secular discourse. This is true to the extent
that even the political party owing allegiance to communism has respected
the Moroccans' attachment to Islam. Their allegiance to religion was natural,
since Moroccans have many pagan rituals within the religion, which explains
the large number of saints they revere and whom they plead with to convey
their wishes and complaints to God.
Brotherhoods have existed from time immemorial and have carried out theological
studies on the interpretation of sacred texts and the practices of the
Prophet and his companions. The state has always allowed things to take
place as they would while keeping an eye on what was happening. The Darkaouas,
for example, differ from the rest of the Moroccan Muslims, in that they
follow the lunar calendar from the holy places of Mecca, which is the
reason why there is a one-day gap between the beginning and the end of
the period of fasting for Ramadan. They endangered neither the state nor
the peace of its other citizens.
With the setting up of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Morocco began to
take greater interest in its brotherhoods. When he came to the throne,
King Hassan II was established as the sole protector of the symbolic values,
more so on account of his status as "Commander of the Faithful"
due to the fact that he was a descendant of the Prophet.
Since 1984, the state decided to take Islam under its fold by limiting
the proliferation of places of worship and eliminating "free preachers."
It has appropriated the means of production, management and dissemination
of symbolic values (the Council of the Ulemas, making the personnel of
mosques into civil servants; organizing solemn formal programs and wakes
during Ramadan presided over by the king). All that remains for the new
Moroccan Islamists are the peripheral fields of political expression or
even action, such as cultural associations, student unions, the league
of human rights and so on.
Under surveillance, undoubtedly infiltrated by the police, Moroccan Islamists
remain, for the moment, very unobtrusive. The worsening situation in Algeria
could have disastrous consequences on its Moroccan neighbor. As it is,
the border town of Oujda apparently serves as a fall-back position for
some and a refuge for others.
HUMORLESS ISLAMISTS | Although Morocco's Islamists are quiet, they
are no less allergic to humor, to laughter, to doubt and to dialogue.
The traditional nationalist parties, the independence party, the Istiqlal,
as well as the Socialist Party all make veiled references to the Islamists,
particularly during the pre-electoral period.
The facts remain rather vague. It is not known whether they retain a low
profile because the state has taken over most of the field or for tactical
reasons, while proceeding to regroup and reorganize themselves. The fact
that, underlying this mobility, there are a number of brotherhoods with
divergent tendencies makes organization difficult. However, it can be
said that they are united by a physical and spiritual solidarity, which
can be summarized by the slogan "al nahy'ani al munkar," which
means the prevention of evil. A vast program indeed!
Although the Islamists are closed to dialogue, is it possible for intellectuals
to force open this armor-plated door? Must one give up and adopt an attitude
of powerlessness, of refusal or of lassitude? The supporters of totalitarianism
do not like the moderates; they despise those who attempt to create links
and bring together divergent points of view. The assassinations of intellectuals
in Algeria, if it is proved that Islamists were behind them, would only
underline the fact that they do not appreciate openness or tolerance.
They would be more at ease with extremists at the other end of the line,
since they would use the same kind of language.
So, are we to remain silent, withdraw into our ivory towers and witness
what is happening without reacting to it? The intellectuals' role consists
in searching for and finding new ways to make intelligence triumph, to
ensure the advance of the ideas of progress and liberty. We must use our
imaginations, and go beyond the situation in which we simply acknowledge
that violence has become a feature of everyday life, disturbing our points
In the case of Algeria, as in that of Egypt, Islamists are conducting
a political struggle against non-democratic and unpopular regimes. The
methods they employ to counter these opponents are reduced to repression
and human-rights violations. This doesn't help.
The state should set an example, even if it has to deal with elements
which resort to violence alone to make their voice heard. However the
situation evolves in these two countries, the reigning political system
carries a heavy responsibility in the development of this dispute of Islamic
We are, as yet, far from achieving a true separation of two very different
yet necessary things, each as important as the other-religion and politics.
While religion should be a matter for the individual conscience alone,
politics concerns everyone. Since Islam is perceived as the very foundation
of the community, a great deal of work needs to be done to return to the
individual his freedom of conviction and practice.