Today's date:
Winter 2002


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 becomes impossible.

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 will.
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 nature.

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 system).

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 of reference.

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 origin.

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.