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‘The Arab Spring has Yet to Begin’

An interview with Boualem Sansal.

3:15 PM, Oct 20, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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On Sunday, October 16, the Algerian writer Boualem Sansal was awarded the prestigious Peace Prize of the German Book Trade at Frankfurt’s historic St. Paul’s Church. Sansal is the author of six novels, including the widely praised The German Mujahid (Europa Editions, 2009), the first of his novels to be translated into English. The book explores what Sansal has described as “the thin line between Nazism and Islamism” via the story of one Hans Schiller: a German SS officer who converts to Islam and becomes a hero of the Algerian war of independence.

 Sansal photo C. Hélie Gallimard COUL 1 09.05[2]

Photo Credit: C. Hélie/Gallimard

In honoring Sansal, the German Publishers and Booksellers Association made clear that it wanted to send a sign of support to democracy movements in the Arab world. But Boualem Sansal is a wary observer of the recent Arab revolts. He is worried that current events in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere are moving along the same path they took decades ago in his native Algeria. Popular unrest in the North African country led to a period of political liberalization, followed by the electoral triumph of Islamists, then a bloody civil war, and finally the establishment of what Sansal has termed a “Nationalist-Islamist” regime.

I first spoke with Boualem Sansal in February about what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring.” (See “Democracy is the Best Solvent,” February 18, 2011.) We revisited the subject a few days before the awards ceremony in Frankfurt.

THE WEEKLY STANDARD: In a recent interview with the Swiss daily Die Neue Zürcher Zeitung, you said, “The Arab Spring has not even yet begun.” What do you mean by that?

Boualem Sansal: Well, I think one has, of course, to salute and to encourage the young Tunisians, Egyptians, Syrians, Yemenites, Moroccans, etc. who are fighting against dictatorship and who want to improve their situation. That’s entirely understandable, it is all to the good, and I sincerely hope that they will succeed. But to speak of “revolutions” strikes me as exaggerated and even extremely dangerous. It’s exaggerated, because a revolution is not just a matter of fighting against a dictatorship. It is also a matter of fighting against certain ideas: archaic ideas, ideologies that can even be described as proto-fascist. It’s a matter of destroying an institutional order, but also a certain cultural-political, even moral order, so to say, in order to replace it with a new – one hopes democratic – order.

But nothing of the sort is happening among the movements in the Arab world today. Or if it is, maybe just a bit in Tunisia. In Tunis, there is a highly cultivated civil society, whose members are open to the rest of the world and who are trying to move the debate onto this terrain: to discuss the values and the ideas that should form the basis of a new Tunisia. But are they being heard? I don’t think so, because society as such remains highly archaic and because the influence of the Islamists is very strong… 

TWS: Even in Tunisia?

Sansal: Even in Tunisia! And more important than the influence of Islamism is the influence of Islam as such, which is very strong and to which the vast majority of the Tunisian population is subject. Moreover, the Islam that predominates in our countries is an Islam that is very archaic – one has to put it this way – and very conservative. It is an Islam that refuses openness to the rest of the world, that refuses equality between the sexes, that, in essence, refuses liberty itself – because liberty means being able to liberate oneself from everything, including God.

TWS: When we first spoke eight months ago, you were realistic, but still, on the whole, optimistic about the Arab revolts. What has made you skeptical?

Sansal: I am skeptical, because my reference for analyzing events in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere is the Algerian experience. The rising influence of Islamists is observable in all the countries. They are present, they are well organized, they already have their strategies worked out. I think they are even in the process of forging alliances with conservative milieus, local elites, tribes, etc. We experienced the same sort of development in Algeria.

Secondly, the ancien régime is still there, embedded in all the state institutions, and the representatives of the ancien régime are going to fight. One should not think that these people are going to give up power just because they are confronted by protestors who, in the last analysis, have only one demand: namely, that the dictator leaves. They are going to say: Okay, very well, we’ll sacrifice the dictator and we’ll put in place another one, who maybe does not seem quite so “dictatorial.”

So, I’m rather pessimistic, because what I’m seeing is a sort of repetition of the Algerian experience. We were not vigilant enough. We allowed the Islamists to get organized and take up their positions. We even helped – that is the worst thing about it – because we said to ourselves, “well, that is democracy. They have the right to express themselves too.” At the same time, the ancien régime was still there. It was going about its business discreetly, out of the public eye: reconstituting a new clientele, forging new alliances, making alliances with foreign powers favorable to its aims, using the Islamists to intimidate this or that section of the population. The same thing is happening now in the countries in question.

TWS: In our last discussion, you criticized the West for courting Muslim intellectuals who often turn out to be, more precisely, Islamist intellectuals. You mentioned the example of Tariq Ramadan. Perhaps now we have another example in Tawakkul Karman: the Yemeni activist who just won the Nobel Peace Prize. The party of which Karman is a member is the Yemeni branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and its most prominent leader (Abdul Majeed al-Zindani) has even been linked to Osama bin Laden. Why is it that when the West goes looking for partners in the Arab world it seems so often to come up with Islamists?

Sansal: The West has a basic problem for at least fifty years, maybe more: The West does not know how to deal with Islam. Before independence, the Arab world was under colonial rule – either by the British or the French – so there was a sort of direct “management.” Each of the western powers found their own solutions taking into account the local conditions. But it was a matter of colonial domination, so to that extent it was relatively simple: policy was imposed. Under these conditions, Islam was contained [i.e. within the colonial empires]: militarily, but also culturally.

When the Arab countries gained their independence, Islam was emancipated. At this point, it becomes a factor on the global stage. It is dominant in fifteen or so Arab countries, and via immigration, as well as conversions, it also acquires a presence in Europe. But western governments have no idea how to manage their relationship to Islam, and the problem is all the more difficult inasmuch as there is no Muslim “church”: which is to say that there are no established authorities with whom governments could enter into dialogue.

They have never known how to proceed, and when states are at a loss how to proceed, they engage in realpolitik. Nowadays, in France or Great Britain, for instance, they say: “well, the Islamists are going to win anyway, so we’ll play the card of the so-called moderate Islamists.”

TWS: Why is there this constant search for the “moderate Muslim” or now even the “moderate Islamist”?

Sansal: I think it’s a terrible mistake! It’s again a matter of realpolitik [on the part of Western policymakers]. They ask, what are the forces present in these countries? On the one hand, there is the army with its clientele, the civil service, etc. And then: there are the Islamists. The Islamists represent a kind of hard core of activists, but their roots extend throughout Arab society.

There is also a “third force”: the democrats. But the democrats consist of thousands of little parties, each with two members, which are concentrated in the big cities: for the most part, just in the capital. They have no contact with ordinary people. Their ties are rather with international organizations, like Amnesty International or the Socialist International. They have no influence whatsoever on the broader society.

Arab society is almost entirely Islamic and very conservative. It is as such very close to religious fundamentalism. Even in a country that is very open and modern like Tunisia, the spirit of ordinary people is impregnated with Islam. It’s their religion, it’s their tradition, it’s their culture, their everyday life. They have a natural tendency to listen to the religious discourse of the Islamists with great sympathy. One talks to them about God, about paradise, about justice – in the Islamic sense of the term – and people like it a lot.

When Western governments make clear that they accept the prospect of “moderate Islamists” taking power, it is extremely dangerous. It represents a form of encouragement to all Islamists, including the most radical, who say, “okay, then let’s try to pass ourselves off as moderates” – like the Muslim Brotherhood does in Egypt – and it discourages the democratic forces. Moreover, it is also a subtle way of suggesting to the military that it should negotiate with the “moderate Islamists.” It is a way of saying that they should establish a sort of power-sharing arrangement. But one has to keep in mind that we are talking about the Muslim world. This is to say that if society does not move toward democratization and secularization, it will always fall back upon political Islam.

The fundamental issue remains the same: the Muslim world and its elites need to have the courage to accept the idea of individual freedom. Freedom of organization, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, sexual freedom. All forms of freedom. In this context, Islam should be simply an individual matter: a form of spirituality that belongs to the private sphere. It is nobody else’s business and nobody should interfere. But society as such is governed by a consensus among citizens on the basis of the law: not on the basis of religion, but on the basis of the law. Everyone has the same rights and responsibilities: whether one is Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, whether homosexual or heterosexual, and so on. The sole basis is the law.

If one does not insist on this, we are going to see the same sort of evolution as in Algeria. In 1988-1989, we thought we had done it. We had become democrats. Three years later, there is civil war. The war lasts ten years. Then it is over and we think: it is okay now, people are rid of the Islamist influence and we are all going to become fanatical supporters of secular democracy. But this is not what happened at all. On the contrary, all of society became submerged in Islam. I live in a university town. In 1988, there was one mosque. After a civil war in which 100,000 died, now there are fifteen mosques. On Friday, all the streets around the mosques are full of people praying. And who are they? They are academics: professors and researchers who have done their studies in the United States, France, Germany, England, Belgium.

Once a country enters into a process of regression, it does not stop.

(Translated from French by John Rosenthal)

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