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'Democracy is the Best Solvent': An Interview with the Algerian Novelist Boualem Sansal

10:46 AM, Feb 18, 2011 • By JOHN ROSENTHAL
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But the possibility that worries me the most is what I call the “Sudanese” solution: namely, the possibility that the authorities form an alliance with the Islamists in order definitively to squash the democratic protest movement. This is what the Algerian regime has done as well. It brought the Islamists into the state institutions as junior partners. It is not democracy that has permitted the Islamists to become the second most powerful political force in the country. This came about as a result of a shabby political deal. The same thing could happen in Egypt, where the army is bound to face serious opposition. It could promote the Islamists in order to block the aspirations of the people.

In any case, Islamism is a curse. One has to see it as such and work towards its gradual disintegration and marginalization. Democracy is the best solvent in this regard.

Rosenthal: You have praised the attitude of President Obama. But does not the policy of the American administration risk encouraging precisely what you have called the “Sudanese” solution. The administration has minimized the threat posed by the Muslim Brothers, and an administration spokesperson has called explicitly for the inclusion of “non-secular” actors in a new government. In present circumstances, what attitude do you think democratic forces should take toward Islamists? Should they be open to working with them or should they seek to isolate them?

Sansal: When I heard Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, I was frankly disappointed, even angry. I was disgusted to see him reaching out in such an obsequious manner to precisely those Muslims who make their religion into an identity, a cause, an ideology. But Obama has evolved. He is not so stuck in the same romanticized vision as before. If he is minimizing the Islamist threat, this is undoubtedly for tactical reasons. One should not push all the various types of folly with which the Arab and Muslim world is rife to come together in a united Islamist front.

But one also has to consider the incoherence of western society in general on such matters. Where does one find all the most important Islamists? In London, New York, Paris. Tariq Ramadan sashays back and forth between London, Geneva and Paris. He is invited onto all the talk shows, and he gets great ratings – and not only thanks to the Muslim community of the troubled French banlieues, for whom he is a sort of legendary hero.

In my opinion, action needs to be taken on two different levels. The democratic forces in the Arab countries need to mobilize against the Islamists, to denounce them and to expose their attempt to co-opt a popular revolutionary movement. Above all, the democratic forces have to be clear about their own discourse. Our democrats – some of them democrats of convenience – have to stop looking to achieve democracy, liberty, and progress by playing the Islam card just like any Islamist from the rough part of town. They have to stop going on about Islam being the religion of peace, tolerance, and liberty that emancipated women and saved the angels from the fall.

They have to take their distance, to affirm their difference from the Islamists, in order to offer young people a choice that is as clear as the one that the Islamists offer to their followers. Above all, they have to stop carrying out the debate with the Islamists in religious terms. They have to denounce the political program of the Islamists by appealing to reason and responsibility, not by citing verses from the Koran in the Islamist tradition, like so many do. When ElBaradei arrived in Cairo, he went to pray in the front row with the Islamists. That is how he expressed his desire for liberty and democracy in Egypt. It is comic and absurd and incredibly cowardly. He has no credibility anymore, and real democrats have to reject him.

The second level concerns the battle that the West has to fight against Islamism. One needs to put an end to the concessions, the doublespeak, the realpolitik. Western governments have to stop flattering the Islamists (in Saudi Arabia or Iran, for instance) and should stand up for their own values, which are the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One example: when Mahmoud Abbas says that as soon as Palestine is independent it will not accept that there is a single Israeli on its territory, one has to take note of this and stop dealing with him. There could hardly be a greater expression of hatred.

The world needs clarity and it needs people with the courage of their convictions. Tactical choices should never be allowed to diminish the clarity of one’s fundamental ideas.

(Translated from French by John Rosenthal.)

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