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.
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.