“Reel” poor comprehension

BY WILLIAM ZERHOUNI

In his essay in The RECORD entitled “Reel Terrorism,” Prof. Alan Stone presents an interesting re-evaluation of the Algerian war for independence. Regretfully, however, Stone’s insights are colored by significant misunderstandings of the Algerian experience. Stone’s lack of understanding would be harmless if it did not mirror the monumental errors of perception that have echoed during our current war on terrorism.

Being an American of French and Algerian descent, I am in a unique position to reflect and critique Stone’s assessment of the eight-year struggle that resulted in Algeria’s independence. The tales of the Algerian and French experience during that war are intimately familiar to me because I grew up with them. They are the heritage of relatives being put on death lists, family members disappearing for years at a time and unspeakable barbarity by the French occupying forces.

But the stories of Algeria’s struggle for freedom are more than just mine. They belong to the one million Algerians who died during that struggle. They are the stories of a people denied education and the basic tools of self-government. They are the stories of democratic reformers shunned and ignored by a French government intent on annexing the Algerians’ land and denying them basic rights of autonomy and self-determination.

The French ruled Algeria with exclusionary policies for 132 years. Education and land — the two pillars of self-sustaining society — were guaranteed first to European settlers and largely denied to indigenous Algerians. Human rights and self-determination were fruits to be enjoyed by Western colonizers only. Indeed, when Algerian activists tried to broach the subject of democratic reform after World War II, they were met with the 1945 Setif massacre where the French army murdered close to 45,000 Algerian civilians. Indeed, the history of France in Algeria was anything but “liberté, egalité, fraternité” — it was an apartheid-like system of cruelty and oppression.

In 1954, the National Liberation Front (FLN) began an uprising to cast off the system of French colonialism. The FLN movement was based on secular Arab nationalism. (Indeed, as the governing party of Algeria today, it is embroiled in a war with Islamic fundamentalist terrorists that has cost over 150,000 Algerians their lives since 1991.) By 1962, the FLN succeeded in having the French quit Algeria.

Stone is no doubt aware of these facts — which makes his linkage between the Algerian struggle for independence and modern-day Islamic fundamentalism all the more incomprehensible and, quite frankly, outrageous. Simply because those adopting violent means happen to be Arab Muslims does not mean they are Islamic fundamentalist terrorists. Such “domino theory” thinking threatens to muddle our comprehension of the world and doom our war on terror into a dangerous clash of civilizations.

In the war on terror, it is important to distinguish between ideological terrorism (of the al-Qaeda sort) and responses to the violent excesses of established governments. This is not to condone violent responses to state repression — but rather to add a greater level of understanding to the responses to subjugation of people around the world. Ideological terrorism of the sort practiced by al-Qaeda should be the main focus of our war on terror. This type of terrorism is, as President Bush alluded to, akin to a totalitarian intolerance of diversity and freedom of conscience. As such, we can only have one response to it: forceful opposition.

Responses to state violence, however, require a deeper level of understanding. The ANC in South Africa, the Mau Mau in Kenya, the FLN in Algeria and the IRA in Northern Ireland did not share the same goals or worldview as al-Qaeda. Indeed, there were legitimate political grievances at the heart of each movement that mature political processes could have answered. This is not to justify the taking of innocent human life for political purposes. But it is to argue that responses to state violence can be countered using political and not military means.

It is no answer for states such as France, Britain, apartheid South Africa, China and Russia to subjugate groups based on impermissible factors such as race, religion or ethnic origin, ignore their concerns to the point of violent explosion and then turn around and cry “terrorism.” States can impose illegitimate violence on civilians as well — and it is this violence that we must oppose as vigorously as we oppose terrorism generally, lest we become unwitting accomplices in state-sponsored killing of civilians.

In our war on terrorism and in our perception of the world, we must keep this difference in mind. If we fail to do so, our war on terror will prove to be counterproductive. I have a hard time believing that Stone did not understand this very point.

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