North Africa: Reasserting a living secularism

Association du Manifeste des libertés
A drained nationalism.
In mid-January, Wassyla Tamzali wrote to us from Algiers in connection with a piece that had been published in the “Ideas and Debates” column of El-Watan on 2 January 2005, signed by Belkacem Lamine, a retired high-ranking officer, and entitled “Has the bell tolled for King Mohammed VI?”
She writes:

“I’d like to congratulate the author of this article on his skill as a strategist. Thanks to him, we finally understand why the Moroccan parliament amended the Moroccan family code. Listen carefully: ‘The Moudawana was amended at the instigation of Albert Azoulay, an adviser to the king of Jewish origin’, explains the author. Had you – like many Algerians – been thinking rather enviously that, in announcing his intention of reforming the Moroccan family code as a determined response to the Islamicist attacks in Casablanca, King Mohammed VI had chosen a difficult, courageous path and, in doing so, was giving a political lesson to others who had not managed to respond with the same firmness to events that were even more serious than the bomb in the Spanish restaurant in Casablanca? Did you, like me, think that feminist and women’s organisations had put all the pressure they could on the king to get him to do this? Well, we were wrong: that wasn’t what happened at all. It seems it was a Jew who was behind this reform. The king’s adviser, hatching a Jewish plot. Why? Good question. To destabilise Moroccan society, by giving women more rights? To humiliate Arab men? To pave the way for an invasion by Israel? And what’s more, this adviser, Albert Azoulay, who is awarded the title of “chief adviser” (and whose first name is actually André), is alleged to be governing the country as the leader of a “handful” of people – all of them Jewish, I imagine, as of this handful the author names Sion Assidon, the mainspring of the reform of the code, and again, a Jew.

“So, that’s reassuring for those of us who thought the Moroccans were passing us out in the modernity stakes. No – the reform has nothing to do with the Moroccan institutions, or with women’s struggles in Morocco. But the author’s exposition doesn’t end there: it takes us right into the monarch’s bedchamber. First the Jewish plot – now the women’s plot! Women and Jews? Hmm, that reminds me of something. The author quotes a Moroccan woman, Leila Rhiwi (mangling the spelling of her name), who is also responsible for this reform, and he reveals to the reader – without quite explaining why, it’s up to us to guess – that there are links between this activist and the king’s wife, who apparently belong to the same professional body, an engineering college. Are we to suppose, as he does, that this complicity had an effect on the king who, somewhere between the ballroom and the royal bedroom, listened to his wife who, for her part, was an accomplice of this Madame Rhiwi’s? The two women seemingly played a significant role in this murky business of the reform of the family code. I have to say that it was when I read what was written about my friend Leila Rhiwi – who, with myself and others, founded the Maghreb Égalité 95 collective and who is highly representative of the struggle, the tenacity, the immense organisational and mobilising capacity of women, men and civil society as a whole in Morocco – that I lost my cool and decided to write to the newspaper. Without success. So, through you, I want to say to her: ‘Leila, I’m so sorry about what they’ve written. Both for Moroccan women and for us, as you’ll understand. I wish I could have found a way of informing El-Watan readers more widely. I’m sending this to the Manifeste des libertés. This rag (this article) is propagating exactly the kind of thing that prompted us to come together, and I think my friends will circulate it’.”

In Le Monde of Saturday 28 May we learn from Florence Beaugé that “one of the inspiring figures in the fight for freedoms in Tunisia, the journalist Sihem Bensedrine, aged 55, has been the target of an obscene campaign by the Tunisian press. On 8 and 11 May Al-Chourouk and Al-Hadith, two Arabic daily newspapers with high circulation figures, virtually called for the lapidation of this woman who was presented as a ‘prostitute’, a ‘creature of the devil’, a ‘hateful viper’, ‘sold to the Zionist freemasons’; she is accused of having ‘rented her back to foreigners and Zionists’… Sihem Bensedrine, who is the editor-in-chief of the on-line newspaper Kalima, is also a spokesperson for the National Council for Liberties in Tunisia (CNTL, not recognised). It is in this capacity that she is being subjected to reprisals by the regime, and because of this that she has still not received authorisation to publish a paper version of her newspaper in Tunisia.” And we learn in Libération on 7 June that other newspapers have taken up this campaign (the Observateur and Al-Sarih), and that the editor-in-chief of Al-Chourouk has been decorated with Tunisia’s cultural order of merit by the Head of State in person...

Poor nations – under threat from foreigners, free-masons, Jews, homosexuals, free women, and from their neighbours! And also from intellectuals: for a month now, a slanderous campaign has been raging in Algeria, accusing by name such prestigious historians as Mohammed Harbi and Benjamin Stora: the first is alleged to have been contacted in 1992 by the generals and asked to take over the presidency (Echourouk, 23 May), while the second, together with other Constantine Jews, is claimed to have demanded 144 million dollars in reparations for property they were deprived of (Quotidien d’Oran, 12 May 2005). Over time, and depending on the particular publication, this 144 million was changed to \ became 50 million (El-Khabar, 21 May), 20 million (Echourouk, 22 May), etc. All these so-called news items are pure lies, and the historians targeted were given the right to a reply published in the Tribune and the Quotidien d’Oran, in the case of Mohammed Harbi; and a correction in the Quotidien d’Oran, for Benjamin Stora – without any acknowledgement by this paper that the confusion between the Jerusalem meeting and demands for compensation that may have been made elsewhere – a confusion it complains of in its issue of 24 May – was its own doing, as it had relayed, without first investigating it, a rumour propagated by El-Quds, an Arabic London daily with Islamicist leanings. This rumour gave rise to a flood of particularly scandalous anti-Semitic diatribe in a large number of newspapers: we may overlook the comparison between “Jews” and Harkis, and the allegation that “Jews are said to have delivered Algeria into the hands of the colonisers” (Sawt Al-Ahrar, 19 May), the allegation that “in the name of tolerance and humanism, Jews are said to be able to enter Algeria as a conquered country, in the spirit of plunderers” (Echourouk, 19 May), that “these people are drawing up a plan to seize Algeria’s deposits in American banks – which are in fact dominated by Jews” (Echourouk, 21 May), that they are said to have “thrown thousands of Algerians into servitude” and “when they weep over their lost paradise, in reality they’re only weeping over their privileges” (El-Bilad, 21 May), that “their history is really a tissue of black pages, as they have been known since prehistory as blackmailers. This blackmail was patently obvious after the end of the second world war, when Zionist propaganda invented the crematorium ovens and the holocaust. National and international public opinion should therefore not be surprised that the Jews are trying to use this blackmail on Algeria as they did on Germany… Nor can we forget the fact that it was Bouchenak the Jew who was the key factor in the colonisation of Algeria (Echourouk editorial, 23 May 2005).” We may over look all that: every country has its rags, and this flood of venomous – even negationist – diatribe may be analysed as a racist, impotent reaction to what has gradually been taking shape: the new warmth and friendliness in relations between Algerian Muslims and Jews.

But can we, like the Quotidien d’Oran, be content with saying that the “political misunderstandings” – which were actually sparked off by the libel – are due to “the reaction of Algerians who identify Jews with Israelis”, without clarifying this association and explaining clearly that it takes little account of the Palestinian cause it is supposed to be defending? Just as it takes little account of the grief of a number of women and men (in particular those who are referred to here by name) who have made their deep links with Algeria – links forged at birth – into a source of objective, honest, independent, rich research into the history of the country (research in which Benjamin Stora is involved) or a source of political commitment to the country’s independence. As Alice Cherki wrote in a recent letter, “I’ve done enough ‘work’ – here, there and everywhere – not to feel personally affected, but I can’s stop thinking about those – why not name them: the people like Timsit, Sixou, Melki, Pierre Chich, and so on – who have unstintingly given up their youth, their talents and their skills. Some of them have died, after too short a life, while the others survive, silent and silenced”.

But even more serious is the consensus in the press – accompanied, in some cases, by a lack of professional ethics. It looks as though, on some issues, a wave of bitter, hate-filled populism is overwhelming very different kinds of newspapers. The scapegoats in this instance are the Jews, but they could be women, or homosexuals, or the people who live in the country next-door. What is the function of this “passion”? A cheap way of sidelining politics, dismissing thinking on the crisis, and thinking about history, by flattering the worst instincts of the masses. As Mohammed Harbi put it in his statement entitled “Une presse sans déontologie” (A press without professional ethics), “in fact, it is my work as a historian concerned about the accuracy of facts, whatever consequences may ensue, that is upsetting some people. Therefore my only response can be to go on deconstructing myths and seeking the truth. What are the reasons for a libel that – as urged by the old saying ‘Libel people, slander people – some of it is sure to stick’ – hopes to pull off a dubious operation? If we analyse it carefully, we see that its aim, in line with the propaganda methods of predatory, authoritarian circles, is to demoralise people who aspire to citizenship, to persuade them that their resistance to lies is futile and that they are powerless to establish the truth. The opponents of democracy are coming in new guises, but they have not given up perpetuating the centuries-old ideas of servitude that belong in a past long gone. The behaviour of this newspaper [Echourouk] affects us all. If everyone, wherever they happened to be, got involved in the struggle against manipulation and lies, political life would no longer be reduced to just a game between the powers-that-be and various factions, the press would gain in credibility, and we would all stand alongside it in its fight for freedom of expression. And archaic ideas would finally give way to a democratic culture that would make it pointless to appeal for voluntary servitude”.

Association du Manifeste des libertés
Paris, 13 June 2005

Ttranslated by WLUML in August 2005