A messy divorce – parallels between Algerian and Scotland’s quest for independence

I’ve been mulling on the tragic story of Algeria’s struggle for independence from France and the current storm over Nicola Sturgeon’s campaign to break away from the UK.

At first sight, the comparison seems a bit far-fetched.  However, parallels are of course two lines that don’t actually meet, so please humour me for a while.

First off, the obvious differences.  There is no suggestion of a violent struggle for independence.  Scotland has a democratic route to achieve this, even though there is a tussle over the timing of a possible referendum.  Secondly, Scotland was not forced into the union with the UK in the first place.  Though democracy did not exist in 1707 when the union was created, the great and the good in Scotland at the time voluntarily signed up to union with the UK because it gave them access to the lucrative markets of the British Empire.  Interestingly enough, the Scots were much keener on joining the union than the English, who rejected the proposal more than once.

Now for the similarities.  Both countries are oil rich and have the potential for diversified and prosperous economies that are less dependent on oil in the future. Another similarity is that Algeria is a member of the very small club of countries that successfully left the EU, along with Greenland.  In 1962, Algeria was part of France and therefore part of the EEC.  That membership lapsed on independence.

However, the biggest similarity of all is that both face difficult decisions about the future nature of the relationship with the countries of which they were a part.  The attitude of many Algerians to France is ambivalent, to say the least.  The same is true of how many Scots feel about the UK, and about England in particular.  It is also the case that many Scots who have no wish to see the UK ripped apart, feel that they have already had a chance to vote in a referendum, and are tired of what they see as the nasty and independence-obsessed policies of the Scottish National Party.

The greatest risk for England and Scotland is that, far from independence leading to a continual improvement in the relations between the two former partners, there could be decades of friction and hurt.  What the UK has and Algeria has never had to contend with is the real possibility of a ‘hard border’.  This is something the EU may insist on rather than either the Scots or the English, and could be divisive and destructive in the extreme.

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Why did the French colonize Algeria?

TOPSHOT-FRANCE-POLITICS-CONGRESS-PARTY-FNEvery now and then I have to write a ‘business case’ at work.  It’s usually for something boring or trivial, like a new laptop for a member of my team, or on one surreal occasion, for permission for one of them to access Youtube. This week, I have come across a much more important ‘business case’, and one that actually led to something; the French colonisation of Algeria.

It’s in a publication that I found hidden away in the catalogue of the British Library when researching the book on Algeria that I’m writing.  It rejoices in the prosaic title of De l’Algérie et de sa Colonisation’ (Of Algeria and its Colonisation).  It was written in 1834 by an anonymous but clearly influential member of the French establishment who is simply referred to as ‘M. le Comte de B’.

The book tells you everything you need to know why France persisted with colonising a country that proved to be such a costly and bloody exercise, and which still influences much of what France is and does today.

When the book was written, the French had already been in Algeria for four years.  However, the process of occupying in the country had got bogged down and was costing a fortune.  There were those who were beginning to say it was not worth it and they should get out.

The author gives a concise and ‘business case’ for why France should persist with this project:

 

  • France, like Britain, had a rapidly growing population and needed more space.
  • France had been stripped of most of its colonies (by Britain) and left with ‘dross’  such as Senegal.   So she needs to find new ones.
  • Moreover, the colonies that had been left to her had been made unprofitable through Britain’s self-interested abolition of slavery.  Britain knew perfectly well what she was doing when slavery was abolished.  Slaves were unnecessary to the British in India, as the people there were prepared to work for them.  So getting rid of slavery only hurt Britain’s rivals such as the French with their large sugar plantations in the Carribean.
  • Britain did not need Algeria, though she had toyed with the idea of taking it over for herself because she had enough colonies.  Moreover, the author reasons,  “The two  peoples for so long rivals have come to an understanding  (and) they stride out together to civilise the world.”
  • Britain did the right thing sending its felons to Australia where they became honest men buying manufactured goods from the mother country.  France could do the same in Algeria, settling criminals in the harsh interior, and allowing a better class of settlers to take over coastal areas.

The author was clearly an intelligent and very well informed man.  There is an excellent section on the lucrative and productive agriculture of Algeria, and he goes into considerable and specific detail about what this was worth financially and how it could benefit France.  He had clearly done extensive studies into the geology, flora, and fauna of the country.  Some of his description shows real expert knowledge and an admiration for this wonderful country.

But not once does the author consider the ethics of marching into another country and taking it over, as if it were some sort of company merger or take-over.  He contents himself with the bald statement

“France owns Algiers through right of conquest.”

 

The book intriguingly and quite prophetically urges the conversion of Algeria into part of metropolitan France as three départements.  Clearly he had the ear of powerful people because this is what happened in 1847.

He shows the signs of the mawkish obsession that many French people had, sometimes still have, with Algeria.  However, the book shows quite astonishing prescience.  For example, it recognises that the Berber people of Kabylie will never be overcome.  With equal perceptiveness, he says

 

“The Arabs only offer moral resistance.  This will cease the moment they get a firm guarantee of our respect for their religion, customs, habits, laws and their women.”

Of course, that never happened.  The French colonisers, with some very notable but rare exceptions, regarded Arab culture and religion as second class and reserved the best the country for themselves.  In 1962 this finally led to the end of French Algeria.

This book has I think some important lessons for both France and Britain today.   I write this as the French presidential elections are about to happen.  One candidate, Emmanuel Macron, has attracted much criticism in France for saying she needs to own up to crimes against humanity that were committed in Algeria.  He wants France to make peace with its important neighbour and peace with itself.  Another candidate, Marine Le Pen, wants to build a wall to keep Algerians out.

However, we Brits don’t quite get off scot free in all this.  The book makes a telling remark about some of the self-interest that may have lain behind our abolition of slavery.  We like to think we were so much cleverer than the French, getting out of colonies while the going was good, and establishing our wonderful commonwealth. I think that if it weren’t for the popularity of our wonderful Queen, we would not have been given such an easy ride by countries that were ruled by us.

 

Lovely story from a Mosque

It’s good to read happy and positive news sometimes, even though some people think good news is boring.

original

The Algerian newspaper ‘Le Soir d’Algérie’ has a great story today about a wonderful gesture by the Imam of a mosque of Emir Abdelkader in Khenchela.  83 poor couples were given the gift of a free wedding.  This was not just a free swapping of the vows and signing registers, but the full monty including a wedding reception with a live music.Each couple was given gold rings and a generous gift of money to get them going.

Back in 2012 when I was visiting Egypt with my wife, a young man in his 30s invited us into his poor home to see the crocodile he was stuffing.  He turned to me and said how I lucky I was to be able to marry as he could not afford to do this.  Often in the West people see marriage as being ‘just a bit of paper’.  It’s great to see it so highly regarded in other cultures, and being supported and cherished in such a generous way.

On a more historical note, Khenchela is not only famous for its romantic spirit, but also for its wonderful Roman baths that are still used by local people.  I don’t allowing people to have a swim in the Roman baths is going to happen in the very staid city of Bath in the UK…

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Wedding story at:

 

Algerian religion and culture; don’t panic we’re Islamic!

 

Most people who know anything about Algeria are aware that is a Muslim country. It’s believed that a staggering 99% of the 40 million population are Sunni Muslims.

Algerian people often very religious and take their faith seriously in a way it’s hard for some Europeans to understand.  Religion in the Western Europe is now a minority pursuit.  In Algeria, religion is part of the culture.  It is part of the warp and weft of everyday life, hardwired into the core of society.

 

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New mosque being built in Algiers

But is that all that needs to be said about religion in Algeria? Not really.  Algeria has in fact had a very long and varied history of religion.  For example, there is a small but growing Christian community in Algeria. No one is certain how many Christians live in Algeria. Estimates vary from 20,000-100,000.
However, what is known is that Algeria has had a long and varied history of religion. In Pre-History, a wide of natural religions was followed. In the UNESCO-listed Tassili N’Ajjer world heritage site, there are over 15,000 astonishing rock paintings and carvings, some believed to be over 10,000 years old.

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One of these pictures, the Great God of Sefar, shows a large godlike figure being worshipped by women.
During the Roman era, Algeria was introduced to Greek and Roman deities before Christianity became the official religion under Emperor Constantine (306-337 AD). However, this period also saw the Christian church disintegrate into rival groups, for example, those who resisted the persecution by the pagan emperors and those who submitted only to return to the faith when it was safe to do so. These divisions and others like them may be part of the reason why Christianity was so easily overcome by Islam after 670 AD.
However, for a brief and brilliant period, Algeria was the epicentre of extraordinary theological output as it was the home of the great Christian bishop and thinker Saint Augustine of Hippo (modern Annaba). Augustine’s theology is still a major influence on Christianity.

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Ruined city of Hippo with Basilica of  St. Augustine in the background

 

When the French conquered Algeria in the Nineteenth Century, the Catholic church set up four dioceses. As the country was considered to be part of Metropolitan France, the church had a close connection with the hierarchy in mainland France. At a time when a quarter of the population of Algeria (1 million out of 10 million) was of European descent, the Catholic church had power and influence. Though some saw it as an agent of colonialism, there were catholic clergy, monks and nuns who won the respect of the local population due to the practical nature of their Christian faith in areas such as education and medicine.

One such priest was Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916). He led an unhappy and chaotic young life, that included some aimless wandering around Algeria whilst in the army. But on a return visit to France, he rediscovered his faith, became a priest, and settled far out in the desert amongst the Tuareg people. He developed a great love for the local Muslim population, writing a Tuareg-French dictionary and grammar for them before being murdered by bandits. He was declared a martyr by the church. He was one of many Christians in Algeria who grew to love the country and Islam.
The war of independence that led nearly all the European settlers fleeing the country was a disaster initially for the Catholic church in Algeria. Only around 2,000 remained in the early years after French rule ended.  Many catholic churches in Algeria were left deserted, their congregations having fled to France, a country many of them had never visited as they had been born and baptised in Algeria.  Some of the churches found other uses, such as the Cathedral in Oran, which is now a library.  Others have real architectural note, such as the beautiful church of Notre Dame de l’Afrique, still used as a place of worship in Algiers, and the modernist cathedral in the city that was built in the dying days of ‘Algérie Française’.

During the terrible ‘décennie noire’ (dark decade) of the civil war in the 1990s, the life of Christians became increasingly dangerous. The Cistercian monks of the monastery of Tibhirine south of Algiers were to lose their lives in a particularly brutal way. The monastery is in a beautiful but remote area of mountainous countryside. The local villagers adored the monks, who learned Arabic and made no attempt to convert them, simply giving them medical treatment and living a life of prayer. Unfortunately, the area was a hotbed of fundamentalist Islam, and it was not long before the monks were pressured to give medical aid to the guerrillas fighting the Algerian army. In 1996 seven monks were kidnapped and were decapitated. It has never been definitely proven who was responsible for this dreadful crime.

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Monastery of Tibhirine

Since the end of the civil war, the Christian community in Algeria has been able to continue its existence. The constitution states that Islam is the religion of state, but there is freedom of conscience. However, the government in Algeria has taken a tough stance on Christian evangelistic activity.  A law was passed in 2006 makes it a criminal offence for Christians to attempt to convert Muslims or possess evangelistic material. There have been reports of significant numbers of conversions amongst the Berber people of Kabylie. The Bible Society claim this could amount to up to 200,000. This claim has not been independently verified. It’s not a problem for foreigners to practice their religion in Algeria. There remain stiff penalties for any attempt to convert local people.

In recent years there have been a few worrying reports of local Christians being punished for failing to observe Ramadan.  However, the situation is nevertheless better than in many other Islamic countries where Christians are routinely persecuted or murdered.

 

Algeria’s 7 Wonders of the World

unesco-sites-algeriaDid you know that Algeria has no less that seven UNESCO listed sites to explore?

In Algeria, tourism is fairly undeveloped. Due to the limited tourist infrastructure, visitors to some of the UNESCO sites are few.  But what treasures await those who make the journey!

The Casbah in Algiers – the medieval Arab quarter that escaped Baron Haussmann’s remodelling of the city before he turned his attention to demolishing and rebuilding much of central Paris.  Though much of the Casbah is need of restoration, there are wonderful houses and narrow streets to visit.  The streets are so narrow that refuse is still collected using donkeys as lorries cannot get through.

The Roman cities of Timgad and Djemila and Tipaza.  The first two are on the edge of the Sahara desert.  They were both originally built for retired Roman veteran legionnaires who were allowed to lack nothing in their final years.  Theatres, markets, massage parlours and even state of the art public lavatories were also constructed by the emperors to reward their faithful service.

The valley of M’Zab – five fortified villages in the Sahara desert.  The architecture was carefully designed to foster community living, while protecting the privacy of families.  You can see great photos here.

Tassili n’Ajjer – amazing cave paintings in the desert recalling a time when the climate was cooler and wetter, with giraffes roaming the grasslands.  In more recent times, writers like Erich von Däniken claimed these pictures show astronauts visiting the earth.

The Kalâa des Béni Hammad, an ancient Arab city in the desert.

However… we can add another wonder of the world to this list.  There has been thick snow in the Sahara this year, something that is incredibly rare.

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Freedom of the press in Algeria

kamal-daoud

Writing in the Arab world can be a dangerous occupation.  The Algerian author and commentator Kamel Daoud was hit by a death threat or ‘fatwa’ by a fundamentalist preacher in his country in 2015.

In Algeria, there have been real strides in recent years in freedom of the press.  However, what has happened to Kamel Daoud is a warning that all is still not well.  His reply to this threat is both brave and articulate and goes to the heart of the toxic nature of Islamic fundamentalism. I am indebted to the blogger  Arun with a View for the original French text and have translated some extracts into English.  I am including this in my blog about Algeria and its history as Kamel wrote a best-selling novel about the murder of an Algerian Arab during the French colonial era,  the Mersault Investigation.

Here’s a fascinating question. Why is it that some people feel that their identity, their religious beliefs, their understanding of history and their recollection of the past are threatened as soon as someone thinks differently to them? Is it that the fear of being in the wrong drives them to enforce unanimity and fight Difference? Is it due to the fragility of their deeply held beliefs? Is it because hatred of oneself is shown through hatred of others? Is it because of a history of failure, frustration, and of unrequited love? Or because of the fall of Grenada? Or because of colonialism? The question goes round and round.

But here’s a strange thing. Those who defend Islam as a unique system of belief often do so with hatred and violence. Those who feel and consider themselves Arabs by birth have a tendency to do this with fanaticism rather than with a joyfulness of spirit leading to fruitfulness. Those who speak of national values, of nationalism and religion, are often aggressive, violent, hateful, dull, unappealing, and short-sighted. They only see the world in terms of attacks, conspiracies, and the manipulation and tricks of the West…

They focus on the North that crushes, fascinates them, making them green with jealousy. They turn their backs on Africa where people can die for all they care. God has created them and the West like a married couple; the rest of the world doesn’t count. There are sheikhs and fatwas ready to condemn every woman who dares to wear a skirt. But there is not one sheikh who wants to feed the hungry in Somali…

Why do these people react like businessmen denied what they are owed or pimps? Why do they feel so threatened by what others say? It’s strange.   Is it because the fanatic is incapable of seeing what is right under his nose? A week country, an impoverished and ruined Arab world, a religion reduced to ritual and death-crazed fatwas…

Anyway, let’s see the effects. Denying reality, dirty streets, hideous buildings, the dinar on its knees, a sickly president, a dozen migrants killed on a bus while returning home, dependence on oil and preaching, and a terrible level of educational. achievement.

owqguhcqpqokxqu-400x400-nopadI think it’s fair to say that every religion has its fair share of fruitcakes and fundamentalists who feel uncomfortable with Difference.  Jesus had to deal with them in the form of the Pharisees, who didn’t like his generosity of spirit to women, criminals and prostitutes.  The Prophet Mohammed, a man of great compassion and kindness, had similar struggles in his early days.  The Catholic Chuch of which I am a member has also persecuted its enemies in the past.

I believe that God wants us to be bigger than all this and behave like the adults we are, and be quicker to listen and understand the views of others than to condemn.

You can see the original text at:

https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/18977717/posts/20792

 

 

Hidden nasties from war with France

land-mine

There are hidden nasties from the independence war with France that are continuing to kill Algerians.  Over 3,500 of them since the war ended in 1962 and rising.

I’m talking here about old land mines that were carefully laid by the French army along the border with Tunisia in the East and Morocco in the West.

The story goes as follows.  The French army was taken by surprise by the ferocity and widespread nature of the campaign the nationalist FLN forces waged.  The problem they faced was that the FLN was receiving support from Morocco and Tunisia.  Both countries had managed to get their independence and were sympathetic to the aspirations of many Algerians to drive the French out.

One option would have been for the French to re-occupy the two neighbouring countries, but the army did not think it had the resources to do this.  So the French army adopted a different tactic.  It decided to seal the borders and deny the FLN of the oxygen of support it was getting.  Huge resources were deployed to do this between 1956 and 1959. First to go was the ‘Ligne Pedron’ along the border with Morocco.  Then in 1957 in little over 3 months on the Tunisian border,  the ‘Ligne Morice’  was constructed, later strengthened by the  ‘Ligne Challe’.  Initially, these fences consisted of little more than barbed wire.  But they were soon replaced with (for the time) advanced technology that was perfected four ligne_moriceyears later when the Berlin Wall was built in East Germany.

A forbidden zone was set up, and the local residents either ‘evacuated’ or made to live near military installations.  Radar posts were set up that could trigger scatter guns.  The whole structure was connected with electric fences with 11000 volts going through them.  morice_ligne_djelloul_khatibEven if you were prepared to risk being blown up in the minefields, cutting the fence triggered alarms, and in turn, would see French troops stationed nearby coming to investigate.

The FLN did not at first fully appreciate the threat the fortifications posed.  They even allowed local people to work or the French army on the project provided they gave them some of the money.  However, the fences nearly lost them the war as it deprived them of badly need resources from outside Algeria.  Frequent attempts were made to breach them in what became known as the ‘Battle of the Frontiers’.

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The French placed over 11 million mines along the fences. Some years ago I learned about mines on a ‘hostile environments’ course I was sent on by an NGO I was working for.  The tutors were two burly former SAS men. They laid trails with mines (fortunately decommissioned) for us to mavigate through. We were taught how to poke the ground with old coat hangers till we touched one on the side. Best not to tap on top otherwise they could blow your arm off as they are designed to explode if you step on them. They explained that mines are usually designed to maim rather than kill, as dealing with casualties hampers an enemy more than corpses, that can just be left behind.  Also, the psychological effect of mine injuries on the morale of those who are uninjured is huge.

For years after the war in Algeria, people were being killed and injured by them, and a great deal of valuable land was not available for cultivation due to the mines’ presence.   To date, the Algerian army has been able to remove just under 9 million landmines.  Hopefully mine clearance will soon be completed.

Incredibly, it was only in 2007 that the French army gave the Algerian government maps showing where the mines had been placed.
You can see  films showing the history of the fortifications and of the dangerous business of getting rid of the mines:

 

You can read more about this little-known story in French at:

http://guy.perville.free.fr/spip/article.php3?id_article=95