As the West’s war on terrorism is constantly expanded to take in more and more Islamic groups, activists and causes, the distinction between terrorism (as defined by the West) and jihad is become increasingly difficult to maintain. SABIA HANIF, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, London, discusses the situation of Algerians opposition activists in London
Britain prides itself on its commitment to equality–so long as you are not Algerian or Muslim.
There is currently a major preoccupation with Algerian Muslims in the UK. Labelled terrorists, these men and women, usually in the UK as refugees, have been stigmatised as the ultimate Islamists, as dangerous as they are foreign. This characterisation not only belies the tragic situation of Algerians but exposes the levels of prejudice in British society.
Algerian Muslims have suffered many disappointments in their homeland, because of France, the power that has occupied, repressed and colonised them. The Algerian problem dates to the colonisation of Algerians (1830– 1962). Algerians have suffered many massacres: for example on 11 July 1997 in Bou-Ismail, west of Algiers, "a family of 12 were massacred" and "on the night of 28 August in Rais, south of Algiers, up to 300 people, many of them women and children, even small babies, were killed and more than 100 injured" (The Institute of Policy and Research & Development, by Nafeez Ahmed). Algerian casualties outnumbered the French/European in the savage war of peace/independence (1954 –1962); to this day we only have a rough idea of the number of Muslims killed, but it is generally accepted to be over 1 million. For the Algerians, dedicated to Islam, their faith has remained the chief source of strength and hope, and a strong motive for resisting colonial rule.
However, despite its ‘liberation’, Algeria is not a ‘democracy’, and its electoral system reflects this. Despite the declining popularity of Algeria’s government in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the growing support for FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front) during the same period, and in 1990 FIS winning 55 percent of the votes cast in local elections, FIS was denied power. This was achieved by the government announcing plans to change the electoral system, effectively putting the FIS at a disadvantage. FIS reacted by calling a general strike, and the elections were postponed. FIS leaders Abassi Madani and Ali Belhadj were arrested and jailed, despite the fact that neither encouraged violence.
The attacks on civilians and security forces in 2000 (and since) show that political unrest is still part of Algeria’s scene; political violence is estimated to have cost more than 100,000 lives in Algeria since 1992; those who escape from the country do not necessarily escape the abuse. The tragedy of the Algerian flight to Britain continues. Britain was supposed to be a refuge for some Algerians (remember that not all Algerians are here as refugees), but this dream has turned sour. Algerians have become scapegoats; they are the new face of the devil.
Their acts of resistance against the oppressive regime went unnoticed until riots and violence broke out, which were then called terrorism rather than freedom-fighting. The verb "to terrorise", from Latin, means to inspire fear; arguably the strategy of inspiring fear has been used by everyone–nations and groups, whenever it has suited their purposes to legitimise violence. Almost all liberation movements have done so; for example Nelson Mandela, now a hero, was imprisoned because he refused to order his followers to refrain from violence. The African National Congress (ANC), of which Mandela was vice-president, was outlawed in 1960, so he went underground. He introduced "a campaign of sabotage against the country’s economy" to overthrow the government.
Nelson himself admitted in court: "I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love for violence. I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the Whites". Like the Algerians he also resorted to violence because "All lawful modes of expressing opposition ...had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had to either accept a permanent state of inferiority, or defy the Government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence."
The Algerians also elected a legal body, the FIS, but its voice was silenced, and it was only when they used the language of violence that the government took any notice. I am not proposing any violent action, only that we simply begin by protesting against Britain’s adopting the Algerian regime’s strategy of illegal searches, arbitrary arrests and inhumane brutalities. We call on Britain’s government, legislators and media, in the name of justice, to rage a war against discrimination, and set an example of reasonableness, beginning with the Algerians.
Uri Avnery’s ironic distinction between freedom-fighters and terrorists is: "...freedom-fighters are on my side and the terrorists are on the other side". This is the attitude of most politicians, and echoed in most journalism. Since this is the oldest trick in the dirty politics book, one must wonder why we are all still falling for it? Is it because we, the British public, are generally racist, and that this victimisation exploits this innate racism?
In a world lacking certainties, where truth is seemingly nonexistent, it has become fashionable to associate terrorism with Islam, and this goes unchallenged by both almost all non-Muslims and, surprisingly, many Muslims. Although we can see how such prejudice on the part of the non-Muslims often stems from Islamophobia, what drives Muslims to ‘self-hatred’? The easy, straightforward explanation is ignorance of facts and issues, and vulnerability to popularly-held conjectures that the media reiterate constantly. Readers and recipients of the media have become lazy, not reading the news actively, but instead accepting media distortions and misrepresentations, leading to unconscious self-contempt and resentment. Thus we need to realise that the enemies of Islam hide behind images and illusions, and it is these images and stereotypes that we Muslims need to challenge and demolish in order to beat this enemy.
Many buy into the hype, sometimes because of panic and sometimes because of racism. Those who still deny the reality of British racism, I would ask to pick up any newspaper with any reference to Algerians. Any observant reader will notice that the language of the press and media reflects government policy and informs the public mind. Mainstream news-reporting has adopted the value-system, and reinforced offensive stereotypes. One simplistic rationale that the BBCreport, for example, provided its readers with, was to explain the presence of most or all Algerians in Britain, as rooted in the French government’s crackdown on terrorism:
"The reason why a lot of Algerians are here in the first place... is that the French anti-terrorist people really cracked down, after a number of bombings in the metro that were carried out by Algerians." The article continues with: "Quite a few Algerian extremists sought refuge in the UK" (see IHRC briefing for more examples), again reinforcing the point and also equating "Algerian" with "extremist".
The result is to demonise an entire community. For example, "Algerians bombed the Paris Metro" is no more accurate than saying that the Irish, as opposed to the IRA, bombed the Docklands in 1996 or the Baltic Exchange in 1992. To date we do not have reliable evidence to prove who was responsible for the bombing, and in fact it is widely suspected of having been the work of the Algerian secret service. It is due to irresponsible and overtly racist articles like this that Algerians are perceived as a threat to Britain. Categorising Algerians as terrorists is so openly and widely practised that it is even beginning to seep into fiction-dramas such as the BBC’s Spooks, which blindly follow trends and fads, with little cultural sensitivity. The drama (or melodrama, perhaps one should say) showed a Muslim leader training a young suicide-bomber, chanting "Death to the west!" A few days later, the outside wall of the Birmingham Central Mosque, the mosque in Spooks, was smeared with the words "Suicide bombers inside - kill the bombers". Can anyone have been surprised?
Just as we blush at some of the clothes we let ‘fashion’ dictate to us a few years ago, so we will realise how unfair and inaccurate the Algerian stereotype is; unfortunately by then the damage will have been done. We especially must not fear the ‘fundamentalist’ label, particularly since this is now defined so loosely that it cannot be long before the West’s dictionaries define a fundamentalist as any Muslim, and vice versa.
The biggest irony is that those accused of terrorising the world, namely the Algerians, are themselves the victims of terror, living in fear of attack in Algeria, suffering from the deterioration of law-and-order and socio-economic conditions, and forced to accept the dictatorial and exploitative policies of the present regime. Amnesty International has recorded that more than "50,000 people have been killed in Algeria in the past five years"; "Some 4,000 people have "disappeared’’ after arrest since 1993 and to date they remain unaccounted for." Algerians, repressed and tortured in their own country, run for safely to Britain, only to find more discrimination. We all have a responsibility not to accept the stereotype created by the government and fuelled by the media. The public needs to recognise that these are the signs of a great upheaval that could be upon us in a few years’ time. It doesn’t take a prophet to predict that the demonisation of any community can only be followed by tragedy. This small step of refusing to be brainwashed by the media, but asking for facts and evidence, can help us to resist being passive recipients of media hypes. By not challenging the ‘information’ we receive, we not only stand idly by as injustice is perpetrated; we also become complicit in discrimination. Such venomous feeling against any community is dangerous to the Muslim community at large, and no one is safe from the sting.
[Sabbia Hanif is an intern at the Islamic Human Rights Commission (www.ihrc.org). She co-authored the briefing, ‘Language, media and the public mind – a case study of reporting of the ‘ricin’ incident’ with Romana Majid.]