Friday, 30 September 2011

The Algerian writer Boualem Sansal - who is to be awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade this year - recently gave an interview to a Swiss newspaper in which he had a few interesting things to say about Islam. I've translated a few extracts below.

In your novels you criticise Islamism and in "The Village of the German" [translated into English and published in the UK as An Unfinished Business/in the US as The German Mujahid] have even drawn parallels between Islamism and fascism in Europe. Can literature really change anything in matters such as these?

For me, Islamism is the ultimate evil. The Islamists claims to speak for God but, really, it's Satan they're hearing. But many people believe they can liberate themselves through Islam. When these people read books, and experience what another life could look like, perhaps it helps them to find a true liberation. A Muslim woman in a Muslim land, where she has no rights, cannot free herself. Because she's afraid and she believes these things herself. But when she reads about free women, she may find that wonderful, and it may inspire her. It's not just writers, though. All people can help by giving an example to others.

At the moment it looks as though there are huge changes in the Arab world; but you have already expressed yourself sceptically about this several times. Is the so-called Arab Spring really a first step to liberation?

The Arab Spring hasn't even begun yet. The true prison is not the dictatorship. The dictatorship is only the first wall, but behind that is the true prison, the high-security wing so to speak. That is the culture and the question of Islam. This problem hasn't been tackled yet and for that reason I say that the Arab Spring hasn't really begun yet. In Tunisia perhaps there is a small beginning, but no more. In Egypt there is no movement at all. The question of Islamism is unresolved, also the question of the Copts. There are 15 million Christians in the country, but according to the constitution Islam is the state religion there. So what about these 15 million? Are they not citizens? It will be interesting when there are elections in Libya or Tunisia or Egypt. If the Islamists win they will set up a dictatorship again, either a soft dictatorship like in Turkey or a dictatorship like in Iran. In the democrats win, there are several possibilities. In Egypt they might win thanks to the army. But that's not a real democracy. You'll see democrats going to the barracks to get their instructions. Perhaps it would be an intelligent military dictatorship. In Libya there's a threat of civil war and the division of the country. The regions in the south and east are not ripe for democracy culturally. Maybe the urban regions around Tripoli are. In Algeria, similarly, some regions are ripe for democracy, others not.

He expanded on the parallels between "Islamism" and Nazism in another interview.

Sansal: Young people in the Arab world know almost nothing about National Socialism and the Holocaust. In Algeria, the Second World War is on the curriculum, but the historical uniqueness of German fascism is not discussed. And the murder of millions of Jews and other people is not talked about at all.

Nevertheless, it's important to address this, along with prejudices about Jews in Arab countries. When I was young, many people in Algeria didn't say simply "ihudi", they added "hachek", which means something like, "excuse me for uttering the word 'Jew'". A similar custom was followed when mentioning the wife of the man you were talking to. This habit has now largely died out, but it is still part of our history.

"In Algeria, the historical uniqueness of German fascism is not discussed. And the murder of millions of Jews and other people is not talked about at all," says Sansal
Your novel contains powerful descriptions of the sites where the horror unfolded, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Did you visit them specially for the book?

Sansal: No, I had already been to Auschwitz before. My first wife was Czech; we visited Prague often and at some point I suggested we visited Poland for the weekend. My experiences there left a deep impression on me. Visiting Auschwitz is a huge personal test and I would not recommend anyone to delve too deep. It can really throw you into confusion, because all the convictions and values you have as a human being are shaken: belief in God, in humanity, everything. Nothing remains as it is.

In Algeria it's not yet possible to buy the book. Many Algerians who have managed to read it, as well as the Algerian population in France, have criticised it because it draws parallels between National Socialism and Islamism. Are you not exaggerating here? Islamism does not aim per se to eradicate or subjugate another race of people. And not all Islamists want to introduce Sharia law or hide women under veils.

Sansal: On the contrary! I have followed the development of Islamism from its beginnings to the present day and analysed its discourses. In my opinion there are enormous similarities, in every sense. There is the concept of conquering – the conquering of souls, but also of territories. And there is the idea of extermination, the extermination of all those who do not submit to the ideology of Islamism. To this extent I certainly do see parallels, and I believe we have to analyse National Socialism if we are to keep Islamism in check.


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