Introduction: Where are the Muslims who speak out? That is the question always heard after any given jihadist atrocity. The reality is that on the frontlines, inside Muslim majority societies, many intellectuals and activists – if not yet enough - have been risking their lives to denounce fundamentalist violence. But their words are rarely heard in the West. This open letter written by Mahfoud Bennoune inside Algeria in 1995 during the height of the “dark decade” of jihadist violence, and after its author had already received repeated death threats, fearlessly took the terrorists and their apologists to task. Sadly, the text remains all too relevant in today’s world. 1995 Algeria speaks to 2016 Pakistan or Iraq or Nigeria. Karima Bennoune translated this piece to mark what would have been Dr. Bennoune’s 80th birthday on April 9, 2016, and as a reminder of all those who resist as he did. He survived the “dark decade,” but died from illness in 2004.
Lettre ouverte à M. Anouar Haddam (Porte-parole de l’ex-FIS et des groupes terroristes aux Etats Unis), El Watan (Algiers), Nos. 1483, 1484, September 16 and 17, 1995.
Open Letter to Mr. Anouar Haddam (spokesperson of the ex-FIS and of the terrorist groups, in the United States)
After a debate (*) organized by ARNA, an American radio station broadcasting in Arabic from Washington, DC, about the next Algerian presidential elections which are taking place in the context of the country’s current crisis, I address you again, Mr. Anouar Haddam,1 to inform both you and national and international public opinion of how your “djihad el-moussalah” [armed jihad] against Algerian society is being carried out on the ground by your fundamentalist armed bands.
From Chicago where you reside, you have declared in the name of the ex-FIS2 and its armed groups that your movement is not only against the holding of these presidential elections but that it opposes all the participants in this process: individuals, associations, political parties. Using a menacing tone, you have confirmed your hostility to the verdict of the ballot box. Without any embarrassment, you said to the entire world that your fundamentalist network would continue “armed jihad” to enforce the “choice of the people.”
In other words, you invoke the “people’s choice” to forbid this same people from freely choosing its future president. Yet, the leaders of the ex-FIS themselves organized an insurrectional strike in May 1991 to demand that the regime of that period hold a planned presidential election, in violation of the constitution. That strike revealed the determination of the partisans of the ex-FIS to violate the rules of democracy, if and when they came to power. Despite its laxity toward your movement, the regime was forced to call a halt, and to bring your leaders to justice.
By what authority do you today, three years after wreaking havoc on the country oppose the participation of other political formations in the presidential elections called for 16 November 1995? Who gives you the right to threaten them with “armed jihad” that you advocate and justify in the name of Islam?
Do you not think that savage crimes – the destruction of factories, of schools, of bridges, of means of transport, of the burning of forests in a country threatened with desertification…. all perpetrated by your “mujahideen” - strip you of the right to speak in the name of the Algerian people? This people upon whom your behavior has brought shame in the eyes of the world.
Furthermore, whatever the merit of your cause, it does not justify the putting to death of Algeria’s intelligentsia in the form of our educators, our journalists, our artists, writers and scholars, who have been assassinated in a cowardly and gratuitous manner.
During the debate, I recall that I counseled you to demand that the leaders of your fundamentalist organization end the macabre cycle of reprisals that they initiated by carrying out one of the most intense campaigns of terrorism in modern history. Indeed, the establishment of a so-called “Islamic State” by murder and collective assassinations, by decapitation and throat-slittings, the rape of women and girls, the mutilation of bodies, booby-trapped corpses, bombs in the street at rush hour, at airports, homes and public buildings… has put in motion an infernal process not only of devaluing the human person but also of de-Islamizing and dehumanizing your so-called “mujahideen” who have been transformed into death machines. They have become machines for spreading desolation and devastation.
Your answer reveals not only your blindness and stubbornness but also your taking of contradictory positions and your hypocrisy, “nifaq.” This may indicate that though you are not directly taking part in killing, you have been profoundly affected yourself by the process of de-Islamization and dehumanization. You have said on many occasions that you “denounce all terrorism” that has caused the “death of innocents.” You have said that all of the signatories of the national contract of Rome3 have demanded the creation of national commissions of inquiry authorized to determine who is responsible for the vicious crimes which I have attributed to your “fundamentalist network.” You have tried to insinuate that your organization is not responsible for these savage crimes, and this after you have taken responsibility for innumerable odious and cowardly terrorist acts, such as the assassination of Dr. Boucebci,4 a professor of psychiatry, and the Amirouche boulevard5 bombing on the eve of Ramadan which killed more than 40 and wounded more than 250 innocent citizens. All the while, you have been contradicting yourself as you affirmed that your “mujahideen” will continue “armed jihad” until the military dictatorship respects the choice of the people.
My conscience as an outraged citizen and my responsibility as an educator and researcher who will continue to try to educate himself until the end of his days, attempting to devote himself body and soul to the search for the truth…, compels me to write to inform you, if you are not already aware, of the tragedies caused by your “armed jihad.”
Tuesday August 29, 1995, at about 8 PM, I received a call from the region north of Constantine where I was a guerrilla fighter [in the anti-colonial struggle] between 1955 and 1962 and therefore knew most of the rural villages and their inhabitants, especially those of my generation. My interlocutor briefed me, with a grief-stricken voice which barely covered his disgust and indignation in the following terms: Despair led the members of the fundamentalist groups to commit crimes that surpass all understanding after their rejection by the people and their defeat by the security forces which have transformed them into mutants that are even more brutal and more savage than injured and hunted animals.
On Thursday August 17 terrorist armed groups burst into Berraq, a village in the district of El Grarem about 30 kilometres northwest of Constantine where they cut the throats of 14 mothers in front of their families.
Among them, three were pregnant and one was the mother of a three-day old baby. Filled with horror, a young girl begged the members of this armed group to spare her mother so that she could continue to take care of her brothers and sisters, and to cut her throat in her mother’s place. The Emir or leader of the group kicked her to move her out of the way and cut the throat of her mother himself.
I hereby remind you and your self-proclaimed charlatan “chouyoukhs” [religious scholars] that even during an officially declared war between the first Muslims and their enemies of the day, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) ordered Abderrahman Ibn Awf, his military commander, to “never commit breach of trust nor treachery nor mutilate anybody nor kill any minor or woman. This is the pact of God and the conduct of His Messenger for your guidance.”
Moreover, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon him) would specify to the troops sent to stop the advance of the Byzantine Army: “In avenging the injuries inflicted upon us, molest not the harmless inmates of domestic seclusion; spare the weakness of the female sex; injure not the infants at the breast or those who are ill in bed. Refrain from demolishing the houses of the unresisting inhabitants; destroy not the means of their subsistence, nor their fruit-trues and touch not the palm… and do not mutilate bodies and do not kill children.”
Another version further explains: If Allah gives you victory, do not abuse your advantages and beware not to stain your sword with the blood of one who yields. You shall not touch the children, nor the women nor the infirm men you find among the enemy. Do not destroy agricultural products nor burn houses. No unnecessary destruction should be carried out. Do not disturb the peace of monks or hermits and do not destroy their dwellings.
(*) This tripartite debate took place on August 20th by telephone with the participation of Mr. Mahfoud Nahnah from Algiers, that of Mr. Haddam from Chicago, and that of Mr. Bennoune from Detroit.
The second Caliph, Omar Ibn El-Khattab, extended the scope of protections accorded to non-combatants and warned against the abuse of military power in the following terms: “Do not mutilate when you have the power to do so. Do not commit excesses when you triumph. Do not kill old men, women or minors, but try to avoid them when the two armies encounter each other.”*
Your social, political and military practices and your erroneous concepts and interpretations of Islam have led the partisans of your movement to violate not only the letter but also the spirit of the very Sharia you wish to impose by force on Algerians. The result is that the bands of your fundamentalist network have transformed themselves into heretical sects. In using the Muslim religion to take power by any means and no matter the cost to the people and the country, you have deviated from Islam.
You know very well that no Muslim can claim the right to label another Muslim an apostate and declare an armed jihad to “re-Islamize” him or execute him so as to save his soul. No Muslim has the right to condemn the nation state of a Muslim country whose constitution stipulates that Islam is the religion of state. Such condemnation constitutes the principal cause of the “fitna,” or civil war which has ravaged the country since the massacre of young recruits carrying out their national military service in Guemmar on 25 November 19916, one month before the legislative Elections of 26 December of the same year.
Reasonable people would certainly agree that your fundamentalist network, and its allies in the national contract, have a strange way of “making the people’s choice respected,” by exterminating and mutilating the children, women and men, old and young, who make up this very people.
Why are the targets of your assassinations never those who are actually responsible for the failure of the national economy and for the current crisis, which has become a tragedy and from which the people suffer physically and mentally every single day? This is simply a question and one which in no way condones your rough and summary “justice”.
Alas! Mr. Haddam, you are not the only one implicated in the crimes and violations from which this people is suffering. The other participants in your Roman conclave7, such as Mr. Aït Ahmed, whom I had the honor to meet for the first and last time at the moment of the return of the GPRA8 in 1962, and Ben Bella, the SG of the FLN9 who has dishonored and profaned this historic name, and who, instead of growing wiser with age, continues to play a negative role in the tragic history of this battered country, are no less implicated or complicit.
I remind them that the enemies of their enemies – or of their political adversaries – are not their friends or their natural allies. In fact, the behavior of the forces they seek to ally with has not only de-Islamized and dehumanized them, but has also made them the mortal enemies of the Algerian people, who were victims first of the corruption and poor management of President Bendjedid10 and his collaborators, and then for the last three years of fundamentalist terrorism.
One of the monumental political errors committed by your movement was to have recourse to terrorism. Instead of working so as to reassure and protect the population, by sparing its factories, schools, businesses, and means of communication, so as to win its moral and political support in your so-called struggle against the corrupt and corrupting system and its men - you have alienated the population.
Speaking of the “mafia”11 and of your terrorist hordes, an ordinary woman made the following declaration, with wisdom and bitterness at the same time, and revealing the adaptability of the popular classes. “Between the thieves and the killers, there is only one choice I can make to save my own life. I prefer to live under the rule of the thieves.” This is a painful choice and one that I understand only too well!
At the time of the December 1991 legislative elections, the ex-Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) convinced the electorate that only “the Islamic solution” could rescue the country from the crisis and restore justice.
In wanting to, as you claim, uphold the “choice of the Islamic solution,” in unleashing your fundamentalist bands, you have plunged the people into a descent to hell instead of taking them to the earthly paradise that you unceasingly promised them.
I conclude this letter by citing a passage published in the UNESCO journal, dedicated to the topic of violence and addressed to all, without exception, who commit assassinations or call for murder, whoever they may be. I am in complete agreement with this text. “There are no justifications for violence which wounds and kills, whatever the causes and whatever the reasons invoked.”
Whether it is poverty – the unacceptable inequality in the distribution of the resources and riches between and within countries – or exclusion in all its forms, whether geographical, political, economic, social, religious, cultural, racial, ethnic, or based on sex or education – we must break the vicious circle of frustration, radicalization – intolerance-violence.
It is unacceptable that through the extremist application of an ideology, through the perverted interpretation of a religion – that is still based on love – and through the obscurantist influence of a sect, human beings are being convinced that their cause demands the sacrifice of other human beings.
It is erroneous to believe that one can find a remedy for social exclusion and despair by attacking innocents without mercy. It is an illusion to believe that any given order can be maintained by force, by the violation of laws, and without a spirit of dialogue.
All sides must know that there is only one solution: silencing weapons (and bombs) and letting women and men speak….
No to violence, terror and terrorism.
Your movement, which has mistaken the era, the people and the target, is the negation of reason and democracy, of common sense and of Islamic, humanist and universal values. This is the reason why it can never be the bearer of peace, progress, prosperity, culture, civilization or of understanding and cooperation between peoples. Your movement is doomed to failure. It is already condemned by history!
Translated by Karima Bennoune
*Cited in Karima Bennoune, Humanitarian Law in Islamic Jurisprudence, Michigan Journal of International Law, Vol. 15, Winter 1994.
1 Translator’s Note: Anouar Haddam was the spokesman of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) with reported connections to the fundamentalist armed groups, who spent much of the 1990s living in the United States where he still resides. For more information, see Karima Bennoune, The Paradoxical Feminist Quest for Remedy: A Case Study of Jane Doe v. Islamic Salvation Front and Anwar Haddam, 11 Int’l Crim. L. Rev. 579-587 (2011).
2 Translator’s Note: The Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist political party created in violation of the Algerian constitutional rule prohibiting parties on the basis of religion, and banned in 1992.
3 Translator’s Note: A controversial agreement negotiated in Rome under the auspices of the Catholic group known as Sant’ Egidio and signed by 8 Algerian opposition figures representing prominent parties, including the former Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Front of Socialist Forces, and even the National Liberation Front itself. It set up a framework for dialogue with the government, a framework which called for recognition of the FIS but did not require the FIS to commit to democracy. Of the agreement, the FIS said it would be carried out subject to “the framework provided by our religion.” This document was rejected by both the Algerian government and the fundamentalist armed groups, and widely criticized by civil society and feminist opponents as capitulating to extremism and terror.
4 For more information, see https://ajouadmemoire.wordpress.com/biographies/mahfoud-boucebci/.
6 Translator’s Note: This killing of ten young recruits was reportedly carried out by the Army of Islamic Salvation, a militia close to the Islamic Salvation Front.
7 Translator’s Note: another reference to the Sant’Egidio agreement. See footnote 3 above.
8 Translator’s Note: the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic, in which both Aït Ahmed and Ben Bella served, was the National Liberation Front’s government-in-exile during Algeria’s war of independence.
9 Translator’s Note: His former post which he held from 1963-1965.
10 Translator’s Note: Chadli Bendjedid served as President of Algeria from 1979-11 January 1992 and was associated with the rise of the comprador class and the dismantling of the socialist economy.
11 Translator’s Note: in the Algerian context this term refers to networks of corruption that are alleged to include actors in and out of the state.