Despite history’s repeated evidence to the contrary, it is never easy to believe the potential that human beings have to commit atrocities. When it is people you’ve known your whole life, families that have shared villages for generations, belief is even slower to flower. Let it be anybody else, you whisper, as if that would lessen the horror of finding a mutilated body in the morning. Let it be a stranger.
It’s not until your childhood friend turns up at your door carrying the rifle he plans on using to kill you that you truly believe that anybody can be capable of anything. Ask the Bosnian Muslim, Serb, or Croatian what they thought of their chances for survival? Or how about the Rwandan when their neighbours picked up machetes and old tires?
Algeria, like other Muslim countries, in the late 1980s saw an upsurge in activity by fundamentalist Islamic groups. Primarily they were preparing themselves as a political force for the next round of elections so they could set about establishing an Islamic state like that in Iran. In 1988 “spontaneous” demonstrations across the country on their behalf turned into rioting and violence. When it looked like the fundamentalists were about to win the general election, the army annulled the election, outlawed the fundamentalists and arrested all of their leaders.
All of this did was turn them into terrorist groups who began a campaign of wanton destruction. In the cities this took the form of car bombs and random murders and kidnappings. Usually the targets of the attacks were those considered enemies of the movement – intellectuals, police officers, and artists. In the countryside it was a similar story, except the extremists would target towns.
For those trying just to live out their lives it was a horrible period of trying to retain vestiges of normalcy amid a period of unremitting terror. You didn’t know who to trust; whom you could confide in, as it seemed that anybody who spoke out against the terrorists, no matter how privately would, end up dead.
The terrorists acted with the abandon of those who know that they can’t be touched. In the small towns, people often knew who the members of the groups were; they were the same people who had been members of the groups when they were legal. But it was easier to find reasons to excuse the killings and violence than stand up to it. After all, they said, hadn’t they, the fundamentalist been treated badly, and weren’t they doing the work of God anyway?
This is the atmosphere that we are thrust into in Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s novel In The Name Of God The small rural town of Ghachimat has existed without too many changes since the end of the colonial rule, and probably hadn’t been changed much by the appearance of the French as their lords and masters.
The only people who have felt any differences in their lifestyles were those who had done work for the French during colonial times and the large landowners who had had their land “redistributed” through agrarian reforms. The former are now spat upon and reviled, even though it’s been decades since the French left (it’s become a habit – a way of feeling superior) and the latter have seen their once luxurious existences reduced to being the same as their neighbours.
The children of these people are a cauldron of resentments and anger from slights both real and imagined. It’s in them that the seeds of the fundamentalists take root. They are promised the power of the righteous and the weapons of God in the exercising of their vengeance against all who are seen to have slighted them.
Of course there are also those who find a way to profit from all of the activity. Working both sides against each other to whip up ferment against either their personal enemies or to steer events in such a way for them to have personal gain. They prey on the corpses and the misery of the village. It doesn’t matter to them who “wins” in the end because no matter who is left standing, it’s the vultures who are always the best fed after a battle.
The village of Ghachimat is Khadra’s microcosm of all of Algeria to exemplify how little any of this movement has to do with religion. He shows how the leaders cynically exploit the feelings of alienation and resentment felt by those who feel they should have everything handed to them on a platter. Jealousy and personal glory have more to do with motivations than establishing a society based on the laws of God.
Speeches in the mosque take on all the subtlety of the Nuremberg rallies staged by Hitler, as they are designed to whip up hatred rather then belief in anything sacred. Society will be remade in an image that best suits those holding the reigns of power tightly in their hands, not necessarily one that the writers of the Koran would recognise.
Khadra does a brilliant job of not overstating anything. None of his characters foam at the mouth or are rabid, but it is that very calmness that makes this so horrifying to read. The physical violence is not the true horror of this book, although it is present and somewhat graphic. But it pales beside the depiction of how casually and easily people are able to become those who can mutilate women and children with no qualms or twinges of conscience.
Imagine waking up in the morning not knowing whether something you have said has marked you to be killed during the day. Imagine walking down the street of your hometown and wondering behind which smiling face lurks an informant ready to point the finger at anyone who displeases them. You are afraid of saying anything or getting angry with anyone because it could mean yours is the next head found in a burlap bag.
You wonder who among your friends might be the one to show up at your door to kill you because you have not become one of them or because you have been fingered as saying the wrong thing or holding the wrong belief. You worry about it every day as you make the walk to work.
Maybe it would be safer to be one of them, just for now. You wouldn’t kill anyone of course, unless there was no way of avoiding it – a matter of them or me for instance, of having to prove my sincerity and commitment to the cause. Yes that would really be the safest thing to do – who could blame you?
You see it’s not that hard to become a terrorist; it might just be harder not to.