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Jihadist "crimes that surpass all understanding": a letter from 1995 Algeria

In this letter written during Algeria’s “dark decade” of fundamentalist violence - sadly relevant today - Mahfoud Bennoune argued that movements purveying “Islamic states” through terror are ultimately “doomed to failure.”

Mahfoud Bennoune. Photo: family album

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 Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune inside Algeria in 1995 during the height of the “dark decade” of jihadist violence 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.  openDemocracy republishes this piece today to mark what would have been Dr. Bennoune’s 80th birthday and as a reminder of all those who resist.

 Mahfoud Bennoune. Photo: family album.

To those purveying “Islamic States” through terror: your movements are doomed to fail

Originally published as 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 (Islamic Salvation Front banned 1992) and of the terrorist groups, in the United States).

After a debate organized by an American radio station broadcasting in Arabic 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, to inform both you and national and international public opinion of the nature of the practical application of your “djihad el-moussalah” [armed jihad] as carried out by your fundamentalist armed bands against Algerian society…

During the debate, I recall that I counseled you to demand that the leaders of your fundamentalist organization end the macabre cycle of reprisals 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…

Your answer reveals not only your blindness and stubbornness but also your taking of contradictory positions and your hypocrisy, “nifaq.” … 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, a professor of psychiatry, and the Amirouche boulevard 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 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, I received a call from the region north of Constantine [in Eastern Algeria] 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:  …The fundamentalist groups’… rejection by the people and defeat by the security forces have transformed them into mutants that are even more brutal… than injured and hunted animals and led them to commit crimes that surpass all understanding.

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 “chouyouks” [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 abuse confidence or treason, to never mutilate anyone and to never kill minors or women.  This is the pact of God and the conduct of his Prophet for your guidance.”

Moreover, the Prophet (Peace Be Upon him) would specify to the troops sent to stop the advance of the Byzantine Army: “ When avenging the injuries that were inflicted upon us, do not molest the inoffensive inhabitants in their domestic retreats, spare the weakness of women, do not wound nursing babies or those who are sick in their beds.  Do not destroy the homes of those who offer no resistance and do not destroy their means of subsistence or their fruit trees. Do not touch their palms and do not mutilate bodies. Do not kill children.” 

…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… 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 drifted away 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 “reIslamize” 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 1991, (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) one month before the legislative Elections of 26 December of the same year.

Reasonable people would certainly agree that your fundamentalist network… has 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.

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, 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”,(Translator’s Note: in the Algerian context this term refers to networks of corruption that are alleged to include actors within the state) and of your terrorist hordes, an ordinary woman made the following declaration, with… wisdom and bitterness. “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!

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.

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.

Mahfoud Bennoune

Karima Bennoune authored the introduction, and translated and edited from her father's original letter.

The full text in French is in two parts. Part one: Part two:  The full text in English can be found on the memorial website.

Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50's platform Frontline Voices Against Muslim Fundamentalism



About the author

Mahfoud Bennoune (1936-2004) was born in a peasant family in northeastern Algerian, served in the National Liberation Front during the country's war of independence and was imprisoned by the French military for four years.  A professor of sociology at the University of Algiers, he was a prolific author in Arabic, French and English, publishing The Making of Contemporary Algeria, 1830-1987, with Cambridge University Press.




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