Algeria: When the Rivers Turned Black

Fundamentalist mass murder of Algerian people of letters in the 1990s was an intellectocide, in the tradition of totalitarian culture wars. Today, official limits on expression benefit fundamentalist ideas. This is the second death of Algerian intellectuals, says Mustapha Benfodil

Mustapha Benfodil
24 June 2013

Read this article in French

Benfodil's living memorial constructed from the words of thoseAlgerian cultural figures killed by fundamentalists in the 90s

The massive numbers of assassinations of Algerian intellectuals in the 1990s, to which we can add the killing of leading lights of the theatre - Abdelkader Alloula, Azzeddine Medjoubi… and singers Cheb Hasni, Cheb Aziz, Rachid Baba-Ahmed, and also Matoub Lounès, were, to my mind, part of a systematic plan to destroy modernist thought. History shows that in all great wars, imperial and imperialist conquests, and major military campaigns, libraries have often been targeted and autos-da-fé have been widespread. All this was done with the goal of eradicating the targeted civilization. One can think of the destruction of the Library of Alexandria during an attack by the Roman legions in 47 B.C., and again after the city’s conquest by the troops of ‘Amr Ibn El-As in 645 AD. We may also recall the destruction of the Great Library of Baghdad in the year 1258 after the invasion of the Abbasid capital by the Army of the Mongol chieftain Houlaku, grandson of Genghis Khan. During the sacking of the old city, the library was burned and thousands of texts were thrown in the Tigris River to the point where, according to legend, the river’s water turned black – the color of ink.

It is equally important to consider the “Bonfire of the Vanities” during the Middle Ages, under the orders of Savonarola and the autos-da-fé organized in Florence to burn both books and paintings judged immoral. I should also recall the book burnings of the Nazis, the fascists, the supporters of General Franco, and other campaigns of inquisition under totalitarian regimes. Along the same lines, it is useful to cite the innumerable attacks by the OAS [Organisation de l’Armée Secrète – an extremist group of French settlers] in 1962 that targeted the University of Algiers and its library. We may likewise recall the destruction of the Sarajevo Library in 1992, or the pillaging of the National Library and Museum during the 2003 American campaign against Iraq. This history reminds us that cultural issues have always been central to totalitarian projects. They have always been deemed political by those who wish to propose new moral, aesthetic or political orders.

This our radical Islamists understood exactly, and this motivated their determined struggle against intellectuals, artists and writers which commenced at the very beginning of their insurrection. They could not be satisfied with simply making war on the government. For them, that would have been only an incomplete battle, but one part of a broader war – their fight against the regime of modernist thought. But they distinguished themselves in their destructive folly because they deemed it insufficient to organize autos-da-fé, such as that which greeted Salman Rushdie’s “Satanic Verses.”  Instead, they pushed their liberticidal logic to the extreme end of destroying those in society who produced books and ideas. In light of the staggering number of writers, of journalists, of academics and artists “executed” by the fundamentalists in cold blood in so little time, we can say that what happened in Algeria during the 1990s was a real INTELLECTOCIDE. This remains one of the biggest intellectual genocides of the twentieth century, perhaps even of human history itself.

The consequence of this terrible tragedy is that Algerians found themselves brutally buffeted between an authoritarian regime on the one hand and an exterminating sect on the other. Even if I do not question for a single second the criminal, moral and political responsibility of the most radical wing of religious fundamentalism for these killings, I am inclined to think that this massive liquidation of intellectuals in Algeria also to some degree suited the ruling class. Given the relevance of their works and the critical nature of their projects, these intellectuals always challenged the stupidity of our rulers, their misdeeds, their mediocrity, their underhanded tricks and the carelessness of their management. To be convinced of this one only has to think of the acerbic chronicles of Saïd Mekbel, the vitriolic songs of Matoub Lounès, the socially relevant theater of Abdelkader Alloula, or the blazing novels of Tahar Djaout, the backdrop of which was always criticism of the political and religious order. 

Headless, Benfodil's performance-installation, representing Algeria's lackof leadership after the slaughter of intellectuals

If the assassinations of intellectuals constituted the most violent and the most despicable form of censorship, other forms of censorship continue to be at work in the society. In Algeria, the process of production and diffusion of culture suffers greatly from the control of the authorities over all cultural conduits. It is the surest way for our rulers to filter cultural products and dictate to Algerians what they should read, see, listen to.  

With its Jacobin vision of culture, le pouvoir (the authorities) did not understand that blocking the free circulation of works and ideas would result in Algerian society becoming dried up, deprived of perspective and imagination, and without what Bourdieu called “symbolic capital.”  Alas, in Algeria like in other Maghrebin and Arab countries, we do not seem to have comprehended that in depriving ourselves of the precious provision that is culture, our societies are digging their own graves.  We are thus delivered to barbarism with our hands and feet bound. Thus, we leave the field open for the most retrograde and obscurantist ideas to take hold, without challenge or alternative. 

This is the second death of the Algerian intellectuals.

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