The lesser evil

At a gathering in Paris, French intellectuals conclude that they must support the Algerian government's "armed solution." Michael Ignatieff considers what, if anything, Europe can do
March 20, 1998

Yasmina walks shyly on to the stage at the Mutualit? auditorium in Paris in her headscarf and traditional red robes. She is so tightly veiled that only her eyes-dark and timid-are visible. She is a shepherdess and she has been flown all the way to Paris to tell her story to the 1,000-strong crowd.

The meeting has been called by French intellectuals-Andr? Glucksman, Bernard-Henri L?vy-and political figures-Brice Lalonde, Robert Badinter and Jacques Lang. They want Europe to do something to stop the killing in Algeria. The speeches are eloquent: crimes against humanity are being committed on the borders of Europe; Europe must stop saying the Algerian government is as bad as the terrorists. It is the armed Islamic groups, not the government, who are responsible for the massacres. They are all eloquent, but the one whose words carry most conviction is Yasmina.

The men, she said, swooped down on her one afternoon when she was alone in the fields with her sheep. They ripped her hejab off her head and tied her up with it. She asked, "Have you no fear of God?" and they dragged her away into the mountains. When they brought her to their emir, he said: "Why did you bring this one to me? She has grey hair." In the three following days, every single man in the camp-50 in all-raped her. The emir did too.

After three weeks, she slipped away in the darkness when her captors were asleep. "I ran for eight hours. My feet were bloody. Only God was with me." When she reached the nearest police station, the police took her for a madwoman because her head was uncovered and her garments were in filthy tatters.

The men who did this to her, she insists, were not the government but the armed Islamic group, the GIA. They claim to speak for Islam, but Yasmina says: "This is not our Islam." Her faith cannot be responsible for this abomination-it is not bearable to think so. When she finishes, she leaves the stage under armed escort. She is being protected against reprisals. The GIA have cells in Paris, Berlin and London.

The Algerian government admits that 26,000 people have been murdered in the past six years; human rights groups in Algeria fear that the number may be as high as 80,000. No one knows the exact total because the government will not allow the UN or anyone else to investigate. The massacres began after the government annulled elections in 1992 which the Islamic FIS was almost certain to win. The killings have continued despite attempts to incorporate moderate Islamic groups into the Algiers regime; despite savage repression by military and police, including extrajudicial execution and torture; despite fitful denunciation by human right groups. Villages are attacked at night from the mountains; men, children and old people are slaughtered; women are carried off to work as slaves and then killed.

The slaughter is primitive: axes, hatchets and knives are the weapons of choice. It is also thorough. Few witnesses survive. The army never seems to arrive in time; the police stay in their barracks. The people plead with the army to give them weapons to defend themselves. The weapons come too late. When the television cameras arrive -if they ever do-the survivors, if there are any, are so frightened that they will not say who the attackers were. Only if they have lost their children, if they have lost all hope and therefore all fear of harm, do they speak up. Then they say that the government has abandoned them. They confess that they know the men who killed their families. Often the murderers are from close by: this is slaughter among neighbours, village against village, clan against clan, family against family. At the Mutualit?, another survivor tells a typical story. A boy from a village joins a militia-because there is no other employment and because he is promised salvation-and soon he is asked to kill young women he went to school with. When he refuses, he is killed; and his sister is raped. The killing is close, personal; and the logic of vengeance, retribution and terror reproduces itself like a virus.

If you look closely, under the microscope, village by village, you see a patternless epidemic of violence. But if you look at the whole country, a pattern emerges: a rag-bag of competing Islamic militias, held together by doctrine rather than by a chain of command, are bent on the overthrow of the government in Algiers and its replacement by a fundamentalist Islamic state.

An Islamic state on the other side of the Mediterranean scares the French. Algeria is a vital part of Europe. Much of the natural gas used in Europe is piped from Algeria. The cheap labour which made the French economic miracle possible came from Algeria: most of the audience at the Mutualit? are Algerian citizens of France. For more than five years, the French elite has been divided between hoping the Algerian government will survive and calculating what it will do if it falls. If it does fall, there might be boat people in the Mediterranean heading for Marseille.

So what to do? Europeans always preach dialogue; but do you have a dialogue with men who rape shepherd women like Yasmina? Even if you do talk, is it likely to lead anywhere? Does anyone suppose that the GIA will stop massacring people if the government decides to talk to them? At first French intellectuals believed the Islamists were in the right because the government had disallowed elections. Now most of those who have been to Algeria are coming to a disobliging conclusion: victory by the Islamic factions would destroy Algeria altogether. Europe must support an "armed solution" to the conflict, which means supporting the Algerian government's counter-insurgency campaign against the terrorists.

To be sure, Europe will plead that the campaign should respect certain decencies: but how likely is Europe to have the slightest leverage on what goes on in the prison cells of Algiers or the free-fire zones of the high mountains? More than any other people in Africa, Algerians have experience of the gap between what Europeans say and what they do, between the European language of human rights and the practice of French imperial counter-insurgency in the dying years of its rule in Algeria. Guilt about the French imperial past should not make any European keep silent. But are the Algerians going to listen to us? Not likely.

Algeria will not be the first time that European powers have had to prefer a corrupt dictatorship to no authority at all. But it is uncomfortable to support a government so alienated from its people's interests that it palpably protects its oil fields more efficiently than their villages. A government which has annulled elections, hammered the free press, abused the small but courageous Algerian human rights and feminist movements, is not easy to support-especially when it refuses even the UN access to the massacre sites.

But there is no credible strategy for direct intervention. Europe's record is unenviable. Twice in the recent past, people in disintegrating states asked Europe for help. In 1993 intervention in Rwanda was-or ought to have been-easy: the Hutu government was genocidal and the Tutsi bush army was on the march. In Bosnia, the embattled Muslim government begged for our help. In both cases, Europe did next to nothing. How likely then is Europe to do anything when the disintegrating state in question is refusing the assistance which might save it from destruction? It is a state, moreover, with sufficient oil revenues to survive. Do not imagine that the Americans will help us out if things get bad. This time-unlike in Bosnia-they will not budge.

So Europe will have to go it alone, and because France is too tied up in its imperial guilt, what will happen depends on Germany and Britain. We were outraged about war crimes in Bosnia: women like Yasmina were being raped there and villages were being destroyed. The situation in Algeria is different, but the outrage ought to be the same. And the political context is the same: European leaders do nothing unless their own citizens make a noise and raise the political price for doing nothing.

So what is possible? Consistent with respecting the right of asylum, we should be expelling anyone among us who buys arms or incites others to commit atrocities in Algeria. That's the easy part. The harder part is to put sustained pressure on the Algerian government: to stop harassing the small but courageous secular democrats in Algiers; to protect the villages; to observe human rights standards in the repression of terrorists; above all, to allow outsiders to travel freely and inspect. Ultimately, we may have to turn off the gas tap-that is, if we can persuade southern Europe to do without Algerian natural gas-and if we can calibrate the boycott so as to make the government act responsibly, without causing it to fall.

There are practical reasons why it is difficult to intervene in Algeria. But there are cultural obstacles in our minds as well. First in Bosnia, now in Algeria, Europeans are being asked to rescue peoples whose religion arouses deep disquiet. At the Mutualit?, the Grand Mufti of Marseille pleaded with the crowd that it is not Islam which is to blame. The Koran cannot be responsible for rape and slaughter any more than the Christian gospels were responsible for the St Bartholomew's Day massacre or the Spanish Inquisition. But it is true that bastardised versions of the Koran preach holy war against secular regimes; they also justify the degradation of women as captives of war. Without Islam, there would be no ideology to sustain the terror.

So we are being asked, in Europe, to save Muslims from Islam. Deep in our cultural memories there is an instinct which would visit a plague upon the house of Islam. But Islam is no longer an ancient enemy far away. It is within our house. Twenty million citizens of Europe profess this creed and live in peace among us. They cannot be expected to believe in our values-tolerance, keeping religion out of politics-if we are willing to do nothing to protect them against attack from their enemies within and without. Yasmina asked for nothing more and nothing less: that she be protected from a nightmarish perversion of her faith. We should respect her faith enough-and our own-to help her if we can.n