Unbowed: An Algerian Woman Confronts Islamic Fundamentalism
by Khalida Messaoudi
Interviewed by Elisabeth Schemla. Trans. by Anne C. Vila. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. 166 pp. $35 ($14.95 paper).
Reviewed by Daniel Pipes
Middle East Quarterly
Born in 1958, a red-headed, highly-educated and fiercely secular Berber, Messaoudi has established herself as one of Algeria's bravest and most articulate speakers of truth. In a series of interviewers with a French journalist, capably translated into English, she presents a pungent, invaluable first-hand exposé of the Islamist challenge in her country. Its everyday texture imbues her account with a feel for living in an Islamist tyranny—such as the incident of a primary school teacher who requests students to bring in corks for a practical experiment. When the children oblige, it turns out there is no experiment—only a trap; the teacher asked for the corks to find out whose families drink wine, then he launched into a violent diatribe against their miscreant parents for not living by Islamic law.
A freethinker from an early age (as a teenager, she decided against prostrating herself during prayers, instead adopting a yoga-style position), Messaoudi does not mince words. She despairs about the descent of Algeria into what she calls "fundamentalist barbarism" and argues that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Algeria's main Islamist organization, has "absolutely all the classic ingredients of totalitarian populist movements." Contrary to most Western analysts of Islam, she discerns an "Islamist International" along the lines of the Communist International. In a particularly powerful analogy, she states "The veil is our yellow star." (Though she does stretch the analogy too far in arguing that the FIS obsession with women is "exactly like" Hitler's obsession with Jews.) Were the Islamists to take power, she fears they would "clear the country of all the people who really bother them," which she assumes will be a very large group indeed.
Like many Algerians, Messaoudi blames the Islamist rise in large part on the purposeful scheming of the dictatorship that ruled the country from independence in 1962 until the crisis in 1992. She argues that many of its steps, from introducing the Arabic language in schools to not cracking down on FIS, eased the Islamists' path.
Messaoudi has her foibles, to be sure, sympathizing with Saddam Husayn and asserting that Washington was "completely responsible" for Scuds falling on Tel Aviv. But she emerges from these pages as a highly attractive intellectual, a heroine made necessary by the horrors of her country's recent history.
Related Topics: North Africa, Radical Islam | Daniel Pipes | June 1999 MEQ
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