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Algeria: We were abandonned by those who should have been our natural allies - and survived

Monday 11 December 2017, by Marieme Helie Lucas

Source:, 10.12.17

We were abandonned by those who should have been our natural allies - and survived

Interview with Marieme Helie Lucas*

by Andy Heintz**


Andy Heintz: How has the good Muslim-bad Muslim narrative adopted by many Western leaders played into the hands of the very Islamic fundamentalists who they are fighting? How difficult is it to make the case that Islamic fundamentalism is an extreme right wing political movement that uses religion as its cover as opposed to strictly a religious movement?

Marieme Helie Lucas: Before I get into your question, let me just explain why it is so important today to use concepts in a very accurate way. Fundamentalists have launched an ideological battle and so far they have been successfully spreading their ideology through the global adoption of their concepts. Lazy journalists and politicians keep using terms like ‘Muslims’, ‘sharia law’, ‘fatwa’ etc… (See:; ’Fatwas, opinion and Aristotle: the concept of dog does not bark’), as if they knew what they were talking about. What is at stake here is the adoption of the vocabulary, hence of the conceptual framework, that the religious far right successfully imposes. What is at stake is the promotion of false realities that prevent a free analysis of a situation.
I for one have been writing for thirty years about the dangers of adopting the language of the enemy and its categories of analysis, pointing at the fact it forces us into reasoning within the limits delineated by fundamentalists.

For instance when they impose the terminology ‘sharia law’, it is meant to make everyone believe that there is such a thing as a universal Islamic body of laws that would be common to all ‘Muslim countries’.
It is not the case: a quick glance at laws said to be in conformity with Islam across Asia, Africa and the Middle East immediately proves that the ‘Muslim world’ is not homogeneous, that the laws in these countries are not only very varied but often in total contradiction with each other (See: ‘Knowing our rights – Women and family laws’, a publication of the Women Living Under Muslim Laws international solidarity network).
If one looks, for instance, at the rights of women in marriage, one can see that it ranges from equality of husband and wife in rights and duties to the total submission and absence of rights for the wife, and all the shades in between.
Which of these legal provisions reflects the ‘true Islam’? Which one is THE ‘sharia law’? Showing this diversity and the contradictions from one country to another points at the evidently man-made character of the laws, as well as at the various sources for these differences: different interpretations of the Qu’ran, selective use of the hadith, of course, but also and quite clearly the incorporation of local traditions into what becomes the official way to practice this religion in a specific location in a specific time; and even colonial laws, when it suits the interests of the powers that be and of patriarchy, are passed off as pertaining to ‘sharia’ !!! (for instance, the pro-natalist 1920 French law in Algeria, or the Victorian inheritance law in the immediate post-independence Pakistan).

What would be obvious to all if we were discussing Christianity (i.e. that the Opus Dei, the Vatican or the theology of liberation each promote very different types of societies, hence very different ‘Christian laws’) seems to be difficult to grasp when it comes to Islam…For more than three decades now, we have been pointing at the conceptual and political difference between ‘Muslims’ (i.e. believers in Islam) and ‘fundamentalists’ (i.e. a far right political movement working under the cover of religion), in order to deflect the lumping together of whole populations on the ground of their presumed religious faith.
It finally made its way into the dominant discourse via the western media and political leaders’ adopting this fundamental conceptual distinction. However, they managed to twist it and to reintroduce the notion that all of us are ‘Muslims’. This is achieved through the ‘good Muslims’ vs ‘bad Muslims’: the ‘good Muslims’ are the ‘moderate Muslims’ (sometimes even labeled in the media ‘moderate fundamentalists’, a contradiction in terms as if there could be ‘moderate fascists’ – a terminology that betrays the underlying racist assumption that all Muslims must be, in actual fact, fundamentalists), and the ‘bad Muslims’ are the violent ones.
One can understand, under the present circumstances, with the growing presence in the media - and on the ground! - of Taliban, Boko Haram, Daech, Shabab, Al Qaeda and the likes, that believers in Islam attempt to distance themselves from criminal activities by claiming: ‘they are not good Muslims’, ‘this is not Islam’; this is for them the equivalent of ‘not in my name’ … But this is no reason for the adoption, globally, at the level of political leadership, of such an a-political terminology. What it actually does is to create a transnational ‘race’ of ‘Muslims’ (good or bad is beyond the question) in which the individual faith of a person is first presumed on the basis of its geographical origin (or that of his/her ancestors) and later imposed on the individual in the name of preserving its identity. An un-washable original sin that the Jews before us experimented with the consequences that we all know.
This perfectly suits the Muslim far right’s political goals which insists a.) that no one can get out of Islam, and b.) that they alone, and their repressive follies, represent the true Islam.
Labeling ‘Muslim’ everyone whose family originated, for instance, in the Middle East or Pakistan or Sudan is the exact equivalent of the way white Europeans or North American are labeled ‘ Christians’ (or sometimes ‘Crusaders’) by Daesh. This does not speak for the intellectual sophistication of those who use this terminology.

For, a good size of the people who were born and raised in a ‘Muslim’ country are not believers in Islam, just like a sizable proportion of people born and raised in a ‘Christian’ country do not believe in God the Father and the Holy Family. However, the freedom of conscience that seems to be part of the fundamental rights of Europeans and North Americans is denied to us. We are first ‘presumed Muslims’, by virtue of geographical origin. And then ‘under culture/religion arrest’.
A study made in France 15 years ago interestingly showed the similarities between those presumed to be Muslims and those presumed to be Christians: in both categories around 25% declared themselves atheists and 5% were practicing believers, while the rest of the population would only celebrate social dates (such as Christmas or Eid or Ramadan), and would have a religious ceremony at births, for marriages and funerals - and would generally have nothing else to do with religion. What is really thrilling for me – and seems most unacceptable to many here - is the formidable parity between so-called Christians and so-called Muslims. It counters the racist assumption that ‘Muslims’ are inherently different and must be identified in religious/cultural terms.

Even young atheists who, in different countries, recently formed ‘Councils of ex-Muslims’, in order to claim their fundamental right to freedom of belief, do not feel that it is enough to define themselves as atheists; they feel the need to indicate which religion they fled from, in an attempt to counter the impossibility to leave Islam that is imposed on them, both by the Muslim far-right which assassinates them, and by the Western media and politicians who forcefully send them back to their origins, de facto putting them ‘under religion arrest’ or ‘under culture arrest’. Labeling us (whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’) ‘Muslims’ amounts to bending to the claims made by the Muslim far right, making them the norm.

As is often the case, this completely out-of-date labeling comes at a time when more and more ordinary people rebel against imposed religious identities. Recent assassinations of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh shed some light on the growing visibility of agnostics and atheists in our countries. While such individuals always existed and can be seen, sometimes prominently, in history, literature, and visual art, it seems it is the first time we can witness the emergence of a political movement for secular states in which believers, atheists and agnostics can come together.
Moreover, the religious labeling ignores the political conflict that opposes a far right movement which aims at coming to power through the promotion of theocracy, to all those who defend the political option of a republic in which all can choose their future, and the laws that will govern their lives, through democratic means.

This sends us back to the times when the Irish question was analyzed in terms of Catholics against Protestants, or when the partition of ex-Yugoslavia was supposedly a religious war between Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims. The religious pretext has always been there to hide political and economic motivations. Interestingly, Muslim fundamentalists are extremely ignorant in religious matters and not at all interested in religious exegesis; the most hilarious prescriptions are often made in the name of Islam: just re-read, for the fun of it if it had not killed so many people, the book by Ayatollah Khomeini in the seventies, or some of the fatwas by the FIS and GIA in Algeria in the nineties (restriction on women’s basic hygiene was a good one!).

Thirty years ago, we tried to organize confrontations between progressive scholars of Islam and fundamentalists; this quickly made it clear to us that what fundamentalists wanted was to cover any of their most outlandish patriarchal and xenophobic fantasies as being the epitome of Islam – with no theological basis for doing so. I have been pointing repeatedly at the extreme right ideology that Muslim fundamentalists share with fascists and Nazis: the superior creed being the equivalent of the superior race, they all share the belief that their mythical past (be it the Aryan race, the glorious past of Rome, or the Golden Age of Islam) grants them the right and the duty to physically eliminate the untermensch (the kofr, the Jews, the communists, the gays, the unfits, etc…); all are pro-capitalists ( Muslim fundamentalists believe zakat ( charity) should solve social inequalities); all want women in their place ( the Church/mosque, the kitchen and the cradle).
The resistance to analyze political and economic conflicts in political terms is huge. The extreme right political nature of the Muslim far right is still covered under their supposedly religious denomination; the fact that parts of North Africa and the Middle East (under the misnomer ‘Arab Springs’) revolted against their undemocratic governments without any reference to religion, and that they have been subsequently attacked not just by the police and army of the states, but by fundamentalists goons, has not yet illuminated the international media. Nor has the mass of refugees fleeing from the extreme right Islamic State organization. How can one not make the link between the inability to adequately define politically the forces at war, and the inadequacy of the concepts and categories of analysis?

Why do you think Islamic fundamentalism has become such a popular response to globalization in much of the Middle East and Africa instead of a secular international leftist movement? What strategies and methods need to be implemented to bring about a unified international front in favor of equal rights for women, freedom of speech and secularism in the government?
How was the FIS in Algeria able to hijack the youth revolt and gain so much popularity in their conflict with the authoritarian Algerian government?

These two questions amount to wondering why, in wake of oppression, fascism emerges, why women who seem to have everything to lose still join the Nazi or the fascist parties (or Daesh), why responses from the extreme right can come about instead of progressive ones – and there is no simple answer to that…

What I can clarify is the circumstances in which these movements emerged. Both in Algeria, North Africa in general and in the Middle East, there has been a fierce repression of the Left in general and communists in particular, since the times of Nasser and Ben Bella (who were both considered socialists), then progressively of trade unionists and all other progressive people. While unions remained powerful in certain sectors (the mining sector in Tunisia, or textile in Egypt for instance), the Left at large was mostly reduced to work underground; a special mention about Algeria, where we were under the one-party system from 1962 (independence) till 1988, hence we had only one union (UGTA - Union Générale des Travailleurs Algériens) which was under the FLN ( Front de Libération Nationale, which led the libération movement) party in power. It was a very top to bottom form of organization that left little space to popular democratic expression. We had, throughout this period, only one daily newspaper, also controlled by the FLN party.
The destruction of the Left and its political organizations was met with indifference by most of its counterparts in Europe and from human rights organizations. It was a far cry from what later happened, and still goes on, with the all-out defense of the religious-right. When repression also fell on ‘religious organizations’ there were protests abroad, but not when it fell on ‘communists’ or those supposed to be. It left all the space to supposedly religious organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) in Algeria (both far-right) to become the main and sometimes the only representatives of popular dissent and anger.

In 1988, there was a youth revolt in Algeria which shares many characteristics with the Tunisian uprising that came about two decades later: unorganized, without political program, just a ‘jacquerie’- and for the same reasons that educated youth could not find their place on the labor market, an unforeseen consequence of the democratization of education. It was not initiated, as far as we know, by the religious right organizations, but they swiftly took it in their hands after it started. There were no Left organizations left to do so. We witnessed similar hijacking of popular revolts by the religious far right in Tunisia and in Egypt in recent years. The silence of the Left in the West regarding the eradication of our progressive forces is something that still needs to be exposed and further researched.

You have been critical of human rights organizations like Amnesty International’s treatment of Islamic fundamentalism? Can you explain your criticism of Amnesty International in regards to covering the dark decade in Algeria and their treatment of human rights issues today?

One of your main criticisms of human rights organizations has been aimed at what you see as a hierarchy of rights where minority, religious and cultural rights take precedence over women’s rights. What reforms would you like to see made by human rights organizations to fix this perceived bias? Are women’s rights organizations the only organizations that have NOT been adequately responsive to women’s rights or have there been some human rights organizations that have been appropriately critical of Islamic fundamentalism?

It is not Amnesty International alone, but let us start with this organization. I have first-hand experience of trying to convince AI during the nineties that they should report on all the crimes and violations that were committed in Algeria, not just on those committed by the state. If you look at AI’s annual reports in this period, you will realize that at the worst of the GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé) killings in the mid-nineties, there was a huge discrepancy between the number of pages devoted to violations by the Algerian state vs those devoted to violations committed by armed fundamentalist groups (the proportion was around 20 pages for the state vs one and a half for the armed groups).

I spoke repeatedly to their representatives in Paris and in London: all I got was that it was for the state to protect citizens against non-state actors.
In such a case, this was a blatant misuse of the concept of ‘due diligence’ (the equivalent would be: making De Gaulle accountable in court for the bombs planted by the FLN during the Battle of Algiers, or the mayor of New York for the planes that destroyed the Twin Towers).
At the same time, human rights organizations made use of the fact that GIA was controlling territories in which they would collect taxes, perform marriages, manage city councils, etc.., and thus considered that the Algerian state was a ‘failed state’ that should be officially declared so and quickly replaced. And – double bind indeed - AI was also blaming the state for the repression against fundamentalist armed groups.

AI was the first human rights organization that was set up in Algeria; the three founding members of the first AI group in Algiers, who put so much energy and courage in setting it up, kept reporting on all violations, whether committed by the state or by the GIA, AIS , FIDA, and all the fundamentalist armed groups; but, in the end, barely nothing other than state violations were incorporated into official AI reports. Caught in between their headquarters’ policy and a totally disappointed population which was on the one hand bearing the brunt of armed groups’ violations and on the other hand had put much hope into human rights organizations to defend themselves, the three founding members wrote a very moving personal, private letter to the then Paris-based head of AI. In this letter, which I saw at the time (and of which I still have a copy), they reiterated their deep commitment to human rights in general and to AI in particular, and alerted on the damage done to AI’s reputation in Algeria by this biased one-sided reporting. They did not get a reply: they were just expelled from AI, without having ever been heard.

Human Rights Watch which later in the decade also sent enquiry missions to Algeria followed exactly the same policy and produced similarly biased reports. I was requested on three occasions to help prepare the HRW visits to Algiers by establishing relevant contacts: without getting into too many details, I can testify to the fact that, among the persons targeted by GIA that I suggested as interesting sources of information, not one was met by the investigating teams. I do not blame the young researchers who were sent in this hell hole for being terrified and subsequently staying at their posh hotel – but as a consequence, the only people they could meet in this hotel were the so-called ‘human rights lawyers’ who defended exclusively FIS and GIA members; others could not circulate near the hotel but for risking their lives. This should have been said clearly in HRW reports. I do blame them for not stating exactly the reasons why they did not report on the two sides of the situation, and for not admitting publicly their reports could not but be biased.

A close friend of mine in Algiers, Z, who was a very vocal feminist and the spokesperson for an active secular women’s organization, was hunted down by the FIS and GIA to the point that, in order to escape killers, she had to change location every other night for three years. Many friends, colleagues and people one knew had already been killed in the targeted attacks that marked the first half of the decade.
Z and I went together to HRW Headquarters in Washington DC to confront the researchers and denounce the inadequacy of the reports. Just like had previously happened to me when I was visiting AI’s headquarters in Paris or London, we were well received but nothing changed. Another one HRW report came out, following exactly the same line.
By the middle of the decade, my friend Z accepted to host a meeting in Algiers between two AI researchers (one woman had a prominent role at the London headquarters) and 8 victims who survived attacks by fundamentalist armed groups. The victims came from 8 different regions in Algeria to testify in front of AI representatives. At that time, traveling in buses or trains was extremely risky, as public transports were daily attacked by armed groups; travelers got killed every single day in one location or another; one survivor of a GIA attack, a woman, even brought along her young daughter she thought equally dangerous to leave behind.
For her own archives, Z taped the testimonies that AI representatives listened to, and these tapes still exist. However, these testimonies were never made public in any AI publication. Furthermore, when Z and I were denouncing this intolerable situation during our visit to HRW, the person we were talking to wanted to check on our story: she called AI London on the telephone and spoke to the AI woman researcher who attended the Algiers meeting; The AI researcher denied it ever took place. And, many years later, when Gita Sahgal, who was then heading the Women’s division in AI London, asked the same researcher where in the archives she could access the report from this meeting, she again denied the meeting ever took place.

Throughout the nineties, I never stopped pushing human rights organizations to report on ALL violations, regardless of who the perpetrators were. I was once asked by a former AI staff in a public meeting when would I tire of “begging at (their) door†. On top of private meetings with prominent members, there were even bigger conferences organized (one in Montreal and one in New York) in order to bridge the gap between what Algerian feminists were reporting and what HR organizations published. None of which led to any solution.
I still have a copy of the letter I wrote to a Scandinavian AI office who had organized one more of the usual program on “violence in Algeria†in which only FIS lawyers were featured. I suggested, in vain, that victims of FIS should also be invited and offered to help with the contacts. To no avail.
Our repeated offers - to organize meetings between AI, LIDH or LFDH on the one hand and on the other hand the young courageous independent journalists who rushed on location and talked to survivors of the villages massacres that took place in the second half of the nineties - were not considered.
After the famous massacre in Bentalha, in which the village was near eradicated, Z organized a press conference in the Senate in Paris, and brought with her three survivors, two men and one woman, all of them were the only survivors in their whole family – no one else was left, only they managed to hide and were not found by the attackers.
I especially remember one man who had lost 18 members in his family under the most atrocious circumstances; he witnessed the slaughter from his hiding site.
They testified to the fact that attackers were GIA, they gave details about the leader of the GIA group who was a former FIS member, then moved to GIA; they told us his name, where in the village his family lived and the profession of his father. They explained that attackers knew the family names of the villagers they were to kill, and called them by name when breaking their doors.
Z herself had been one of the first journalists to enter this village the morning after the massacre, she confirmed the testimonies. When the survivors stopped talking, Z requested the representatives of human rights organizations and of progressive newspapers who attended the press conference to take time with the victims in private, even for hours or days if necessary, and to get from them all the details they may want to collect. No one showed any interest, no one spoke to those who had just testified.
Journalists and human rights people left the room: for them to be interested and report about this massacre, it would have required that survivors accuse the Algerian state of being behind it.
‘Who kills in Algeria ?’ was not a real question: it implied that it was the state who killed, its army and its police forces, and that whoever said it was the fundamentalist armed groups, even if this person was an eye witness of crimes and violations, was lying and covering up for the government. The campaign ‘who kills in Algeria?’ was launched by AI’s Head who was then based in Paris – a campaign that so greatly damaged the efforts of Algerian victims to be heard…Bitter experiences. Especially for people like Z and I who had been – at different times and in different capacity - in the left opposition to the successive Algerian governments.

The dismissing of Gita Sahgal as Head of the Women’s division at the London AI headquarters is probably the best known of the many clashes created by human rights organizations’ political positions on Muslim fundamentalism. Gita waged a long battle from within, voicing her concerns internally, but she could not affect AI policy on fundamentalism; she finally could not cope with seeing AI officials parading Moazzam Begg (a former Guantanamo detainee and fierce supporter of Taliban in Afghanistan) throughout European capitals as a “human rights defender†, and she went public about it. She was immediately fired.
Another incident opposed AIUSA to one of its prominent legal advisers, K., who was well versed in the violations committed by fundamentalist armed groups in Algeria. K organized for Gita and me to be invited to AIUSA annual conference in New York, in order to share our experiences with AI members and this was accepted. However, my testimony led to her being isolated, interrogated, ‘on internal trial’ for two years, before she left AIUSA. Both Gita and K can testify about it.
More examples come to mind… (See interview of Rhonda Copelon in The Struggle for Secularism in Europe and North America And also: Why I spoke up out on Anwar Al-Awlaki).

For years, I made many efforts to discuss with human rights organizations the need to rethink human rights concepts – such as ‘due diligence’ and ‘non-state actors’-. Human rights concepts were designed, more than 50 years ago, to account for situations of war between two armies of two nations; in present day armed conflicts, most of the time, at least one party, and often more, is a ‘non-state’; these concepts thus become highly inadequate and ultimately served at whitewashing the crimes committed by non-state actors who are not held accountable. There is a bad need to work on human rights concepts so that they can reflect the realities of today’s violations.
I finally understood that I was wasting my time: we were facing a straightforward political opposition that had nothing to do with human rights. I remember the decade of the nineties as a period of ‘madness’: we were confronted with a situation in which what people saw with their own eyes, lived through and knew for certain was turned upside down and re-interpreted by organizations that had the power to shape public opinion.
For instance, at a time when our friends and colleagues were slaughtered by fundamentalist armed groups, we were told that it was the government slaughtering them; and when progressive people were decimated, it was them that human rights organizations and left media in Europe called ‘éradicateurs’…
It was the victims who were blamed. No doubt such a denial can give a feeling of living in a mad world… where concepts are turned upside down, where there is no reality anymore. Where the ground is unstable under your feet. Where ’Left’ and ’Right’ have no sense. Imagine a situation in which fascists slaughter around 200,000 people in the nineties – ordinary people, not necessarily the fighting type, but people who send their children to school, or bring them to hospital, or get a birth certificate from the town hall – while GIA decides that whatever has to do with the government (such as education, health or administration in a country where everything is state owned) is kofr ( miscreant), that people who use the facilities of the kofr government are kofr themselves; and that kofrs deserve capital punishment. Imagine these people are decimated, not one family spared; some losing up to 18 to 20 members of their family in one go, in an attack on a village. Others seeing with their own eyes what is being done, - torture and killing of their loved ones, women, girls, children. They have reasons to be deeply traumatized.
Now imagine that the killers, or their leaders, or the representatives of their parties, are invited abroad to speak up in Left, far-Left, and human rights circles, or at World Social Fora (in Porto Alegre, in Bombay…), or at the UN…. That they are granted asylum in Europe while you are denied it, although your name has been listed on a sheet of paper pinned up on a door mosque calling for your ‘execution’, and while you have exhausted your possibilities of hiding at friends’ place. That while they killed so many of your folks and friends and comrades and hunt you down, YOU are the one branded ‘eradicator’, and blamed publicly in international media for demanding from your government not the physical elimination, but the political elimination of the Muslim far-right – for instance by ending the electoral process in 1991, as did unions, women’s organizations and whatever was Left-leaning in the country at that time… that you are therefore the one branded ‘anti-democracy’, and your killers are supported as great ‘democrats’. Imagine that your daughter has been publicly beheaded, her head subsequently paraded in front of her age group friends and her breasts cut off in the street, for refusing to bend to their head covering orders. And then you read in the newspapers or hear on TV that in Europe the Left, far-Left, human rights, anti-globalization movement, Council of Human rights, European Parliament, etc.. discuss and often support ‘the right to veil’, and that they give a platform to the ideologues that started off the killers – while they did not support your daughter’s right not to veil.

One lives in madness, in a world where words don’t have meaning any more, a world where you can expect anything from anybody, with no logic. A very, very, threatening world. This is what the policies of European Left and Human Rights organizations have done to the Algerian people. And what made it worse is that it came from people who we expected to be our natural allies.
They based their analysis of our situation on premises that were inadequate: the Left’s traditional focus on the state impeded its ability to de-code in time the warning signs of supposedly religious non-state forces rising as powerful extreme right political actors. Human rights organizations also had trouble de-linking from an exclusive focus on the state and considering these new players for what they really are.

Moreover, the Left seems plagued with eurocentrism; they were more concerned with their own struggles with their own government’s policies toward migrant minorities and applied their analysis of this situation in Europe to what was happening in our own countries. In the process they have abandoned the vital forces of resistance to the Muslim far-right. By selecting victims of the state as their preferential victims, they have created a hierarchy of victims: those attacked by non-state actors were ignored to the benefit of those attacked by the state. And by ignoring the crimes committed against women by Muslim fundamentalist non-state actors, they have also created a hierarchy of rights in which women’s rights come last, after religious rights, cultural rights and minority rights.

Do you think there is an underlying racism in the notion that women’s rights, freedom of religion and freedom of speech are Western values as opposed to universal values? How destructive have these assumptions been to progressives advocating for these values in non-Western societies?

You have been critical of the lack of coverage secular women’s rights groups featuring women from Muslim backgrounds have received from the mainstream media and the international left? Why do you think groups like WLUML have not received more attention from the media and the international left?

The underlying assumption is that progressive people and secularists in Muslim majority countries are not representative of their people, that they are illegitimate. This is a denial of historical facts.
Some years ago, we collectively gathered material on ‘Our Great Ancestors’, i.e. feminists in Muslim contexts, and we found many examples of great feminist figures; the research started from the 7th century but one could have found examples much earlier. (See: Great Ancestors: Women Claiming Rights in Muslim Contexts ). It shows how similar the demands have been across centuries: education for girls comes first, then economic independence, the right to manage one’s own assets, properties and finances, freedom of movement, the right to marry of one’s choice, the right not to marry and to embrace celibacy, negotiating marriage contracts in ways that most European women could not even imagine today ( restriction on polygamy, right to initiate the divorce, to have guardianship of children upon divorce, etc…), etc…
We can really prove that feminist struggles are indigenous to Muslim contexts. And I believe that, should we undertake similar research on agnostics, free thinkers and atheists throughout centuries in Muslim contexts, we will come up with another equally well hidden and extremely interesting piece of our history.
Reclaiming this history is a very important strategy for feminists and for secularists, especially because it is something that Muslim fundamentalists want to disappear at all costs. Unfortunately, it seems that progressive people in Europe also believe that this history does not exist. It is as if the general belief was that “Muslims†had to be backwards in order to be really authentic. And yes of course, this is racism.
Looking at what happened with WLUML, it was most praised and promoted when it developed strategies that were ‘specific’ to a supposed ‘nature’ as ‘Muslims’. For instance the strategies of re-interpretation of religion were always well-received and favored by funders, but also by the international women’s movement. Comparatively, strategies which were more ‘secular’, or at least not directly concerned with religion per se, were seen as not really addressing ‘our’ ‘specific’ problems.
The fact that for a long time WLUML was using and promoting all these different strategies concomitantly, and that they were seen as complementary, not antagonistic, was something that many outsiders found most difficult to understand and accept. Long ago, I wrote an article on ‘the construction of Muslimness’ which was entitled ‘what is your tribe?’( See: What is your tribe? Women’s struggles and the construction of Muslimness); in this article I pointed at the fear of our ‘sameness’ and the need for emphasizing our ‘difference’’ that I encountered in Europe and North America, that also lead to locking us up into a forced religious identity; to being ‘under culture arrest’, as one can be ‘under house arrest’. If we do not comply with this preconception, we are seen as traitors to the a-historical transcontinental ‘culture’ (in the singular) that is attributed to ‘Muslims’, to our presumed religion, etc…. The inability for many progressive people in Europe and North America to conceive of women of Muslim descent as feminists (unless it is confined to the infamous ‘Islamic feminism’) and secularists is just outrageous.
It is interesting to note that, after the wave of exotic exhilaration for the religious interpretation’s strategies in the last decade of the century, a new trend is emerging: I already mentioned that more and more young people stand publicly for secularism and more and more declare themselves atheists, despite facing harsh attacks by Muslim fundamentalists. The increasing number of Councils of Ex-Muslims testifies to this new trend. In October 2014 we organized in London an international conference on secularism in which women (and especially women from Muslim countries) were not only the very visible majority, but also the overwhelming one. However, this worldwide phenomenon of an emerging secular popular dissent does not yet make it into mainstream media; as was the case in the past, what still attracts the attention is the fate of the poor Muslim fundamentalists oppressed by undemocratic governments – just compare the number of articles devoted to them to those on the atheist Bangladeshi bloggers being hacked to death, which only briefly made the headlines.

We are still very far from being treated at par with Muslim fundamentalists, in terms of protests against human rights violations. It is implied, if not said, that the atheists bloggers deserved it and that they should not ‘offend’ the beliefs of Muslims by making use of their fundamental human right of freedom of conscience. Just like with the Charlie Hebdo massacre…(See: After the Charlie Hebdo’s massacre - Support those who fight the religious-right) It is only with the recent terrorist attacks in Paris (in particular with massacre at the Concert Hall Bataclan and at restaurants and terraces nearby) that articles signed by clearly secular women of Muslim descent appear in the mainstream French media and that it seems their analysis is taken seriously.

Last year, for the first time in thirty years, I was interviewed by a Far-Left organization; and an angry article I wrote after sexual violence erupted on New Year’s Eve in various major cities in Northern Europe was reproduced on many Left and Far Left web sites, and translated into various languages. Obviously it is not the quality of what I have been writing for thirty years that suddenly improved. What gives us this sudden legitimacy in the eyes of the Left? Is it the fear, for the first time, that what has been happening in our countries is now taking place in theirs? Could it challenge the views that “Muslims†are necessarily victims and not perpetrators as well? Will it bring a sudden revelation about the political nature of the armed Muslim far right movement?
The terms ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamists’ are misleading: both suggest religious movements while they should be characterized in political terms. In Algeria, since the nineties, we have been calling them green-fascists (green being here for the color of Islam) or ‘Islamo-fascists’.
The Left (and far-Left) in Europe did not take the trouble of going through a thorough analysis of the political nature of Muslim fundamentalist movements and their political programs; it mostly saw them as popular movements (which indeed they are, - and populist too, but that did not ring a bell, it seems) opposing capitalism, imperialism, or undemocratic governments. The European Left only looked at what it thought (often mistakenly, for example when it presumes the Muslim-right is anti-capitalist) fundamentalist movements stood against, never at what they wanted to promote. Indeed they stood against our undemocratic governments, but from a far-right perspective. How can the Left support far-right fascist-like movements in the name of anti-imperialism?
In the words of Daniel Bensaïd: ‘The control of capital over bodies, its strong will to reveal their market value, does not at all reduce their control by religious law and the theological will to make them disappear…The poor dialectic of main and secondary contradictions, forever revolving, already played too many bad tricks. And the ‘secondary enemy’, too often underestimated, because the fight against the main enemy was claimed to be a priority, sometimes has been deadly’. (See The struggle for secularism in Europe and North America)

What can progressives from Western governments like the United States do to help women’s rights groups like WLUML? What do progressives in the West have to learn from the progressive left inside countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are being assaulted by Muslim fundamentalists within and outside their respective governments?

This is a really important question that is very frequently asked to us: progressives in Europe and North America have not yet realized that ‘helping us’ actually means helping themselves, because we are all in the same boat, as armed Muslim fundamentalists are now also targeting them. Subsequently, there is a rise of xenophobic far-right movements, as is the case throughout Europe at the moment. So it seems to me that the question should be re-formulated as: what can we do together to prevent a wave of fascism from sweeping our different countries; and my answer is ‘sweep at your doorstep first’, oppose the religious-right wherever it surfaces and the traditional far-right as well, stand with the anti-fascists at home, before having the idea to go stand by them abroad.
I presume it is clear for you as well as it is for me that European and North American governments, when they go to war to ‘save the poor oppressed Muslim women’ as they did in Afghanistan, or to ‘kick out a dictator’ as they did in Iraq and in Libya, are in fact doing their best to preserve their access to oil, or other similar vested interests. And that they are prepared to instigate chaos in other countries (let’s add Syria to Iraq and Libya) by attacking governments that are no more or no less dictatorial than many of their allies throughout the world, for the sake of selling more arms and weapons of mass destruction, including to Muslim fundamentalist groups.
At home, oppose communalism and cultural relativism that promotes different laws for different categories of citizens according to their ethnic or presumed religious affiliation, thus trapping women into a system of unequal rights in family matters. Challenge the political platform that is given to Muslim far right fundamentalists by international human rights organizations. Support the universality of rights and challenge the new terminology (Muslim human rights, Dalit human rights, Sikh human rights, etc…) that now flourishes even at UN level.

The Muslim-far right would not survive and thrive without the active ideological blessings of many mislead liberals and human rights people, the Left and even feminists. Support the anti-fascists, the secularists from Muslim descent: we exist everywhere, you don’ t have to create us or invent us, just give us visibility and link up our struggles; we need to create a broad anti-fascist front and to make sure we identify the Muslim far-right as a new form of fascism.

How has the United Kingdom’s willingness to allow religious leaders to be the so-called legitimate representatives of their communities further isolated the country’s citizens from each other and provided not only potential recruits for the Muslim Far Right but also fodder for the xenophobic Far Right in Europe? Can you explain why the Britain’s promotion of Muslim religious schools and communalism is such a mistaken response to the threat of Islamic fundamentalism?

This takes us back to the role historically played by the UK in undermining secularism as a concept. Secularism is intimately linked to democracy and equality between citizens; in its original meaning it refers to the separation between Church and State at the time of the French revolution, in order to put an end to the domination of the Vatican over politics. ‘Separation’ then was an essential component of the emancipation of the political power from the Vatican’s imperialism, and it was a matter of survival for the emerging democracy in France.
But in a country where the Head of the Anglican Church is also the Head of the State, this separation was seen as impossible !... The legal framework drawn from the original definition of secularism allows for equality between all citizens (religiously inclined or not), rather than equality between religions. In this legal context, religious belief is a personal option just like agnosticism or atheism. Hence the law does not grant ‘religious freedom’ specifically, but freedom of conscience in general. Secularism is not just another belief, at par with religions; it is clearly defined as - exclusively - a legal and administrative provision through which the role and place of religions in politics is regulated and limited.
Secularism encountered strong opposition from the various religious authorities since the beginning; in fact opposition never stopped; there are recent attempts to undermine it in France, which have taken the form of weakening the concept by adding to it various adjectives which all amount to doing away with the clear cut idea of ‘separation’; hence we now hear in France about ‘positive secularism’, ‘open secularism’, ‘tolerant secularism’, ‘inclusive secularism’, ‘plural secularism’, etc… This is under the pressure of Europe’s Institutions which are influenced by the UK. The most effective and long lasting blow to secularism is the redefinition of the concept by the UK: from ’separation between state and religion’, to ’equal tolerance by the state of all religions’ – thus preserving the double function of the King or Queen. In other words, the state moves from refusing to deal with representatives of official religions, considering that this is outside its mandate, interacting only with equal citizens of a republic; to being a party to the competition between official religions and their representatives for political power, considering citizens not as equal members of the nation- first and foremost, but as members of communities that are not based on individual choice but pre-defined by their ethnic or religious background.
By creating ‘communities’ as recognized political entities, UK created and bred ‘communalism’ too. We have witnessed the flourishing of self-appointed conservative men endorsed as legitimate representatives of the so-called communities, as well as the most retrograde demands for specific laws and jurisdiction imposed on sections of the people by virtue of their foreign place of birth or of their presumed religious affiliation.
Indeed, this creates inequality of rights between citizens, as the law of the land, democratically voted can be replaced by ‘divine’ laws as interpreted by reactionary clerics and enforced on unwilling citizens. This is a highly undemocratic process. In this context, keeping education out of the hands of religion/s is a crucial element in the building an equal citizens identity; hence, secular schooling was an integral part of a republican identity in the context of the French revolution and beyond; it amounted to creating a de-facto mixing of classes, beliefs, origins so that children will learn to consider themselves as citizens, not as representatives of a community.
Today in the UK, unless families are open enough to invite ‘ difference’ at their dinner table, young people may reach adult age without having ever stepped out of their ‘community’. Depriving children of this much needed mixing inevitably trains them to continue their adult life with their ‘sames’ rather than with their ‘others’. Had governments the intention to breed communalism, they would not have used another strategy. This plays both in the hands of two far-rights trends, that of the Muslim far-right and that of the traditional xenophobic far-right.
We could reflect on the notion of ‘difference’ which has been promoted both by the Left and by feminists as very progressive and respectful of ‘diversity’, but we all experienced that the notion of ‘difference’ was also used throughout history to separate human groups and lock them into an ontological Otherness, as was the case for South Africa under apartheid or the Southern States of the USA, and is now the case with Muslim fundamentalism.

Do progressives need to re-valuate the idea that legitimate elections alone prove that a government is dedicated to democracy? In other words, what other qualities other than being democratically elected need to be realized for a government to be considered truly democratic?

In countries such as Tunisia, Algeria, Iraq, Libya and Egypt where Islamic groups have been – or would have been – elected into office, what stance should secular progressives within and outside these countries adopt? Is there an alternative to calling on the military to overthrow or prevent the election of popularly elected governments that oppress women, homosexuals and champions of free speech?

I will give a very brief answer to this set of questions; the fact that democracy cannot be equated and limited to the rule of the majority is something that has been discussed in the Left for a very long time (hence the debate on bourgeois democracy, social democracy, etc…) and I will not come back to it. Many dictatorships around the world and throughout history have come to power through legal means such as elections. Hitler is a good example of it. The fact that dictators immediately put an end to elections (or fake them) and remain in power by force is nothing new. The second in command of FIS publicly declared in front of the international press before the 1991 elections in Algeria that, should FIS win the elections, there won’t be any more elections later, for, said he: ‘ If one has the law of god, why should one need the law of the people? One should kill all these unbelievers!’ I think that the Left in Europe and North America should meditate on this kind of statements, before shouting against the military louder than they ever shouted against the Muslim fundamentalist far-right.
Obviously, if the Left was decimated in our countries over a long period of time, no other force than the military is left to counter the religious far right; at the very least, armies in Algeria and in Egypt are republican ( by which I mean, for a republic, against a theocracy).
Right now, we witness an unprecedented government crackdown on progressive organizations and individuals in Egypt.
In Algeria, people have repeatedly chosen to keep our undemocratic army-backed government (as has been the case of all our governments since independence, by the way !), rather than to live under the fascist boot of FIS and GIA. It does say something about the real terror they inspire. When cornered, people have the right to prefer to live under Thatchers than under Hitlers.
In Iraq and Libya, in the name of protecting people from their local Thatchers, people have been thrown to their local Hitlers by supposedly well-meaning imperialist armies (and they nearly succeeded in doing it again in Syria). There is no doubt in my mind that considering the suffering and misery that followed, people would gladly exchange their present situation for the previous ‘dictatorial’ one. How does it make sense to exchange bad situations for worst ones? If we do not have the forces ready to take power, we should work on this and build people’s organizations before risking a loss to the fascists. Those from outside who are prepared to bring down our undemocratic governments – for our own good ! – should be forced to stay and live under the fascists they have contributed to bring to power.

*Marieme Helie Lucas is an Algerian sociologist and the founder and former International Coordinator of the ‘Women Living Under Muslim Laws’ international solidarity network. Helie Lucas also is the founder of ‘Secularism is a Women’s Issue.’ Helie Lucas has long been a critic of Western human rights organizations sole focus on the crimes of the state as opposed to the crimes of non-state actors. She’s a fierce champion of secularism in governance and a harsh critic of all forms of religious fundamentalism.

**This interview is excerpted from “Dissidents of the International Left”, by Andy Heintz, to be published in 2018.

Andy Heintz has been conducting interviews for more than two years with progressives from around 15 countries.

published by Siawi with author’s permission