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Rejecting fear, resisting Islam

INTERVIEW! Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal, the controversial author behind 2084: The End of the World, sounds off on Islam and why "we cannot talk about anything anymore." Catch him at the International Literature Festival Berlin Sep 6 and 7.

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Photo by Hélie Gallimard

In 2084: The End of the World, Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal imagines a dystopian world ruled by one religion in the name of its almighty prophet. Unanimously praised for its literary merits, his barely veiled Orwellian parody of Islam has sparked controversy among the liberal left. Isn’t it Islamophobic to criticise Islam? Dangerous to speak out against Muslims? Discuss the book and hear Sansal speak at this year’s International Literature Festival (Sep 7-17).

Detractors in Algeria’s regime like to call him a self-hating Arab, a traitor to his motherland, a Zionist or French agent. To make things worse, Boualem Sansal writes in beautiful, vivid French. His mother tongue is not Arabic, neither is he a Muslim. Sansal is an ethnic Berber, born and bred in a multilingual, secular Algeria first under French, then socialist rule. One independence and a bloody civil war later, Algerian society is, as Sansal puts it, ruled by the military on top and by Islam on the bottom. The engineer and economist turned novelist struggles to comprehend how it happened. He says he writes to understand, “because I think better when I write”. His work – eight novels and six essays translated into many languages
– read like an uncompromising indictment of Algerian power and its elites, causing him what he calls “1001 petty troubles”. Sansal was fired from his job in the Industry Ministry, and was slowly eradicated from the public sphere, with every one of his books banned and access to media denied, to the point that “Algerians thought I had left the country!” But the ponytailed writer rejects exile. He’s continued to write his mind, regardless of consequences.

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“2084: The End of the World” was published in German earlier this year. Its much-awaited English translation is due on January 31, 2017.

2084 is his first book set beyond the borders of Algeria. The universal scope of this dystopian novel, a work of fiction clearly intended as a warning against totalitarian Islamism, has already earned him literary kudos, but also new armies 
of detractors screaming “Islamophobia!” Algerian TV recently announced he had been arrested and was awaiting a life sentence or maybe death. Since then, Sansal has rarely ventured outside his high-security home in the city of Boumerdès. Retrenched behind barred windows, he tries to stay focussed on the many essays and speeches he contributes to media
 and events the world over. This month, though, he’ll drive 50km to Algiers and board a plane to Berlin, where he’ll be attending the International Literature Festival. “Maybe they’ll arrest me at the airport. I have no idea,” he says in his usual mild tone, as if commenting about another person. “Better not think about it.” 

Your book transports the reader into a grim dystopian reality – a totalitarian world ruled 
in the name of a fundamentalist religion under the all-knowing eye of a living prophet called Abi. Despite the book’s preface, which insists on its fictional quality, you’ve said many times that the road to Abistan is mapped out – if we don’t pay attention, 2084 will be our future. Why?

From the beginning, I was inspired by what I witnessed in my own lifetime. In 1962, when Algeria gained its independence, we were a fairly optimistic, mostly atheist country. Following one and a half centuries of French rule, religion was totally marginal, a superstition for grannies. Then little by little, in the 1970s, it started to change – more mosques, more preachers, more and more people praying, and without even noticing we entered a war that cost us 200,000 dead and a devastated country. Today Islam governs my country. Now I see the same thing happening in Europe.

Orwell found inspiration for 1984 in Nazi and Communist systems – but for you, the new great threat is Islam?

Threats change with time, and I believe that the time of Islam has come. I should say come again. It was interrupted in the 13-14th centuries by European colonisation. I see that Islam is on the rise again, and that it is the next great threat we face. So I’ve imagined a story in which a religious totalitarian system of the Islamist type has taken over the planet.

In your foreword, you ironically exhort readers to “not worry and go back to sleep, good people”. Do you really think people are so apathetic and blind?

Yes. Well, it seems that Europeans are blind to it. They don’t understand that what’s happened to Algeria is not only an Algerian problem; what’s happened to Afghanistan is not only an Afghan problem. Like globalisation, or like the Enlightenment, it’s a global process. And it’s a violent process. This said, the conquest of capitalism was also very violent – that was also quite a lot of gunboat diplomacy! So I perceived the danger of Islamisation, and how fast it was now spreading – I saw how it was taking over Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia. For us it was too late, but Europe was next. In order to grab people’s attention, I thought that I needed to take a bolder step and say: “It’s too late. Islamisation is here. Our future is already written: it’s Abistan.” The title came later, when I realised how much I borrowed from George Orwell – I needed to pay tribute to his influence on me.

When did you first encounter Orwell’s 1984?

I first read it as a student in the 1970s. Back then, we were living in a communist military dictatorship and we didn’t really understand what was going on. Orwell decrypted the reality we were in: the militarisation of society, the cult of personality, the ritualisation of power. He gave answers to all the questions we didn’t even dare ask ourselves. So I reread it, and once more and again. Maybe 60 times! It was more than an intellectual revelation, it gave us the key to understanding our own lives. But then in the 1980s things changed. Religion appeared. And the book was no longer relevant.

So, what happened in Algeria in the 1980s?

Suddenly there were those guys showing up
out of nowhere, preachers from Saudi Arabia or Yemen, doing their little preaching show. But as there were very few mosques back then, they’d mostly go to the markets. Suddenly things started to change. First among students. Men going around in bizarre clothes and growing beards; women covering their heads, not mingling any more. We used to have a “much loved leader”, the president. Now the incantations were new; it was not stuff like “communism is industry plus the Soviets”, but lines from the Quran. And I didn’t know the Quran. I’d never seen one before! How was it possible that old friends and neighbours were suddenly quoting it incessantly? That the friends who studied engineering with me suddenly believed that stuff? 1984 was not helping me understand that world. I remember thinking: someone’s got to write a sequel, something that explains what happened.

2084’s odyssey starts in a sanatorium. From Thomas Mann to Solzhenitsyn, that’s an auspicious literary setting, a place removed from
the world where one is prone to eye-opening revelations…

Yes, this is a very interesting place. Sanatoriums are removed from the influence of the world, and that’s what allows my protagonist to go through a process of liberation. But my main reason was George Orwell. As you know, Orwell had tuberculosis and he ended up dying in a sanatorium in Switzerland… So that’s where I had to start my book, as a tribute. And I thought, Ati, my main protagonist, won’t die there: on the contrary, he’ll find a new life and actually pursue Orwell’s quest.

You must have realised that you’d be accused of Islamophobia…

We’re ensnared in an intellectual trap. That’s the most tragic thing in the whole discussion about Islam: we cannot talk about anything anymore. You need to weigh each word you utter, each sentence, because it’s all sacred and you might land a fatwa or something. And now it’s not just Islamists calling for your death, but the leftists who for some reason feel they have to support them… out of some romantic idea of tolerance and whatnot.

But you didn’t really weigh your words here, did you?

That’s the way I am. I always spoke my mind, and all my previous books about Algeria brought me all kinds of troubles. I was harassed in a million petty ways. I lost my job. But I knew the risks and I took them. I thought, well, what could happen? They had already red me. They could throw me in jail for a few weeks. But I also knew that I could count on support from readers, publishers, critics, intellectuals all over the world. But here I was taking a different type of risk. Not only would I have millions of Muslims against me and potentially a fatwa, but I would also lose my usual support from the secular intellectuals who somehow submitted to the idea that you cannot criticise Islam, and if you do, they call you “Islamophobic”.

That cost you the Goncourt, France’s highest literary award, right?

Yes, people called the book Islamophobic and that was that. I was not eligible for the prize anymore although my book was a favourite among readers and critics alike. So I was thrown out of the shortlist and it caused quite a controversy. Only the Académie Française gave me the prize. No one could suspect the eminent Academy members of Islamophobia!

How do you explain such reactions?

 It’s all very political and linked to a difficult context. There are so many problems with integration among Muslim immigrant communities, and then there’s the new problem of radicalisation and terrorism, so the guiding principle seems to be, “Let’s not bring more fuel to the fire.” Far-right movements like Pegida and the Front National are doing that – but at least they’re racists and not credible. But when the criticism comes from over there, from a more credible voice, it is more difficult to accept. So they reject it. Another thing is that old leftover Orientalism you find among intellectuals in E rope, especially in Germany! I’m always startled by the incredible respect for Islam among some Western intellectuals. In the West right now, there’s an intellectual fad that’s actually driving Muslims crazy. Self-appointed theologians, mostly journalists in Germany or France came up with a distinction between two Islams, one from Mecca and one from Medina. Two Qurans, one about flowers and love; the other where the prophet is the cruel, intolerant warlord. That’s a good example of how Westerners try to reconcile themselves with Islam, but it doesn’t make sense to Muslims! 

When you refer to Islamisation, do you make 
a distinction between Islam and Islamism?

It is strange to hear people talk as if these were two totally different things. Unrelated words! In my opinion, it’s the same thing, just a matter of degrees – not of nature. Different stages on the road to the same evolution.

Do you see the danger in giving credit to Pegida or Le Pen? Isn’t it a legitimate fear…

My German publisher was initially a bit worried, mostly for me – some publishers refused to translate it. Like my Dutch publisher – he thought it was too dangerous given the political climate. Well, it’s always the same; people get themselves trapped by fear. When I wrote my first book, The Serment Des Barbares, it was in the middle of civil war in Algeria [1996] – like under Daesh [ISIS] today. There were 450 terrorism attacks per day! I was writing for myself, to try to make sense of that tragedy around us, so I was writing freely. Then came up the idea of publishing it – actually my wife came up with it. I hesitated a lot. I was no hero, no “adventurer” – only a professor and a civil servant. I finally sent it to Gallimard in France, not really thinking that much would come out of it. But then they liked it. They warmly recommended I publish under a different name, explaining that I would get attacked from all over in my country, but then I gave it a lot of thought and decided to stand for what I wrote. And against all our fears, my book was greeted with great acclaim in France, but also Algeria! It came out in a moment of national euphoria – [President] Bouteflika was amazingly popular for having achieved relative peace in the country, and I was feted as a hero!

At what point did your luck with the regime turn?

It came little by little, mostly because of what I said in the press. I became a nuisance, a symbol of the enemy – basically, I challenged the national discourse by saying that the victory over terrorism was a victory for Islamism. That Bouteflika managed to reduce terrorism to almost nothing, but at the price of giving into Islam – the country was now covered with mosques, and Islamists were everywhere, including in government. Look at my city Boumerdès – I’ve lived here for over 40 years now. Back in the day there used to be only one tiny mosque; now there are 15!

In that context, surrounded by Islam’s ever-growing influence, how do you live in your home there – besieged?

Well if you saw my house here, yes, it’s Fort Knox! Metal bars on my windows, electronic alarm, barbed wire. I do it more for my wife than for me. She’s scared. If there was an uprising, I know that the first one they’d go for and drag out of his house and lynch would be me! I might be courageous with my books, but I’m prudent with my life. I basically don’t leave my home.

But you still don’t shy away from speaking your mind in Western media – like about the recent terrorism in Nice.

Yes, after Nice, I was interviewed all over in the French and German media. The main challenge right now is that terrorism is so erratic. Let’s not kid ourselves; there was no organisation behind the Nice attack. We’re confronted with criminals who improvise as terrorists. You just rent a truck and kill 80 people and traumatise a city for 50 years; as easy as that. It’s very difficult to fight this “bargain basement terrorism”. The day terrorism becomes more organised – with proper protocol and a chain of command – then we’ll be able to fight back and eradicate it. To illustrate my point I talked about Algeria: during the war for independence and how the moment terrorist attacks started to show a similar pattern – mostly bombs in Algiers’ trendy cafés – the French were able to track down the whole organisation behind them. So I said, the day they organise, we’ll be able to defeat terrorism.

Just after that, my wife called me in total panic – “We heard you’ve been arrested and are up for the death penalty.” I immediately checked the media, and it was attacks all over – the nicest
one calling for me to be stripped of my Algerian citizenship; more radical ones calling for my death. My crime? I had insulted the honour of the Algerian revolution. Algerians never committed acts of terrorism; it was self-defence against colonial power. The people who put bombs in cafés and killed hundreds of women and kids are not terrorists, they’re national heroes! So comparing them to the mad Nice terrorists was national shame and treason. Then of course they dug
up some footage of me in Jerusalem wearing a kippa and showed that on TV with very selective quotes. After that I went to the nearest kiosk to get the paper and a guy stopped me in the street: “Is that you, Boualem Sansal? I saw you on TV, I thought you’d been sentenced to death…” Since then, I don’t go out anymore.

Don’t you sometimes feel scared? Living in the wrong place? Why don’t you leave Algeria?

One should never succumb to fear. Once you’re overcome by fear, you become dangerous to yourself and others. Fear makes one betray or kill, it leads to indignity and cowardice… So I forbid myself to be scared. Algeria is my country, and I have the right like any Arab or Muslim to live in my country.

Do you think that your success abroad and your literary prizes have protected you? You once said you were Bouteflika’s “alibi” for a free democratic country…

Yes, but times have changed. Now there are many more subtle ways to deal with people like me – they can create a popular movement, as they started to do with that media campaign against me, to show what kind of traitor I am, and wait for people to threaten and attack me. Then my arrest or expulsion could be seen as a measure to protect me. I’m in total suspense – in three weeks I’ll go to the airport to come to Berlin. Will they arrest me? Take my passport away? I have no idea… So better not think about it. It’s hard because I have a lot of work to do – speeches to write, texts to prepare – and it’s hard to concentrate when every time you hear a noise, you start wondering…

So the main threat comes from government not the Islamists right now. Did you expect that?

They don’t need to. Islamists are in bed with the military regime – they pretty much govern Algeria right now. They can trust the regime to deal with me.

People became obsessed with your critique of Islam, but your book is also a great exploration of individual rebellion. Your protagonist Ati is no “heroic hero”, but somehow his revolt gets under his skin, almost despite himself…

I’m convinced that real revolts are like that. It’s a process… you need to enter doubt first, and then comes the quest for a new path. You usually meander a lot, and end up not getting anywhere. But doubt lingers until that “aha moment” takes place – or doesn’t. It depends.

In the rest of Abistan, there are no doubts –
all the meaning in people’s lives comes from scriptures. A successful totalitarian universe
is one where questions no longer exist, right?

There’s nothing that terrifies me more. I experience it every day and that’s where I believe that Islamism won 100 percent – when I see and meet people who are in that permanent and total state of certainty. I talk to them, old friends sometimes – the absurd stuff they believe! Actually, “believe” is misleading in this case, because belief suggests that there’s an alternative or space for error or doubt. But no, they don’t believe, they know for certain.

Can I stop you on that semantic shift – when religion is not a “belief ” anymore, but a “certainty”…?

Belief doesn’t apply with Islam. Certainty replaces any previous alternative hypothesis. Hence Islam’s intolerance towards others. That someone could believe in another religion is not compatible. For me, that answers the famous question: Is Islam compatible with the West, or democracy, whatever? My answer is no, Islam is not compatible. It can exist only by itself. It’s the desert island principle – as soon as you step foot on it, it’s not a desert island any more.

Another interesting point you explore in the book is the use of language – how words shape people’s minds and thoughts. Orwell invented Newspeak, you came up with “Abilang”.

Our imagination, our intelligence, our faith, it’s first of all words. A wall exists only because we gave it a name; things come into being only once they’ve been named. It’s the same for mental space:
To think things, you ought to be able to name them. So in Abistan, language has been brought down to the simplest and shortest expressions, and the world has shrunk with it. The old words produced by democracy and the free world have been eradicated and replaced by the ritualisation of society. Look: when one young girl suddenly decides to put on a headscarf, 2000 words are eradicated from her brain; and then maybe replaced by another 50, which didn’t really exist in her head before. But not real words. A new way to move around in the world which is not that of Allah, maybe with indifference or with defiance… that’s also a form of language. A good totalitarian system doesn’t only control words, grammar and syntax; it also controls the way we walk and sing. The day becomes a liturgy with an endless string of sacraments – to sleep, to wake up, to eat, to have sex… it all becomes a religious act.

Abilang has words like “burniqabs”, a god called “Yöla” and scriptures that make up the “Gkabul” (qabul means acceptance in Arabic). Was
it fun coming up with that new language?

`More than fun, it had a purpose: I had to avoid being blasphemous. Being accused of Islamophobia, well, that’s not yet a crime according to Islam. Blasphemy, though, is one – it’s a no-no. So I had to be careful about how I named things. You see, people tend to think that anyone can proclaim a fatwa. No, a fatwa can only come from someone who was given such authority, like a mufti; then you need proper proof of blasphemy with incriminating text or speech and proper witnesses, and then you need to grab a Quran and hadiths to find paragraphs and sentences that apply. Then the fatwa needs to be validated by a special centre or court in the country it was made. Only then can the fatwa be executed. The Muslim universe is extremely formalist! My book never mentioned the name “Muhammad”, and up till now, no fatwa has been issued against me! This said, it doesn’t prevent a furious Imam from calling for your assassination. Of course.

You describe the citizens of Abistan as willing dummies, and Ati’s slow “enlightenment” process as disquieting. Is total ignorance the best solution, compared to anguish or doubt?

Yes, as if they’d made a calculation that all things considered, living like that optimises one’s well- being. The eschatological dimension is a great relief. A system that totally removes responsibility. That’s the thing about Islam: how it totally disempowers people, frees them from any liability or responsibility beyond total religious observance. What works me up is when I hear Westerners travelling to Muslim countries awestruck by what they see as people’s great serenity: “Those serene faces, they look so penetrated with grace.” It shows the naïveté of Westerners. That’s nothing to do with serenity! It’s submission; it’s masochism.

But doesn’t it point to the failure of our system to provide people with what they need? 
A lack of spirituality?

After the demise of communist ideology, the question was which ideology would take its place. As nature abhors a vacuum, there was bound to be something new. For now, we have this ultra materialistic world in which humans have become nothing but consumers in a globalised system run by pro t, a soft, friendly form of totalitarianism that doesn’t really hurt much, only flatters people’s whims and desires.. The problem is that it doesn’t fulfill humans’ fundamental need for spirituality. And here comes Islam – with its vigour and violence and a true prophetic dimension, a real “alpha male” religion in full conquest, aggressive mode. For those in quest for spirituality, it offers prayer – Salafism, quietism, piety. And it offers action for those who want to rebel and “fight” in the name of Allah. And they’re great strategists – they know and understand the world, whereas Westerners know very little about the world beyond their own.

Are you a whistleblower, Boulaem Sansal? Warning the world about dangers we refuse
to face?

I’m warning people against the danger of global Islamisation, which I see as an imminent threat. Some people call that Islamophobic; others call me a whistleblower. But there are two things here. Terrorism, like ISIS/Daesh now, is a great danger, but it is manageable in the long run. The way we destroyed GIA in Algeria or Al Qaeda and Boko Haram, we’ll surely get rid of Daesh. But the ideology that underpins it – what’s the plan to counter the ideology? We have no idea. And meanwhile, this ideology is spreading at frightening speed – taking in its wake moderate Muslims or formerly secular Muslims who are going through radicalisation, but also ever new converts. That’s what worries me.

Well, the Germans have come up with a few ideas – the latest is to outlaw burqas. Do you think this is an adequate answer?

One doesn’t fight an ideology like Islam with derisory bans. But it’s a classic. Whenever pressured by public opinion, governments panic, hesitate and usually take inane, totally inadequate measures. Banning burqas here or burkinis in France won’t solve anything. On the contrary, it will create more panic and renewed resistance and it’s totally counterproductive. The response should be more concerted at the European level, for example, and long term. Ultimately, it shows that European governments are clueless when it comes to Islam and the Arab world.

Don’t you think you might be overly pessimistic? The Algerian experience that informs your point of view might not be so easily transferrable to Western societies, where Islam is experienced (and in many ways rejected) as “alien”. Why would Europe be so prone to Islam?

Muslim populations are still minorities and there are conversions, but not that many! Western societies are vulnerable. Progress, comfort, safety, overconsumption, the ever-increasing number of rights without duties have slowly destroyed their spirit of conquest. They’ve come to resemble retirement homes, where people are ensured to live long and idle. In such a stifling atmosphere, the youth is left with no space to dream of adventure. Islam is taking full advantage of this existential emptiness by bringing the essential: a new meaning to life.

INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE FESTIVAL (SEP 7-17) | Catch Boualem Sansal in conversation (Sep 6, 19:00) or reading from and discussing 2084 (Sep 7, 9:00) at Haus der Berliner Festspiele.