'Arab World Is Dead, Iran Will Lead Islam'

Algerian author Boualem Sansal talks to Haaretz about his new dystopian novel, ISIS, and death threats.

Gaby Levin
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Boulem Sansal
Boulem SansalCredit: Emil Salman
Gaby Levin

He is courageous and stubborn, ready to shout his opinions, which are unacceptable in his country, Algeria. He has won many literary awards and is greatly admired in countries where his books are published, but he and his family live under threats to their lives.

That is Boualem Sansal, an Algerian writer and engineer with a doctorate in economics who was fired from his civil-service job in 2003 due to criticism of the religious establishment and the administration of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who still runs the country.

Sansal wrote his first book, "Le Serment des Barbares," in 1996 when he was 47, at the encouragement of a friend, the writer Rachid Mimouni. Mimouni was politically persecuted, too; he was forced to leave for France and died in exile.

Sansal’s first book, which was published in France only in 1999, already includes criticism of events in Algeria. Since then Sansal has written 10 books — seven novels and three books of essays — which were all published by the prestigious Gallimard publishing house. He also publishes articles in Europe's most important newspapers; his views on religious fundamentalism resonate and he pays the price.

When in a book he was accused of comparing radical Islam to Nazism, his second wife was fired from her teaching job. His first wife — a Czech Catholic — and his two daughters were forced to leave Algeria and settled in Prague after activists from the religious establishment tried to bring his daughters back to religion.

Now his seventh novel, “2084. La Fin du monde,” has been published. In a plot that takes place 100 years after George Orwell’s “1984,” Sansal tackles religious totalitarianism — which reigns in a kingdom called Abistan, named after Abi — the Big Brother absolute ruler.

Abi is the earthly messenger who does the bidding of Yolah, a god to whom believers pray nine times a day. They gather at prayer sites and speak in a sacred language.

The heretics — those who don’t observe the laws — are put to death by stoning or beheading in the city square. In the name of Yolah the manipulative religious system espouses absurd slogans such as “To die in order to live happily.” Sansal takes the reader through all the circles of the Abistani hell without sparing the horrifying details. But there's a dollop of irony as well.

Ati — the hero who decides to breach the boundaries of Abistan — violates the laws that prohibit the kingdom's inhabitants to think. During his wanderings throughout the country he discovers ghettos where the last living heretics are atrophying. Ati symbolizes those who dare say no to totalitarianism. He is Sansal’s last hope.

Words cannot describe the beauty of the text. The few critics who have already read it speak of a masterpiece and the book of the year. Author Michel Houellebecq, who was interviewed last weekend on television, said Sansal had dared “to go much further than I did” in Houellebecq's controversial book “Submission.” Other participants in the panel praised this courageous opus and predicted great success, perhaps the prestigious prizes awarded in the fall.

This week Sansal is flying to Paris to promote the book, but before leaving Algeria he accepted an invitation to be interviewed by Haaretz by email.

After the Arab Spring came the Jihadi Summer. Did the bloody events of the past year in Europe and our region provide you with inspiration for “2084”?

"Current events didn’t influence me. Already in my book of essays 'Gouverner au nom d'Allah,' I was interested in the changes taking place in Islam and the Arab and Muslim world. In '2084' I’m interested in a possible long-term development. I thought about it already in the 1970s when I read Orwell’s '1984,' and also after the fall of the Berlin Wall. I asked myself: What totalitarian system will arise after Stalinism?

"The answer was already on the horizon: After the failure of Arab and pan-Arab nationalism, radical Islam began to prepare to return to the places from which the Prophet Mohammed had brought it — to the gates of the West. The Americans who armed and encouraged radical Islam weren't sufficiently aware to understand that one day all that would come into play against them and against the West."

Is Abistan the meeting place of all forms of radical Islam? Is it the kingdom of the Islamic State?

"There are as many approaches to Islam as there are Muslims in the world. When there’s a common enemy, everyone agrees on moderate Islam, but after the victory everyone returns to his views, and that’s how they arrive at bloody civil wars. No, Abistan is not ISIS — I was thinking more of Iran. In terms of history, the Arab world is dead — it failed at everything. Liberation from colonialism, economic and social development, unification and integration into the global world — all these have failed.

"The fundamentalist Islam that's developing in the Arab world is too primitive to develop a long-term strategy. Iran, on the other hand, is well armed intellectually, scientifically and economically, and could one day lead Islam globally. I think that soon the Sunni Arabs will accept the domination of Shi’ite Iran, because only Iran enjoys recognition from the West, and even instills fear in it.

"The Iranian nuclear program is the proof of its capabilities. But there’s another serious rival, which hasn't yet developed sufficiently — Western Islam. It too could one day compete for the right to lead the Muslim world. Islamization is assuming larger dimensions by the day, and the Europeans who embraced Islam are turning out to be more effective than the Muslims from birth.”

Pro-ISIS demonstrators in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, Iraq, June 16, 2014.Credit: AP

Europe's malaise

Why do young Westerners find radical Islam so attractive?

"Young people in Europe grow up in a constant search for bourgeois comfort and hedonism in a society that is well organized and somewhat cowardly. In addition, European society is aging and lives in nostalgia for its glorious past. It repeats the same rhetoric and slogans that have no takers except in Europe itself. Young people don’t know where to turn, they feel suffocated between four crumbling walls, without a horizon and without ideals.

"Islam and the Islamists arrived in time to offer them a powerful alternative ... as happened in May 1968 when young people felt a need for a heroic alternative — or at least what they saw as one."

In May 2012, Sansal accepted the invitation of the International Writers Festival in Jerusalem. He showed up despite threats and criticism, mainly by Hamas, which accused him of “a crime against a million and a half Algerian martyrs who sacrificed their lives for freedom.”

Later, he was denied France’s Arab novel prize for his book “Rue Darwin,” which tells the story of his childhood in the same neighborhood where another Algerian French writer was born — Albert Camus.

In what way is the book's protagonist like you? Is Ati’s ambition of breaching the boundaries of Abistan akin to your visit to Jerusalem despite the risks?

"I identify with all those who fight for freedom, and I believe that overall freedom is meaningless unless each of us is free. Those who are enslaved to a murderous ideology like radical Islam, who are presumably fighting for the freedom of the nation, are not coherent. They want to liberate their people in order to enslave them.

"Freedom must be a coherent act that includes many risks. You have to decide what you want: coherent freedom or enslavement and a lack of dignity. My visit to Jerusalem is part of that coherence, since the freedom I’m talking about is not words only, but deeds."

Orwell’s prophecy of doom in “1984,” which he saw as the end of the world, didn’t come true. Despite the pessimism of “2084,” and in light of the strengthening of radical Islam, do you still have hope?

"Those who fight are by definition people with hope. We have to work with the young people; they are the future. We have to offer them something other than petit-bourgeois comfort or the lunacy of radical Islam. We have to build the adventure of tomorrow so they will have something to dream about and something to fight for, otherwise they will go to fill the ranks of Abistan."

One of the immediate results of the rise of radical Islam in countries like Libya and Syria is the mass migration to Europe. What's your opinion of that phenomenon?

"The massive migration is not only a result of violence and the rise of the extremists. A large percentage of the refugees leave due to the failed economy of the regimes where they live. We can't ignore that aspect of the migration. More than ever, international organizations and the developed countries must pressure these benighted regimes to adopt a different policy. The West must stop supporting corrupt regimes.

"The Syrians and Libyans who are leaving their countries are not migrants. They are refugees who are trying to flee death, to find peace and quiet and to rebuild themselves. Usually they aspire to return to their own countries, and most of all we have to think about their children. If their stay in the West lasts too long they won’t acclimate either there or upon their return to their country.

"Every day television shows the waves of refugees arriving in Europe. For the most part, these are young people, or those in midlife who are healthy and strong. This sight arouses an ethical question: Who will fight to liberate their countries?"

After the January attacks in Paris, do you think Europe is responding weakly to the radical Islamic threat on its territory?

"Europe is in a catch-22. The problem of Islamic extremism has given rise to total paralysis. The fear of being considered an Islamophobe or a racist prevents any step or any practical and effective action.

"As a result, there is a lot of anti-terrorist discourse in order to convey the impression that the government is responding to the threat. The problem is that the Muslims themselves are paralyzed in the face of the extremists who are getting stronger before their eyes and are attracting the children to their ranks."

A French Jew and a police officer after the Paris kosher mart attack.Credit: AP

Vive la French language

After criticism that you were comparing radical Islam to Nazism, after criticism of others of Islamophobia, after the scandal stirred by Houellebecq's “Submission,” are you concerned “2084” might be seen as an accusation against Islam as a whole?

"If I were afraid of criticism I wouldn’t write books like ... '2084' and wouldn’t go to Jerusalem. Without playing down the unpleasantness caused me as a writer, I think society needs books like this or actions like the visit to Jerusalem, which let us understand ... the battles being waged by various identities and opinions. All these things could spur society to act by taking part in demonstrations of support or condemnation, or in elections."

Boulem Sansal at the Jerusalem Book Festival, 2012.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

So there was the boycott of Sansal in 2012, the withdrawal of the Arab prize, and the trip to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, over here, there has been the Gaza war, the kidnapping and murder of the three yeshiva students in the West Bank, and recently the torching of the house in the West Bank village of Duma by Jewish terrorists.

Do you think the dialogue you refer to is still possible?

"Unfortunately, no. And anyway, it wouldn’t have achieved any progress. Every dialogue would have been boycotted by those who oppose it. The problem is that there is no mediator who can bridge between the various sides of the conflict. Obama’s America and Europe don’t inspire confidence — Russia and China seek the status quo. In the Western world it’s hard to find people who are ready for dialogue without preconditions."

Is the fact that you, as an Algerian, have chosen French as your language of expression and creativity a reflection of the struggle against the government, of secularism, of freedom?

"Among my other battles, I’ve long been fighting to have French become Algeria’s official language. The Algerians are lucky to know the language. If they turn it into the official language and teach in it, our young people will gain great openness to the world. Arabic, which dominates today as an absolute monopoly, directs young people to the most outdated aspects of the Muslim world.

"There’s a need to balance these things. The late Kateb Yacine, who was a great writer, said about French: 'It’s the spoils of war.' These spoils are in our hands — we have to take advantage of the language, to make it flourish and turn it into a means for dialogue and peace."

Your opinions in your books and during your visit to Jerusalem put you and your family in mortal danger. How do you live in Algeria today?

"If we devote too much thought to danger, we’re paralyzed and do nothing. To do nothing means to die — it’s suicide."

Are you considering another visit to Israel?

"I dream about it. If '2084' is translated into Hebrew, I would gladly come talk about it in Israel ... and in the West Bank, if the Palestinians agree to have me, of course."



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