Fundamentalism and Algeria

October 13, 1997|By William Pfaff

PADUA, Italy -- In speaking about the Mediterranean in particular and Muslim-Western relations in general, clarity would be served by doing away with the words ''fundamentalism'' and ''fundamentalist.'' Their use not only promotes stereotypes but misrepresents political struggles as religious conflicts.

That comment follows from a discussion in Padua this month among Muslim and Western scholars at a meeting organized by the Community of Sant' Egidio. The community is an ecumenical Roman Catholic lay group, born of the intellectual and religious ferment of the '60s, which two years ago managed to bring all the factions in Algeria, the government excepted, to agree on a platform for dialogue.

The talks that followed continued for a year and a half but ultimately failed, as Algeria sank more deeply into the horror of its internal struggles.

The community's efforts in 1990-1992 in Mozambique were successful, ending a 16-year war. An American scholar, Thomas Michel, noted that as a religious phenomenon, fundamentalism is specifically American.

It was an American Protestant movement early in this century protesting liberal theology and the influence on Protestantism of secularism and Darwinism. It defended -- and defends today -- the literal interpretation of the Bible.

The Muslim movements called fundamentalist are actually theocratic. They want to install governments ruled by strict interpretations of Koranic teachings.

They might also be called ''integrist,'' a word used in the past in Europe to describe Catholics who believed that Catholicism should be made a state religion and be officially taught in schools.

This Padua panel included an Algerian professor of Muslim dogma at the University of Rabat in Morocco, as well as others from the Islamic world and from Europe. They agreed on the need to call things what they are.

A murderer is a murderer, and a terrorist is a terrorist. A terrorist may be a Muslim, but he commits terrorism for a political purpose. His motivation is power, not religion. He may be a religious fanatic, but fanaticism is not religion.

In Algeria, the complexities of the terrible struggle taking place BTC have left the outside world horrified, but also inclined to assume that what is going on is incomprehensible and in some sense collective. The blame lies on Algeria or Islam. It is a matter of cultural or national fatality.

Yet the people who are ordering and committing the atrocities are all acting for political motives. They are trying to seize power, or keep it. Some of them are acting for an even more basic reason: greed. Algeria is extremely rich in oil and natural gas. The government controls those resources. The struggle is for wealth.

Power, wealth

Power and wealth are linked, and the government is reliably reported to be internally divided in the struggle for power and control of the country's wealth.

The insurgent groups are also divided, into at least six warring factions, by one count.

In Algeria, a rich government profitably sells energy on international markets, deals with international financial agencies, banks and oil companies, and is able to buy arms and whatever other imports it wants. The government rules a population that grows steadily more impoverished and desperate.

Thousands of ordinary people have been massacred since a national election was annulled in 1991, when it seemed that the military government would be defeated.

In the recent past, people have assigned a nebulous responsibility to ethnicity, history or culture when trying to explain difficult conflicts in Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia and elsewhere.

If these affairs can be put down to ancient hatreds, ethnic rivalries, national character we don't have to give further thought to them. Nothing need be tried since nothing can be done.

Doing something is not simple. It is not apparent what international action can accomplish.

The Italian, Spanish and French governments made an appeal last week for negotiations and a new offer of mediation, rejected by the Algerian authorities as an interference in their country's internal affairs. An earlier attempt at international intervention by the United Nations' Kofi Annan met the same fate.

The Sant' Egidio group is continuing its private peace efforts, mainly through its religious contacts. It is not optimistic. But a religious group can afford to go on in discouraging circumstances because it believes that the ultimate outcome is not in human hands.

Even when nothing else seems to work, it can always pray. That is how the conference ended, with Muslims as well as Buddhists, Hindus, Jews and Christians doing the praying.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 10/13/97

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