Scenes of Devastation in Gaza. Via Emad El Byed on Unsplash
Kamel Daoud was born in 1970 in Mostaganem, a port city in northwest Algeria. The oldest of six children, he was raised in an Arabic-speaking Muslim family. He studied French literature at the university in Oran. He married but divorced in 2008, after the birth of his daughter. His wife had become increasingly religious and started wearing the hijab.
In 1994, he became a journalist at Le Quotidien d’Oran, a French-language Algerian newspaper, where he was editor-in-chief for eight years. His articles are published in various magazines, the most important being Le Point, a major Parisian publication, where he writes weekly. Daoud’s 2013 novel Mersault, la contre-enquête (translated as The Meursault Investigation) was awarded the Prix Goncourt du premier roman.¹
In 2014, Daoud outlined his critique of Islam in Arab countries publicly on a French television program. A free translation:
If we do not tackle the question of religion, we will not “rehabilitate” ourselves; we will not advance. The role of religion in the Arab world has become integral to all Arabs. We must limit its role; we must reflect on the extent to which it dominates all our lives. Addressing the religious question has become vital if the Arab world is to advance.
Three days later, Abdelfattah Hamadache Zeraoui, a Salafist imam, declared that Daoud should be put to death: “If Islamic shari’a was applied in Algeria, his penalty would be death for apostasy and heresy.” Daoud’s questioning of the Qur’an was a sacrilege and allegedly wounded the dignity of Muslims, attacked the Arabic language, and defended the West and Zionists. The imam called on Algeria to condemn him to death, the death to be public.
To date, he continues to live in Oran and has not – so far – suffered the fate of Salman Rushdie. In this issue, we publish in translation two of his articles from Le Point, one a reflection on the killing of a young Muslim in Paris in June, the other a letter to an anonymous Israeli Jew in the wake of Hamas’s executions of Israelis.
— John Richards
France is squeezed between two visions²
Nahel’s refusal to comply with the police officer has generated a polemic, a major dividing line in France’s political confrontation.³ Should the forgotten ones of the banlieues comply when ordered by the police, or should they revolt? Given their youth, their Maghrebi or African racial identity, their parents’ pretexts, should they reject the police orders? Is the revolt in the name of their banlieue a justified form of delinquency? Is the revolt due to French racism, racism being for some the all-encompassing theory, the explanation of all that has happened? Have the forgotten ones been left in a wilderness, receiving welfare in exchange for their victimization – as the far left zealously argues?
Perhaps the police should not fire on the driver of a car who refuses to stop. But perhaps letting a dangerous driver do as he wishes leads to collapse of the state, of order, of security. Others are theorizing that the driver was engaged in a just revolt at the wheel of his car. Such theorizing is speculative in a country that protects its citizens, even those who put forward intellectual nonsense. To comply or not to comply? In this question lies the future of France. Unfortunately, it was left to one police officer to answer the question, when all French citizens, politicians and voters, should be required to decide. Recall the college teacher required by the curriculum to discuss religion and laïcité. He too was left alone to define the meaning of laïcité.
France is squeezed between two visions. France may be Bardellized.⁴ Bardellization is the logical end result of France’s present debate. France combines the passion of revolution with the concerns of the village grocer. It risks yielding to Bardella because voters are fearful of future insecurity. Everywhere, when people have to choose between security and democracy, they don’t choose democracy. The theorists discussing pretexts and justifications for violence, the rancorous left, the academics who have fled the Maghreb (who prefer living in France and earn their living by guilting the French for past colonialism) – they are accelerating Bardellization.
Its appeal is that people are afraid; they are beginning to conclude (despite themselves, they say) that immigration is dangerous and impoverishes France. Throughout Europe, the conclusion is growing that immigration is not an agreeable source of cultural diversity. The images of urban chaos, the radical extremes of leaders representing Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s France Insoumise, reverse racism (non-White cinema actors and soccer stars denounce the police) – all that contributes to Bardellization. Bardella speaks coherently and has sex appeal. He promises an intelligent future, which was hitherto absent in the French far right.
A dream, idiotically and tragically reversed
Another grave tendency is becoming more plausible: France risks being turned into a Third World country. France is witnessing anarchy, destruction of public buildings, ridiculous justification of riots, weakness of the state, which hesitates between neo-Christian crucifixion and Abrahamic sacrifice and guilt (for past colonialism). It is a strange outcome for a country. Those who migrated to France many generations ago and first-generation immigrants to France (plus their children born in France) came to make their fortune. What is strange among the recently arrived is that they romanticize the country they left and may well Third World–ize the country they came to. As if, through destruction, the youth want to turn their present country, France, into the country they fled. The dream is reversed – idiotically, tragically. The riots destroy the advantages provided by France and are reconstructing the misery, the mythical communitarisme⁵ and deprivation of the village in their country of origin.
France is turned into a Third World country and balkanized by lethal identities, the blackmail of communitarismes uncritically praised, the pronouncements of exclusive “we”s –White, Black, Muslim, français de souche, whatever. Who are these “we”s who preach from the ruins? They persist with their pronouncements, holding the flag of France or the flag of Islam.
We should be enraged – against those who live in France, who were born in France or came to France from countries surrounded with death, against those who came illegally by boat or with a visa, and who are destroying the dream of millions who want to flee their country of origin. We should be sad and enraged against the radicals who sell the bodies of the dead and promote collective suicide. If Les Insoumis, the extremists identifying as pure White, the rioters, the little people indifferent to the future, the prosecutors of the colonial past, the cantors chanting about Maghrebi identity who never go live in the Maghreb – if they don’t want France as it is, they can give it to us, the people of the South.
Many Algerians have condemned the French police. This is not good news. It will accentuate the disintegration of France; it will invite an exploitation of the historical tragedy between Algeria and France, a drama that should not be reenacted. Condemning France will aggravate francophobia. If we Algerians are upset, we should not Algerianize a passing incident.
France is certainly not a perfect country, but it is important for Algerians – France is a free country. A young man has been killed, by a police officer. Neither represents France. The incident should not be ignored. Justice must prevail – neither rioters nor the parasites exploiting the incident to destroy France should prevail.
Letter to an Israeli Jew in time of war⁶
For the last week, I have refrained from following the news of the war in your country. I avoid the news about killing of your people, and your killing of Arabs in Gaza. Why, you might ask? The images are intolerable and inhumane. Perhaps it’s selfish or just human, but I find myself retreating into my own world, thinking about the safety of my loved ones and refusing to bear witness to the deaths of Jews and Palestinians. I have no ability to make a difference. When I was a child in my Algerian village, distressing scenes of Palestinian children’s corpses were paraded by armed Palestinian adults as spoils of war. Those bodies were marred with metal and blood; the haunting cries of wounded children affected all of us.
At that time, Algeria was emerging from its own war and wanted to escape the past and hide from the present. War was the only worthwhile story of life and death after many years of colonization. The conflict in Palestine was declared our own, through narratives taught at school, images on television, and the clever words of leaders. These events often made me uneasy and, as now, I avoided watching those images. Why? It was the feeling of powerlessness, of frustration, of anger without end. Unable to be a hero as was expected of me, I closed my eyes to avoid knowing or carrying those dead bodies within me or carrying them into my dreams.
A neverending war
These harrowing scenes continued to unfold, gradually desensitizing me. I had been raised not to acknowledge the Jew, the Israeli – instead to view you as an adversary of God, of Palestine, of justice, of the Prophet and of almost everything else. I resented you and secretly wished for your disappearance. That would somehow restore value to my life, as I had been taught. What can I say, cher Monsieur? The Jews had been expelled from Algeria long ago, leaving an absence that fuelled fantasies. You were responsible for everything – you betrayed the Prophet of Islam, undermined the Algerian revolution, caused wars and the destruction of our country, and threatened all humanity. As the French colonialists left, we needed a new enemy, one who would combine the presumed anger of our God and our anger against a false brother. And so we sang of the death of the Jew. Palestine was seen as a stolen land, and you were the thief. This simplified world history, the better to serve our inner barbarism.
With time, people grow more mature. As a young man, I gradually began to understand that in our country, the term Jew was used for the traitor, the dissident, the freethinker, the one who did not conform, the dissenter – essentially for everything we disliked in the world and in ourselves. As for Palestine, it was the place where we reside in our dreams, a place we turn to when we cannot accept the world as it is, when we reject the notion of living and constructing our own lives. Over time, I came to realize that our “solidarity” with Palestine was, at its core, an inability to confront our powerlessness, our reality. There is no easier way to escape reality than to engage in an imaginary battle for Palestine. I still dreamed of seeing a free Palestine, but I gradually came to the conclusion that this cause served as an excuse, a retreat into the past, a pretext based on sacred texts.
In reality, Palestinians only interest us when they are dead, wounded, bleeding or buried. When they are alive, they have little significance. Their dreamed-of and longed-for homeland merely postpones the reality of our lives in our countries. Their war does not inspire in us a desire to free them; instead, it ignites a desire to kill you. The “cause” remains a byproduct of our retreat from reality. It absolves us of the need for introspection, effort, work and self-examination of our actions and responsibilities. The Jew is the excuse for the Arab’s abdication of responsibility. This “cause” revives the Islamist within each of us, even the most educated and discerning. It clouds our judgement, incites hysteria and distorts our understanding of our reality at the expense of the Palestinian people. It prevents us from embracing the world and encourages us to abandon it. This is where we find ourselves, because of this neverending war.
All wars, even if justified, are unjust
Cher Monsieur, it took me time to come to terms with your people and attempt to understand your history. I eventually realized – I may be wrong – that we fail to grasp your will to live after centuries of extermination attempts. We do not comprehend your past sufferings or your profound attachment to the land that you have now regained. We do not fathom that your war is about defending against the permanent disappearance of your people, those who are dead and those unborn.
From our perspective, all we see is colonization, surrender and a cursed people, while in reality you are a people that has finally awakened. To us, you represented nothing more than a colonial force, and in recent years, an archaic narrative of the chosen people who resist the God who has sided with us. “God has cursed them,” a believer once told me. This prompted me to wonder: how can a God named “the Just” curse those who are not yet born? How can He pass judgment on what has yet to enter the world? He could perhaps have “cursed” a tribe or two back when He had a voice, but today? Why label a newborn child as “cursed”? On the basis of what acceptable divine justice? In truth, we are the ones who are damned.
This month (October 2023), I find it difficult to watch the images of civilians killed in Gaza. This is not because I want to kill you, hold a grudge against you or fight you. The difficulty lies in my struggle to find a voice and a path. Finally, after decades, I comprehend your determination, cher Monsieur, to live and claim a place after three millennia of wandering in a segregated world. Gradually, amid the noise and conditioning of my childhood, I am coming to understand your right to live and prosper. I would never want to add my voice to those who believe that killing you, accusing you and vilifying you for centuries suffices to place me on the side of a God or a colonized people.
But – I cannot accept war wherever it comes from, and whoever is the target. I reject the idea that Islamists can give themselves the “divine” right of “resistance” to kill you, kill your children; I understand your need to fight and wage war to survive. But I cannot imagine the pain and the screams of those caught between your anger, your desire for vengeance, your need for security and the activities of terrorists with the pretext of (Palestinian) independence and desire to extend their caliphate. I am convinced that, in your place, I would have done the same thing, but one war does not stop the next; it feeds future war. I explain to myself your desire for survival, but I am persuaded that all wars, even if justifiable, are unjust.
People love dead Palestinians
I do not want to add my voice to those in my country who inhabit their failures and cultivate their hatred of you. I do not want to be silent before those who are obsessed by the war in which you are engaged. I do not want to accept the reasoning of those who hate you and refuse life, of those who devour the Palestinian dead to feed their hatreds. And I do not want to add my screams to those who scream we must liberate Palestine by killing all Jews, to those who transform their powerlessness to govern their country in Algeria, their failures, their hatred of everyone and you in particular. But I refuse to endorse bombings even if the war can be explained by both sides, and I refuse to believe war is the only option. Your history of suffering does not justify your rationalization of war, nor does the suffering of those opposed to you justify their rationalization of war.
After a war, there are losers and winners. The losers are surrounded by their dead. The dead include those, in my country, who attempt to resolve hatreds, who fight against antisemitism, who promote liberty. The losers are the voices of reason, because today anyone is a Jew who defends liberty, universalism, humanity or the right to be different. The losers are also the Palestinians who are obliged to choose between, on the one hand, armed conflict and association with the Palestinian masses who destroy their own assets and lives and, on the other hand, building a possible peace. In my country and yours, the winners are those who are radical, who proclaim their God and force confessions of apostates, who kill all forms of diversity. They are the enragés, the inquisitors of the Temple, the organizers of caliphates in Arab countries, the merchants selling arms, the advocates of extermination. This war not only costs lives; it costs our liberties, our right to think as we wish, our freedom of expression in our country. It costs our faint hope that some day we will have democracy and people happy in their country.
This present war, with no evident end, is destroying my world. It is revealing the worst: my Arab colleagues are often scavengers. They adore devouring the dead and, in this obscure appetite, Palestinians are the most desirable item among the dead. We do not welcome Palestinians to our countries; we do not educate them; we do not share our wealth with them. We do not love them alive, but dead, they are proof of your crimes. They are our alibi for refusing to like “others,” to grieve and empathize with the deaths of the “others” – of the rest of humanity. You, cher Monsieur, have become the necessary enemy, the excuse that exempts us from measuring our reality. The more Palestine’s land is reduced, the more the caliphates, the emirates, the medieval Islamist kingdoms in our countries extend their territory.
Looking after our own countries
Obviously, this war costs us less than it does you or your adversary or neighbour. But it deprives us of our own countries and offers to our domestic enemies a rationale for rancour and hatred, for caliphates and other totalitarian regimes. Can you, cher Monsieur, liberate your people from the fear of losing their long-promised land? Can Palestinians liberate themselves from imaginary liberators and assume title to the land that remains for them? And can we some day meet to resolve the missing parts of our respective histories, and thus defeat those who hate and build walls? Can the world one day recognize that you, cher Monsieur, are guilty only of hoping too much with too much fury, and the Palestinians of finally resolving their despair? Can you and I at some time understand what we have done to you, the Jew, the Israeli, and that you and I can finally end this conflict?
To know you and recognize those among us who reject “holy” barbarism is a long, enigmatic road toward recognizing our family links – which, at present, is a recognition we refuse. This war is an occasion for a mysterious inquiry of the dark shades of our fears. It is an occasion for a difficult examination of our weaknesses and excuses for avoiding life. And perhaps, you will be able to help Palestinians live and belong to the world. The Palestinians, liberated, will help us dispense with the attraction of death as means to attain dignity. Finally, we will concern ourselves with our respective countries. We will discover that humanity exists and is not apostasy, a plot, a threat.
1 Inroads published a review of the novel in its Summer/Fall 2015 issue.
2 This article appeared in French in Le Point on July 8, 2023. It was translated for Inroads by John Richards.
3 Nahel Merzouk, a French 17-year-old of Algerian and Moroccan descent, was fatally shot by a police officer in the Paris suburb of Nanterre on June 27, 2023. His death led to riots that lasted 19 days.
4 Jordan Bardella, born in Saint-Denis, a department in suburban Paris, is currently president of the National Rally, the party of Marine Le Pen.
5 Communautarisme is attachment to a particular (usually ethnic or religious) identity in preference to identification with the country as a whole.
6 This article appeared in French in Le Point on October 27, 2023. It was translated for Inroads by John Richards.