No, We Are Not All Kamel Daoud

In spite of a savage civil war in the 1990s in which jihadi groups killed over a hundred journalists as well as numerous musicians and writers, Algeria today is home to a thriving literary culture. The biggest star of the day is Kamel Daoud, whose literary repartee to Camus’s The Stranger made a splash in France last year and will soon be published in English translation. Daoud’s prominence and cantankerousness recently won him a death fatwa from a prominent local islamist; here, fellow Algerian writer Sid Ahmed Semiane, himself a veteran of the 1990s war on journalists, reflects on what the fatwa-and its opponents as well-say about present-day Algeria.

A solicitation for murder. A solicitation for murder published, signed and acknowledged-proudly and publicly-by its author, a certain oddball called Hamadache. A sinister charlatan, deranged by the Hadiths who, holding no office, has designated himself the mouthpiece of God on Earth; he joins God’s large and growing contingent of personal lawyers in the Muslim world. A collection that often resembles an organized crime enterprise or a terror group more than one devoted to the peaceful doctrines of the faith.

A step has been taken; one step further down a path that no one had previously dared take, at least not in this manner. Solicitation for murder is a serious business, even when it is done by a moron-because there is always someone even more moronic waiting around to carry it out: that’s where the danger lies. The bullet has already left the gunbarrel, the dog is already loosed.

In a functional country, a case like this is taken up by the state the moment it crosses the desk of the authorities. First and foremost, it is the business of police and judicial authorities, two institutions whose mechanisms are well-developed enough to immediately grasp the seriousness of such a threat, and to move to disarm it, responding rapidly and appropriately. But since this particular case is political as well, it is also the business of the elected government.

The real problem, the troublesome part, is not really Mr. Hamadache. Let’s be serious. The real problem is the declining health of the Algerian state. The real problem is not to try to understand why this Salafi of the most extremist and caricatural type has gone and made a public solicitation of murder, but rather how it is possible for somebody to make a public solicitation to commit murder unmolested? Twenty years ago [during the civil war]calls for murder were made anonymously; they were signed with endless acronyms denoting criminal organizations. They were clandestinely posted on the walls of mosques and elsewhere. Today, they are signed personally and their authors don’t feel the need to hide in mountain caves; they live in their apartments, right next to your apartment. They are the neighbor down the hall.

It is not at all surprising that today this man, this sinister character, has publicly condemned a writer to death. An event like this is contained in the logic of the collapse of a state which day by day grows weaker. It is a physical process; like the principal of the pulley. As the body of the state rolls down, that of the mafia and the inquisition are pulled up. It doesn’t take an engineer to see it coming.

But beyond the dissolution of a state in terminal decline, a diagnosis that has been clear for some time now, there is another collapse, equally disquieting: that of the appreciation for a certain idea of democracy.

For weeks now we have been confronted with the hatred and the frothing aggressiveness, in word and deed, of a shouting army, some of them [onetime]friends. Neither professional Islamists nor friends of the secret police, they have effectively lined up with the most zealous of the preachers, the most extremist of the fanatics, the most devious officials of the police state. A disgusting campaign has been launched against Kamel Daoud, in the hippest bars frequented by Algiers’ intelligentsia, and on the social networks.

This man, a talented writer for 20 years now, has somehow been transformed into a neo-colonialist, an intellectual in the pocket of France, a supporter of Zionism, a sellout to the West. And why? Because we don’t agree with what he writes, they tell us. A strange way of looking at things.

Within this unhealthy system of pseudo-democracy, Echourouk and Ennahar deserve special notice. These two dailies, closer in spirit to the genocidal outlook of Rwanda’s infamous Thousand Hills Radio than to any sane newspaper, have enthusiastically and with complete impunity advanced this attack on Daoud, piling confusion on top of confusion.

These two papers-racist, hateful, irrational, which seem to dream of a country somewhere halfway between a police state and a theocracy-have supported Hamadache’s solicitation for murder and have indeed invited other personalities to put their seal of approval on it. And not just excitable Islamists, as we might have expected. [Novelist] Rachid Boudjedra sticks the knife in deeper, allowing himself to be used as a “secular” buttress to support a religious fatwa of the most detestable kind, calling for the murder of a human being. Of a writer. Here too, we find ourselves in sight of an ethical collapse of a certain idea of democracy.

Boujedra, in the twilight of his literary career now, offers the depressing image of a bitter old marionette, of a tissue-paper jester; gone the greatness of spirit, the intellectual generosity; a pronouncer of inanities and imbecilities, of falsehoods and dubious conjectures and of convictions that can only be described as tragic for a writer. The imbecile and atheistic mirror image of a stupid religious fanatic. A sad decline.

On the social networks, people have turned out to show their support. But there as well, even in the way of showing support, we can see the collapse of a certain idea of democracy. Two ways of showing support have confronted one another. First there were those who project themselves onto Kamel Daoud, identifying with him and overusing the usual catchphrase: “We are all Kamel Daoud.” Others, those who wanted to add some nuance to their postings, expressed their disagreement with all or part of Daoud’s ideas while offering their support nevertheless.

The Voltaire slogan, whose veracity is contestable, which consists of saying that I don’t agree with what you say but I will fight for your right to say it, is a stupid cliché born of laziness and a certain kind of arrogance. “I don’t share all of Kamel Daoud’s ideas, but he has my solidarity…because he was condemned to death…” Well thank you so much for your kindness. Our solidarity is biased. It is more about making ourselves look like generous spirits, sufficiently tolerant, than about leaving to Kamel Daoud the complete and free ability to express his contested and contestable ideas. Basically the right to piss people off. And good lord, why this obsession with wanting to share someone else’s opinions? This obsession with wanting to share all of our opinions with everybody else is unhealthy. Such is the bedrock on which conformist thinking and one-party states are built. It is more interesting to not share them, these opinions; that is what creates a rich intellectual terrain.

Fighting for resemblance, for twinness, for the cloning of opinion is an error. Rather we should be fighting for difference, for dissonance, for otherness, for uniqueness. Ideas shouldn’t make us happy, they should lash us to force us out of the slavery of lazinesses. We need to be more comfortable with how we take in what the world shows us; that’s all.

If I say that I am Kamel Daoud, I am denying what is unique about another person; that is, Kamel Daoud himself. I am not Kamel Daoud and I don’t want to be. Kamel Daoud is a unique voice who should only exist as himself. An intellect and way of thinking all his own.

‘We want everyone to be like us, we want them to write things that please us, we want their films to make us feel comfortable, we want their ideas to reassure us. The Other shouldn’t come from elsewhere, but be an outgrowth of ourselves.’

‘We want a democracy with the trappings of a one party system. We want pluralism only within the most menacing uniformity.’

‘And the hell with anyone who leaves the tribe. We are in the tribe. We don’t want life in the city, we want the village.’

‘We don’t want to think, we want to agree, nod our heads, think about the good old days, back when there was only the one state television channel, one guy talking on the TV while everyone else bobbed their heads and agreed with him.’

Politeness is not a sign of a healthy democracy. We need to think about how to live together with our differences, not how to be more alike. Living together with inbred ideas is as unhealthy as inbred genes. A serious illness. For all these reasons I am not Kamel Daoud; I refuse to be. Kamel is another path. Another voice. Another individuality. That’s what makes him interesting.

Sid Ahmed Semiane Translated from French by International Boulevard