No 6 December 1994.6
A Muslim woman walks down busy Ontario Street in east-end Montreal. She is a refugee who seems to have found herself a safe haven in Canada. She wants to meet people, perhaps make some friends, in her adopted homeland. Everyone has told her that Canada is a land of welcome, a place where she can be happy. Could they have been wrong?
Her eyes downcast, she walks quickly past the grey walls, lost in thought, the thoughts of a world different from ours. It's true, she wears the hijab, the Islamic headcovering. But in spite of this (or perhaps because of it), she is admirable for being faithful to her convictions. And yet it is almost impossible to tell her so. Her quick pace and averted gaze create a gulf that cannot be bridged.
Two passersby look at her with scorn and hatred: Hey, baby! You're in Canada now, how come you can't dress like everyone else?
That happened yesterday, in Montreal.
Just how far can intransigence go?
In a street in Algiers, two Catholic nuns have just been assassinated. They chose Algeria to be their adopted homeland. They wanted to devote their lives to serving their Algerian brothers and sisters. They wanted to make friends and to bear witness to their unconditional love for the children of Allah. People had told them at length about the legendary hospitality of the people of the desert. Was there some misunderstanding?
They liked to walk beside the white walls, discreet, their eyes downcast, lost in prayer to the God of all mercies. They wore a cross, it's true, but in spite of this sign (or perhaps because of it), they were admirable for being faithful to their religion. They were murdered...and yet the people of Algeria appreciated their generosity and held them in high esteem. But they could not tell them so for fear of reprisals.
That happened yesterday, in Algiers.
Just how far can fanaticism go?
When one person uses religion to assert his supremacy...
When one party rises up against another...
When one system opposes another...
When one ideology confronts another...
Human beings are often caught between the two.
Montreal? Algiers? What is the connection?
Exactly what is happening in Algeria?
Algeria, a North African country with a population of 27 million, is at war with itself. Since its independence in 1962, a single party has governed Algeria, the National Liberation Front (FLN). Under pressure from the Algerian people and from Western nations, it agreed to hold elections in 1991. Unused to the democratic process, very few Algerians took the trouble to cast their vote. But those who did overwhelmingly chose the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). The elections confirmed the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
The FIS is a fundamentalist movement that preaches Islam in its purest and strictest form. It seeks to apply the precepts of the Koran to the letter, and interprets them in their narrowest sense, as in Iran. After winning over the schools, where Arabization and Islamization have cleared the way for fundamentalism, the FIS intends to conquer the family, and especially women. It is turning women into political capital by taking them out from under the protection of father and family and placing them in oussras (the basic cell group of the Islamic movement). It imposes the wearing of the hijab and then pushes them out into the street. And so for millions of women, the hijab has become a veritable passport to public life. The headscarf has become the emblem of the true believer in foreign countries like Canada. Those who forbid the wearing of the hijab are discriminating against minorities and violating the charter of human rights, according to fundamentalist Muslims.
To counter the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and preserve democracy, Algerian authorities called upon the army, which by law is the guardian of the Constitution. After the first-round victory of the FIS in the legislative elections of December 26, 1991, the party was dissolved and its leaders incarcerated. Many experts consider these decisions to have been a serious political mistake.
As a result, assassination, sabotage and repression have become everyday occurrences. Official sources have put the death toll at 20,000 since the beginning of 1992. In this ruthless struggle for power, no one is safe, including the forces of law and order, civil servants, intellectuals, foreign cooperants and religious, and not even those one might describe as ordinary men and women, so ordinary that their deaths go unnoticed. This campaign of terrorism aimed at ordinary people is part of the strategy of the FIS and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), an extremist branch of the FIS that is prepared to wage a war of attrition in order to gain power by violent means. They want to create the impression that General Liamine Zeroual, the head of state, is powerless to protect anyone. The population has lost confidence in its leaders, leaving the FIS in the catbird seat to negotiate conditions.
That is what is happening in Algeria. But the resurgence of Islam is not unique to Algeria. It is a factor as well in Sudan, Bosnia, India and Tadjikistan.
For Muslim fundamentalists, Western imperialism is an insult to their religious fervour.
And for hardline capitalists, the followers of Mohammed are no more than bloodthirsty fanatics.
Both extremes want to impose their own system of values and their own beliefs.
Those who seek compromise are seen as weak, and those who are prepared to negotiate are unworthy of compassion.
Between them runs a wall that is wider than the great wall of China. We are so far from each other. And yet, we are all members of the same human race.
Chances are, both the Montreal racists and the Algerian terrorists are good husbands and loving fathers who are nonetheless capable of cruelty in order to maintain a system, an ideology or a religion. But they have lost touch with their roots.
What Christian does not know that God is love?
What Muslim doubts the mercy of Allah?
Right now, the One who is completely other must be entertaining some serious doubts about some of His children.
Foreigners...in such a small world!
If only they knew that men and women of compassion do not have ideologies!
Fortunately, between these two extremes, there are peacemakers who are hard at work to bring about reconciliation. Among their many achievements are the Israeli-Palestinian peace accord and the inter-religious meeting in Assisi. Between Jews, Muslims and Christians, surely there is room for dialogue.
Not all Western Christians are necessarily Godless capitalists.
Not all Eastern Muslims are necessarily fundamentalists ready to resort to terrorism.
Between one world and the other, there are those who want only to live in peace under the gaze of the Almighty and All-Merciful.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.