A Zeal to Kill For Islam Sets Algeria Apart In Violence

The mufti of one of Algeria's oldest mosques sits on the floor preaching, his yellow braided hat set upon a crown of very short white hair.

When Sheikh Maamar speaks - just 100 yards from where a large bus bomb in May left several dead and dozens wounded in Martyrs' Square - his message of peace is one that has rarely been heard in Algeria. Five years of carnage have pitted "Islamic" extremists against the government.

"The biggest crime in Islam is to kill," he says, his sunburned face taking on a grave expression. "Even using that word, or having the intention to kill, is forbidden. So when you act there is no pardon for you, no mercy." Even the word Islam, Sheikh Maamar explains, means "peace."

But that point seems to have had little effect outside the walls of this mosque, where 60,000 have died in a conflict of almost unprecedented ferocity.

A rise in militant Islam has swept from Afghanistan to Sudan. But nowhere has the contradiction between Islam and killing been so stark as in North Africa's Algeria.

The great contrast between the mufti's message and the bloodshed is best seen in "The White Book on Terrorism in Algeria," a government documentation of tough, detailed photographs of slit throats, decapitations, and disembowelments that have marked this conflict.

"The killing has been savage and wild since the beginning," says Salima Tlemamci, a reporter at the El-Watan newspaper in Algiers, which has close ties with the security forces. "We ask ourselves the same question: Why?"

The military-backed government of President Liamine Zeroual blames every death on fundamentalist terrorists trying to impose a strict Islamic state on Algeria, but it refuses to negotiate with extreme Islamic leaders and vows to crush the guerrillas by force.

The military annulled elections in 1992 that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was on the verge of winning by a landslide. More than 9,000 supporters were rounded up and detained in desert camps, and since then the FIS - which calls itself the "Party of God" - has been outlawed.

Some leaders are in prison, and extreme, violent offshoots of the party have denounced FIS and gone underground. But Islamic zeal alone does not explain the killing: Economic hardship - which has earned Islamists support regionwide from Iran to Egypt and Turkey - has much to do with it, along with increasing lawlessness.

Hundreds of veterans from the "holy war" in Afghanistan - trained and paid for by Saudi Arabia and the United States Central Intelligence Agency during the 1980s - have also returned home. They have found the secular regime to be too corrupting of Islam and have turned one area of the Algiers neighborhood known as the Casbah into "Little Kabul."

Every year during the holy month of Ramadan, the throat-slitting and car bombs increase.

Promise of a better life

"Terrorism is a new concept in Algeria, but Islamism is not new," says Ali Bilal, also a journalist at El-Watan. "The economy was bad in the 1980s and people were excluded from politics, so when FIS appeared promising paradise, a better life, and housing, it crystallized the anger.

"FIS didn't create fundamentalism, it just took advantage of it and made it grow," he says.

The June 5 parliamentary election was meant to add a veneer of democracy to the presidential regime - to cancel out the 1992 debacle - and moderate Islamic parties won a number of seats, though they remain a minority in a parliament whose powers are severely limited.

Democracy and Islam

Many say that real democracy and accountable leadership are the only way to solve Algeria's crisis. But this "second Algerian war" - after the 1954-1962 war for independence from French colonial rule that is said to have left 1 million dead - has raised questions about whether democracy is compatible with Islam.

Ali BenHadj, a top FIS leader in prison and a powerful public speaker, said in 1990 that democracy was "pagan," but in letters written in 1994 made clear that people should "choose their rulers."

Fundamentalism 'inevitable'?

Still, a recent study by the RAND Corporation, ordered by the United States Army, concludes that one day fundamentalists will inevitably come to power in Algeria.

The Ottoman-built Casbah, the former Arab quarter where Maamar's mosque is squeezed between crowded apartment buildings, is notorious for being the most dangerous area of the capital.

The clutch of security men accompanying a Western visitor are nervous, and get out of their car pistols first, so that everyone around knows they are armed.

But this area should be most safe, according to Muslim precepts.

"The Muslim is the one who doesn't hurt another, by hand or by word. That is the definition," Mamaar says.

"But atomic bombs and weapons are a bad human creation. Have you ever heard of tigers or elephants gathering to attack their own species? When Allah [God] gave man the power, he did not respect it."

But the worldview spelled out in the Koran describes an unhappy fate, he says, in which there are 72 signs that the world will end soon. One sign is that "people stop praying" and shed the blood of their peers.

Finding justification for killing

But militants waging war have also found justification in the Koran, justifying killing with the order to end the lives of apostates.

"We have the means and the men to punish those who are not on our side," says a statement earlier this year attributed to Antar Zouabri, the chief of the Armed Islamic Group, which claims responsibility for many attacks.

The GIA is at odds with FIS, and has assassinated FIS officials. "Except for those who are with me," Mr. Zouabri said, "all others are apostates and deserve death."

More-moderate Islamic leaders such as Sheikh Abdallah Djaballah, head of the legal An-Nahda Islamic party, who has tried to bring FIS to talks with the government, says that Islam has little to do with the killings.

"These are political acts, aimed at reaching [Zeroual's regime] through violence," he says. "Islam's judgment is clear: It is forbidden to kill.

"But these killers are young people who don't know anything. They should not be portrayed as 'Islamic.' "

Poverty at root

Despite the religious debate, the root of the problem may lie in the poor economy, an unemployment rate that verges on 70 percent for those under 30, and frustration over lack of housing that is an obstacle to marriage and having families - both critical traditional institutions in Algeria.

"Anger is everything," says a Western diplomat. "The society values blue jeans and cars, [but] what really matters is families. But there are no such things as dual income, no-kid families here like in America.

"Even the Great Depression in the US was not half this bad, and lasted just half as long," he says.

An activist for Hamas, the other legal Islamic party that changed its name to conform with election laws to the Movement of Society for Peace, confirms that solving Algeria's conflict means narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots.

Like its Palestinian namesake, Hamas runs widespread charity networks that provide schools and food for the poor. "The families of terrorists must be treated the same as the families of victims of terrorists" if there is to be peace, says a Hamas election monitor.

Instead, notes a diplomat, the repression of FIS leaders has undermined the chances that any of the fractious Islamic extremists will embrace democracy - or peace.

The only one still living who may have any influence over the militant groups is Mr. BenHadj, who is reputed to be a mesmerizing public speaker.

But, he says, he will not renounce violence without promises of change, and the government broke off talks.

"I fault the government for not trying harder," he says, but notes that GIA chief Mr. Zouabri condemned BenHadj already by saying that he was "a little nervous about him because he might negotiate with the government."

Any rhetoric of peace from the mosques has also been imperceptible. "This is where the Muslim scholars failed," the diplomat adds. "They didn't speak out against this killing, and it has discredited them all."

So the massacres continue, even as those responsible squabble. Ms. Tlemamci, the journalist, explains how difficult it is to portray the severity of the terrorist violence - and that even many Algerians remain insulated.

She took "The White Book" on a trip to Sweden, but the gory images were too graphic to show publicly in the newspapers or on TV. Children, she was told, might see them.

"Our children are living that every day," she says.

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