North Africa feels Europe’s pull
ORAN, Algeria — The French-speaking North African countries are technically part of the Arab world. The political rhetoric from the Arab East has its audience here and al-Jazeera television is omnipresent.
Appearance is, however, deceptive. North Africa is separated from Europe merely by the breadth of the Mediterranean, and the pull of Europe felt here is far greater than that of the Gulf.
I am in Oran, whose most famous citizen was Albert Camus, the French-Algerian Jew.
I have been drawn to Oran by Camus’s memory and to visit the home of a much-loved Algerian, Sufi Sheikh.
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In Oran, Camus found refuge during the Second World War. It was the setting for two of his novels, L’Etranger (The Outsider) and La Peste (The Plague) that made him a literary star in the firmament of French letters.
Camus is a touchy subject here. He is part of the repressed memory of Algerians. But once one goes past grievances and the praise for Jean-Paul Sartre, who supported Algeria’s war of independence, the respect, if not pride, for Camus is sincere.
This is my second visit to North Africa. I have learned from my travels, especially in Muslim countries, that one must listen carefully. It also helps if the people are warmly embracing, and as a Canadian Muslim of Indian origin I am readily embraced.
References to Camus pry open tensions beneath the surface of Algerian politics. People have bitter memories of sufferings during their liberation war against France and stand proud of their independence.
Yet with a little prodding, recrimination against their own failed politics of duplicity and waste pours forth. Sitting with people of different ages I hear the lament that will not be reported on al-Jazeera, and will not be reflected in opinion polls by which the West seemingly learns about the Muslim world.
North Africa’s population is young, the bulk is under 30. The political restlessness here is more a symptom of anger against corruption than any attraction for political Islam exported from the Arab East.
Algeria, for instance, is yet to recover from the violence of Islamists in the 1990s. The surface appearance of political Islam’s influence by the sight of bearded men and women with scarves is deceptive when one listens to Algerians speak freely.
I ask about Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, and his outspoken views on political Islam. I am not surprised when I hear some people without any prompting utter “Viva la France.”
There are some seven million Algerians in Europe, most in France, and many more wish to head West. It seems North Africans are voting with their feet, and it is not for political Islam.
The quandary of North Africans is a window into the Muslim world. I am limited by space here to unravel it.
But one among many questions posed to me stands out as if it is a rebuke.
Many here are bewildered about why Canada and the West entertain any political demand of Islamists instead of expelling them.
The message to the West from Oran is remain assertively uncompromising on essentials of freedom, secularism and democracy. The West’s vacillation over its own values is unhelpful to those elsewhere seeking the same.