Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Some thoughts on racism in Algeria

(Regular readers be warned: this post has nothing to do with linguistics; it's justified only by a tenuous link to my fieldwork.)

New York Times readers today had the dubious privilege of an editorial by Kamel Daoud on racism in Algeria. The topic certainly needs attention, even if the New York Times is hardly the most effective place to address it in. Unfortunately, he addresses it with the same broad-brush, narrative-forcing, emotional vagueness that usually characterises his editorials (with bits of outright distortion: Echourouk "Islamist"? Algerians who won't "shake hands with blacks"?). He claims that Algerians are racist on the basis of religion rather than colour, then belatedly notices that there have been conflicts with Muslim black migrants too, and "explains" this by suggesting that they are seen as insufficiently Muslim. We get quotes from a few Algerian racists, but no migrants' voices, and no sign at all of the group most obviously relevant to a framing in racial terms: black Algerians.

In many Saharan oases - including Tabelbala, where I did most of my PhD fieldwork - black people are in the majority. Even in the north, you find small villages of black people, and of course larger communities in the big cities. Kamel Daoud mentions anti-migrant riots in Ouargla and Bechar: both those Saharan towns have massive Algerian black communities. Contrary to Kamel Daoud's analysis, such groups certainly do experience racism, though in a much milder form. In the south, people assume their ancestors were slaves, in a region where people routinely claim status and allies based on genealogy. In the north, their colour makes them visible outsiders, in a context where people regularly blame social decay on "outsiders" immigrating from ten or twenty kilometres away. Unlike in America, however, they are not particularly stereotyped as criminal (though black immigrants sometimes are). In the north they tend to be stereotyped as stupid, but in the south their conspicuous relative educational success makes that image hard to maintain. Socialism and Islam, however, are equally vehement in their condemnation of such racism, and after independence the Algerian state took this issue seriously, stamping out the remnants of slavery and emphasising universal equality; everyone today at least knows they're not supposed to be racist, though that doesn't necessarily stop them.

Of course, race is in the eye of the beholder. In Tabelbala, almost everyone is black by the standards of other parts of Algeria. By their own standards, however, the situation is a bit different: anyone with the slightest tinge of known Arab or Berber ancestry counts as white, leaving only a few families to be considered as black. Until the 20th century, the former were landowners, while the latter were sharecroppers or slaves. The indistinguishability of their skin colours does not stop the former from being viciously racist about the latter when annoyed with them.

I don't claim to understand the riots in Ouargla and Bechar in any detail, but two points are noteworthy. The first is that they did not attack Algerian black people: they attacked black immigrants. To an Algerian, that may seem almost too obvious to mention - but the NYT's audience is not particularly Algerian, and has rather different baseline assumptions. The second is that they happened in a wider context of rising tensions in the Sahara over the past five years or so, including especially the ever-worsening cycle of sectarian riots in Ghardaia. It would be very useful to have a serious analysis of what's driving this rising intolerance, in the one part of Algeria that largely escaped violence throughout the 1990s. But for that, the NYT would have to call in a real journalist.


Anonymous said...

"they are not particularly stereotyped as criminal (though black immigrants sometimes are)."
You might want to clarify the ambiguity.

MnarviDZ said...

Well done on pushing your motivation to write something about this. I couldn't and just reading Daoud's ep-ed exhausted me.

LOL at Echourouk being an Islamist newspaper but hey he said a similar thing when he spoke of the danger of all the Islamist TV channels Algerians watch (couldn't find the article, you would've laughed). And you mentioned some but there are other fallacies and inaccurate "facts" he mentions in his article.

The bottom line is, Daoud makes a living as a columnist which probably explains why he still writes for the NYT and Le Point despite his baby cry on LQO and decision to quit "journalism" and dedicate himself to literature. And his obsession with Islam, which I tried to explain in my post here (, makes him twist the few facts about sensational topics and relate them to Islam, at all costs. In doing so, he's not shy of making false statements and certainly not making the worst shortcuts.

The worst is, not only NYT readers lack the background and tools to grasp things, but even people such as Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, (former?) Deputy Director - Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International share the link to the op-ed with this comment (

Anonymous said...

Here's the link

MnarviDZ said...

Cheers Anonymous but I was thinking of this one

and this excerpt

En Algérie, 30 chaines francophones contre 1.200 chaînes religieuses. L'aspect sécuritaire, c'est bien, l'école, c'est mieux. Kamel Daoud n'hésite pas à affirmer "qu'on s'y prend mal pour lutter contre le terrorisme" : "il y a l'aspect sécuritaire bien sûr, mais l'autre aspect, c'est l'école. On ne naît pas djihadiste on le devient, on le devient à cause d'idées, à cause d'offres éditoriales, à cause de puissances qui les financent comme l'Arabie Saoudite. Vous savez en Algérie on a trente chaînes francophones et 1.200 chaînes religieuses". Un exemple concret qui permet de bien comprendre l'importance de "l'offre culturelle" sur l'opinion publique et la formation des consciences.

"Mes livres sont vendus 5 euros en Tunisie, les œuvres djihadistes sont gratuites". "La télévision est primordiale, elle touche les femmes en milieu rural, des femmes qui sont peu scolarisées et qui derrière éduquent leurs enfants. Vous savez, je peux écrire un livre il sera vendu à 20 euros ici et à 5 euros en Algérie, mais les livres djihadistes sont gratuits", poursuit le journaliste romancier qui résume bien l'asymétrie : "L'accès à la culture djihadiste est beaucoup plus facile".

Anonymous said...

Ah oui j'avais lu et entendu à ce moment-là :/
Lorsque les paraboles étaient tournées vers canal+ tout le monde (KD et ses compères) applaudissait, et maintenant que le ciel s'est enrichi en satellites divers on condamne. Et on condamne en même temps la liberté, le choix que les gens ont le droit de faire. Mais bien sur tant qu'on dit "femme rurale", et "analphabète" (il faut comprendre : bête), la femme rurale qu'il faut absolument sauver des griffes des hommes ruraux? Heureusement qu'il y a KD, bientôt SuperKD. Quel triste portrait que dresse ce triste sire de sa société. En oubliant que l'école est toujours aux mains du Pouvoir qu'il lui arrive de condamner. Ses écrits, comme ses idées, sont remplis de contradictions mais puisqu'on tape sur le musulman, l'arabe, tout est permis.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anonymous1: I'd hope the correct reading ("...are stereotyped as criminal") is obvious.

Mnarvi: Well, yes. His obsession with Islam as the root of all evil is just as clear in his book as it is in his columns; but even when by some fortunate chance he doesn't get on to that topic, all he does is react emotionally rather than analyse. Op-eds tend to be a pretty useless genre at the best of times, but they can certainly be done better than this.

LOL indeed at the dichotomy: either a channel is francophone, or it's religious? Anyway, the whole excerpt could have been translated in three words: "Subsidize me, please!"

Anonymous2: Mais il faut obliger les gens à faire le bon choix ! :) De toute façon, quand il parlait comme ça aux algériens, on pouvait au moins le respecter pour sa franchise malgré la faiblesse de ses analyses. Quand il commence à parler comme ça à des gens qui ne connaissent l'Algérie qu'à partir de lui, il devient un outil propagandistique, qu'il le sache ou non.

Anonymous said...

There is an agenda amongst western power circles to attribute every problem which happens to human beings or societies that are of the Muslim faith to Islam. Part of this agenda is to produce a new generation of "avant garde" post-Muslim apologists from the "educated elite" of Muslim societies who place all blame on Islam and then call for de-Islamization. This is intellectual dishonesty, if someone wants to argue for de-Islamization or even just secularization he should do based on honest grounds.

Islam is quite clear on its condemnation of racism.

The de-Islamization that I speak of is not just a desire to rein in the excesses of fundamentalists, or to restrict the role of religion in the political or even social sphere it is a call for a fundamental rejection and even condemnation of Islam as a completely negative belief-system. It is a call for a hostility towards Islam and even relatively innocuous cultural practices originating in religion. It is a call towards hatred.

This western-sponsored agenda is not just in Algeria but in other parts of the Arab middle east and other Muslim countries.

Re Algeria: Regarding the Algerian context on top of the Arab v Amazighi issue, secularist v Islamist, Algiers v the rest of the country, urban v rural there is also now the issue of Algerians of black skin colour being highlighted.

If raising of this issue can in anyway contribute to the betterment of the lives of black Algerians then at least something positive has emerged from some of this current media focus.

- Shah Jalal

petre said...

I confess myself lost here. Is somebody trying to claim that Algerian racism is based on religion? That may be a peg to hang it on, but that's all. My partner's family are all viscerally (though not all viciously) dismissive and (excuse the word) denigrating of sub-Saharan Africans. The comments they permit themselves to make would shock me to the core if said by Europeans. As a cultural relativist, I abstain from interpretation, I leave that up to you.

Anonymous said...

You are seriously downplaying racism against black people, when you say Algerians only attack African immigrants here. Seriously that is relativism of the worst crimes.

I would like to hear the voices of Black Algerians and see if they agree with your statement that everything is fine for them.

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

Anon: You may want to try rereading the post: far from claiming that "everything is fine for them", I specifically point out that black Algerians "certainly do experience racism", and explain some of the most conspicuous ways this works. I do not claim in the post that "Algerians only attack African immigrants here" either - I don't have enough data to support such a broad generalization - but, as it happens, I have never heard of any instance of Algerians attacking other Algerians because they're black. If you have heard of such a case, please feel free to link it or recount it here. Finally, if you "would like to hear the voices of Black Algerians", go look for them (even if you only speak English there are a few out there you could read, such as Lakhdar Ghettas). I speak from my experience and for myself, not for any group even if I belong to it, much less for groups that I don't belong to.