Democratization in the Land of Tibhirine

[This month’s post is being hosted by The Review of Faith and International Affairs]

Fifteen years ago, seven Trappist monks were kidnapped from their monastery of Notre Dame d’Atlas in Tibhirine, Algeria and assassinated in the mountains surrounding their home. In many ways, the story of these Catholic monks is an absurd entry point for a political reflection on contemporary Algeria. The Algerian Christian church is a tiny community in an overwhelmingly Muslim population, and the monks represent merely seven of the thousands of lives—perhaps as many as 200,000—that were extinguished during Algeria’s years of violence. Yet, with the recent release of Xavier Beauvois’ film, Of Gods and Men in the United States, millions of Americans are being introduced to the monks’ story for the first time and, through their story, to Algerian politics. Given the film’s coincidence with political developments in the rest of North Africa, I would like to situate the film in its larger Algerian political context and consider what insights the spirit of Tibhirine might offer toward creating sustainable democracy in Algeria today…. read the rest of the article here

Burkas, Cannes, Tibhirine

Two mediatic moments of two quintessential French traditions of socio-religious-political intertwining in the month of May.

1. Laïcité. Earlier this month the French parliament moved to take up a vote to ban the wearing of the burka in public in France, following a Belgian law passed in April doing the same. Unlike the Belgian law, which draws its legitimacy from a logic of security (and which, several Le Monde comment-writers noted half-facetiously, should also have to apply to the motorcycle helmets of moped-driving pizza delivery boys), the French law contests that the burka is an unacceptable violation of universal human rights. One interesting and telling aspect about the move is the unequivocal determination of French parliamentarians from all across the political spectrum to reassert and articulate a legislative logic which is based on a societal consensus about the spirit of a founding constitutional value. In this case, the French parliament did not attempt to avoid the religious polemic associated with such a decision through a paltry declaration of “national security” (as the Belgians did). The Economist and others have pointed out that the constitutional value in question is egalité and that the legislative argument makes no reference to norms of laïcité. Yet, as protesters evidenced last week, it is hard not to interpret the proposed bill as part of a mounting defense by the French parliament of the primacy of the logic of public secularism over religious tolerance.

2. French Monasticism. Although Rachid Bouchared’s new film, Hors-la-loi, has held French headlines captive this month for the protests it stirred among ex-French combatants in Algeria, it was Xavier Beauvois’ film about the monks of Tibhirine (see blog entry July, 2009), Des Hommes et des Dieux, which brought home the Grand Prix at Cannes last night. And so the same month of May which has brought France to the banning of the burka has also given the French public access to one of the great acts of religious-inspired religious tolerance, fruit of the French Cistercian monastic tradition. If the reviews are worth their salt, Beauvois and his troupe are achingly successful in their depiction of the peace of the monks’ decision to embrace the religious other in love without fear.

Monks of Tibhirine

Although their story is still unknown in the U.S., the deaths of the 7 Monks of Tibhirine, in Algeria, in 1993, has long held the attention of both the French and Algerian public. For the spiritual testimony it announces. For the reflection of French-Algerian relations it provides. For the mire of french secret services it captures. The death of the trappist monks, which produced one of the most moving, contemporary documents of interfaith friendship, left behind in a letter of last testament by the abbey’s prior, Christian de Chergé, was always object of some mystery.  The official version, that the monks had been kidnapped and then assassinated by Algeria’s most notorious armed Islamist Emir, Djamel Zitouni, always suffered from some obscurantism. This past week, revelations by a French general, Francois Buchwalter, that the monks had been kidnapped by the Islamists but killed inadvertently in an ambush by the Algerian army, has re-stirred the mystery and ill.  Sarkozy was forced to speak about it in Italy at the G8, calling for the “truth” of the matter in a statement that seemed to hold both a veiled accusal towards the Algerian government, adding more disequilibrium to that delicate rapport, and a reminder to the French and Algerian public of the original accusals of complicity or simple botchedness of the event by the French security forces. If the Algerian Army was able to locate the monks, and kill them, even inadvertently, at a time when French forces were working hand in hand with them, then it would seem to imply a gross sin of incompetence for the French. If the darker accusals turn out to be true, that the Algerian Army, and not the Islamists, had orchestrated the kidnapping and assasinations, then that puts the French secret services in a much deeper mire. The monks testimony to friendship, over-violence and beyond religious tradition, which seems to have been very inconvenient for all the governments and armed forces involved, remains hidden between the accusals.