I’ve just finished reading a thought-provoking book called Wolf Dreams (À quoi rêvent les loups, in French) by Yasmina Khadra. This is the female pseudonym of an exiled former Algerian army officer who made his name writing very dark crime novels set in contemporary Algeria, some of which have been adapted for movies or TV in France. (Khadra writes in French, but several of his books have been translated into English.) His crime novels featuring Algiers police Commissaire Llob are stylish, razor-sharp, noir tales set against the background of Algeria’s repressive political system, corruption, and seething social conflicts.
But Khadra has also written several novels which depict, from the inside, the ferocious Islamic insurgency which raged in Algeria in the 1990’s. I’ve read two of those, In the Name of God (Les agneaux du seigneur) and now Wolf Dreams. And I’d say that anyone who wants to understand Islamic extremism ought to read them, too.
In the Name of God focuses on a village in rural Algeria as it succumbs to a local band of fundamentalists led by a charismatic imam. Wolf Dreams is set mainly in the capital, Algiers, and follows a young man’s trajectory from unemployment through religious awakening to full-fledged insurgency. Both books provide a chilling look at how a compelling ideology can channel malice, legitimize thuggery and suppress humanity.
Indeed, the most disturbing element of Khadra’s depiction is the human familiarity of his characters. To most of us, jihadists can never be more than caricatures—the violence of their rhetoric and their actions is so extreme that they are simply opaque. We can’t locate the human being in there anywhere. So our only reaction is revulsion. And that’s only natural—people who decapitate hostages on video can hardly expect anything else. But while the jihadists have willingly suppressed their humanity, they are not a new species—and Khadra shows us where they came from.
This is by no means to plead for sympathy. Khadra is quite explicit about the appalling cruelty of the Islamists, particularly toward women. (Kidnapping, sexual slavery and eventual murder is the frequent fate of female victims of Islamist raids.) There are no redeeming features of the Islamic insurgency to be found in these books. But Khadra’s point is that the men (and yes, women) who are drawn to jihadism are no different from people who have been drawn to extremist movements elsewhere. People who are disaffected, alienated, maybe just bored, are easy prey for ideological snake-oil peddlers. And extremist ideologies make explicit and effective use of the old, toxic claim that the end justifies the means.
Khadra’s message is that Islamic extremism is like all the other extremisms that have come and gone. It is an ideology peddled by a ruthless minority in a society under stress. In this it resembles Nazism in the crumbling Weimar Republic or the totalitarian brand of Shinto espoused by the military clique that took Japan into the Second World War. This means that it can be beaten.
Of course, that first means that it has to be fought. It can’t be appeased. Sometimes we are going to have to shed blood in resisting it, because it is ruthless. But also, while it can be beaten, it can’t be beaten only by military action. When all the Al-Qaeda bases have been bombed to rubble and all the leaders killed or captured, there is still going to be a long arduous task to be done—the task of engagement and debate and patient insistence on the political values that so exasperate totalitarians: the rule of law and plurality and tolerance and rational debate and limits on power.
Some people claim that Islam is incompatible with these values, that it is essentially totalitarian. I don’t think it is—I think the appeal of these values is powerful enough to change Islam without destroying it, just as they changed Christian society in the course of the Reformation. I think the existence of voices like Yasmina Khadra’s is evidence of that.
Yasmina Khadra is a Muslim and an implacable opponent of jihadism. He’s also a humane and tolerant observer of people and a fine writer. I recommend his books highly.