Battle of Algiers: Decolonising the Imperial Elephant in the Room.

“This whole world is a corn field son, look out for flying locusts….” Dead Prez, Psychology

Having attended an event organised by the “Decolonising our Minds Society” commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the film ‘The Battle of Algiers’ subtitled, “Decolonisation and the War on Terror” held on the 14th February at London’s SOAS Brunei Gallery one is compelled to comment on a glaring omission. The film is based on the revolutionary Algerian struggle against French imperialism and depicts the torture meted out to freedom fighters by the colonialists. Dr. Sohail Daulatzai, the main speaker, has written a book commemorating the anniversary of the film.

Parallels and similarities were made between the torture administered by French imperialists to Algerians fighting for their freedom and Muslims in today’s ‘War on Terror’.  No doubt there is and both are morally inexcusable. However, there was a glaring difference or omission that was either not explored or deliberately overlooked: the reason why the ‘War on Terror’ was launched by the United States.

Obviously, we need first to establish how the Algerian revolt came about. French imperialism had been ruling Algeria for over 130 years. One of the speakers, Tanzil Choudhary correctly stated that the roots of the Algerian revolution began in in the immediate aftermath of World War Two when some Algerians took the UN Charter and the Atlantic Charter at its word and demanded the French leave their country. This is further pointed out in Daulatzai’s book,

“On May 8, 1945, thousands of Algerians used the occasion of German surrender, known as V-E Day…to march, demand freedom in the eastern Algerian city of Setif.”[i]

Daulatzai elaborates that this episode in Algerian history provided the “seeds” for the “formal beginning of the Algerian War of Independence” on the 1st November 1954.[ii]

Surprisingly, not one of the speakers identified how the War on Terror began. Obviously, the occupation of Iraq, Bagram, Guantanamo and the “Black sites” were pointed out as locations where torture akin to that administered by the French on Algerian revolutionaries occurred. This is beyond dispute. But what was overlooked was how the “War on Terror” began, or more precisely, what ignited it. I mean did President George W. Bush get out on the wrong side of bed one morning after an ecstatic evening watching “Dumb and Dumber” and merrily conclude to launch a “War on Terror”? Far from it.

On 11th September 2001, 19 people hijacked 4 airplanes in the United States. Three hit their intended target, the World Trade Centre towers and the Pentagon and the other crashed or was shot down before hitting its target.  On the 20th September 2001, in the American Congress, Bush announced a “war on terror”.

The hijackers were said to belong to al-Qaeda, an organisation whose leader, Osama bin Laden was based out of Afghanistan. Bin Laden had established his reputation during the so-called Afghan jihad when Islamic mercenaries supported primarily by the United States, UK, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, fought an insurgency against the Soviet Union’s intervention in Afghanistan.

Once the Afghan war was over, bin Laden returned to Saudi Arabia but was shaken to action when Saddam’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. He approached the Saudi clan with an offer to defend the Kingdom from Saddam’s Iraq with a plan to re-assemble his former Islamic mercenary comrades as an army. The Saudi clan then headed King Fahd, chose to host the American military instead. Bin Laden was in effect vying with the Americans for Saudi affections and lost. At this point he pulled a strop, which compelled him to eventually flee the country, initially for Sudan but then returning to his old jihadi stomping ground, Afghanistan.     

On this basis, some analysts have classified the 9/11 attacks as “Blowback”. That is, American support of Islamist groups and/or terrorists during the Cold War against nationalist and communist governments came back to haunt it. The journalist, Robert Dreyfus has written an entire book, ‘The Devil’s Game’ on American strategy in supporting Islamist militants during the Cold War, that is, the period covering decolonisation. The historian, Mark Curtis has also written a book, ‘Secret Affairs’ specifically focused on British state collusion with Islamists extremists which also covers the Cold War and beyond. Professor Noam Chomsky, long time dissident of American foreign policy, had argued in the same month as when the attacks occurred that there “seems little doubt that the perpetrators come from the terrorist network that has its roots in the mercenary armies that were organised, trained, and armed by the CIA, Egypt, Pakistan, French intelligence, Saudi Arabian funding…The United States, along with its allies, assembled a huge mercenary army…”in Afghanistan.[iii] 

Rather disturbingly, at the event, there was no clear distinction made between those who suffer torture because they are fighting for the liberation of their land such as the Algerians against French colonialism and those who have become surplus to American and/or British imperialist requirements. Without sounding like a sadist, a distinction needed to be drawn between torture rooted in resistance to imperialism and torture rooted in blowback.     

To clarify, Islamic militants or Islamists have always been more than receptive to do Western bidding when it is compatible with their cataclysmic desires. This happened all through the Cold War as Dreyfus and Curtis have clearly and empirically shown. America, Britain and Israel want Islamists jihadis on tap and when they are no longer required they are pursued, tortured or droned. This can be seen in today’s Syria where the West is supporting jihadis dubbed “moderate rebels” and Israel is supporting jihadis in south Syria. When Israel, a colonial settler entity based on the ethnic cleansing of Palestine recently hit Syria, it was praised by one of al-Qaeda’s founders in Syria.

Asim Qureshi, in his talk name checked his work colleague Moazzam Begg (who was in attendance) from the Cage advocacy organisation as a witness to torture and no one would deny the ordeal he has been through at Bagram and Guantanamo after he was captured in Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. However, this acknowledgement does not equate with supporting the causes the individuals that Cage tend to champion such as the Libyan and Syrian “uprisings”. In Libya, in 2011 there was de facto alliance between Islamist brigades and NATO military intervention. It would’ve been impossible for Islamists to have achieved the total destruction of Libya without NATO’s involvement. To draw an analogy, Elie Wiesel suffered terribly in the holocaust and was witness to evil and torture and one is moved by his account. Yet by the same token, one does not automatically interpret that cruel episode into support for settler colony that is Israel as Wiesel does.   

During his known political dalliance with the British state which eventually spawned Begg a stint at Her Majesty’s pleasure in Belmarsh prison, Cage spokesman Cerie Bullivant claimed that his colleague had only been in Syria to assist British volunteers with training such as “jumping jacks, push-ups and similar exercise…” Bullivant (who hitherto quite clearly hadn’t been taught how not to spill the beans), further elaborated that there “was a group of guys who were under attack and unfit. Western kids from cushy backgrounds – they’d be like lambs to the slaughter.” The British state was to drop its case against Begg because, according to the Guardian, there had been “extensive contacts” between British intelligence service, MI5 and Begg before and after his visits to Syria.

Within a year, another alleged terrorist’s case was startlingly dropped because his lawyer was to embarrass the UK authorities and argue that he was supporting the same Syrian opposition groups as British intelligence services and both were “party to providing weapons and non-lethal help to groups” in Syria. Bluntly put, the British state and alleged-terrorist were singing from the same hymn book.  

To reiterate, the Algerian War of Independence which the film, ‘Battle of Algiers’ is based on, was ignited by proud Algerians wanting the liberation of their country from French imperialism; the War on Terror was ignited by imperial America’s former allies turning their terroristic ire on their ex-patron.

There is a naivety, a strong hint of essentialism and a blatant ahistoricism in assuming or arguing that because a particular type of Muslim who suffers ill-treatment or torture at the hands of a given Western power in today’s “War on Terror”, should then be pronounced the moral and principled equivalent of genuine freedom fighters in Muslim majority countries oppressed by direct European imperialism.

In conclusion, we are all entitled to due-process and for suspects never to be tortured but if ‘Decolonialising our Minds’ means challenging the continued legacies of colonialism then it must address the fact that Western imperialists and Zionists use Islamist jihadi groups when it suits their interests as we are witnessing in today’s Syria and recently in Libya. And when these same jihadis inevitably become surplus to white supremacist and imperialist requirements they shouldn’t then be absurdly associated with the freedom fighters of the Global South from yesteryear.

[i] Sohail Daulatzai, “Fifty Years of The Battle of Algiers: Past as Prologue” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press) 2016, pg. 6

[ii] ibid. pg.6-7

[iii] Noam Chomsky, “9-11, Was There an Alternative?” (New York: Seven Stories Press) 2011, pg.113

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