Interfaith Perspectives from Algeria:

Religious Tolerance and Reconciliation


A statement by Ambassador Idriss Jazaïry

to the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic

Studies and the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Melbourne.


Melbourne 18 August 2011


I am grateful to the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies and to the Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Melbourne for giving me the opportunity to address such a distinguished audience. I am going to speak to you on the theme of "Interfaith Perspectives from Algeria: Religious Tolerance and Reconciliation".

Let me start by expressing discomfort with the very concept of "tolerance". The connotation of this word has to do with putting up gracefully with - in the present context - a faith which is not one's own and to which one would otherwise take exception. The person of the "other" faith may have to justify himself or herself to the tolerant person but the latter, who has no explanation to give to justify his own faith, would typically be ready to listen. Rather than endorsing the concept of "religious tolerance" I would therefore prefer that of "interfaith harmony" embracing religious diversity within and between societies as a fact of life, I would even say as the spice of life, rather than as an "issue".

The Holy Koran addressing humanity says "Oh ye people, we have created you as male and female and have made you people and tribes so that you may get to know one another". So the focus here is on diversity whether of gender, origin or creed, indicating that it offers an opportunity for mutual discovery and engagement, not for disparagement, exclusion and confrontation. According to this approach, diversity is a package; you can't be selective and, say, be gender sensitive, while remaining Islamophobic or


Algeria views religious diversity in this light despite having been subjected to 132 years of a ruthless colonial occupation by a Christian power.

This tradition and view has to do with the overwhelming influence of Imam Malek, a moderate 8th century advocate of the faith who in the early years of Islam was sensitive to the need to promote religious harmony. For instance, in the case of divorce the custody of Muslim children, according to the Malekites, would be entrusted to their mother irrespective of whether she herself was a Moslem or not, the emotional balance of the child being the pivotal factor.

In other Islamic rites adherence to Islam may be a precondition to exercising the custody over Moslem children. Furthermore Algeria for many centuries has been a land where Sufism had constituted the backbone of society. The Sufis are pious people who see the rituals of ail monotheistic religions as "gymnastics of the soul" intended to help believers of ail faiths to foster their love for God expressing it through loving other human beings. This school of thought is nurtured through Islamic grass roots institutions of teachings called "zawiyas" which are found up and down the whole country. Rituals are seen as external manifestations of faith, as a means to an end and not as the underlying faith in and of itself, contrary to what is advocated by the Salafist or Wahabi school of thought that prevails in the Arabian Peninsula. For Sufis, differences in rituals between monotheistic religions are not consequential so long as the objective remains that of enhancing love for the Creator, an objective ail such religions share.

Maheddine Ibn Arabi, the greatest Sufi of ail times, advocated this view persuasively in the 13th century. He was bitterly attacked by Ibn Taymiya at the time. The latter was over-reacting to the Mogul invasion by turning inwards and by proclaiming that Islamic form and rituals were the expression of faith and were an end in themselves.

Ibn Arabi is associated with the spread of Sufism in North Africa and in the Indian sub continent and Ibn Taymiya is considered as the source of inspiration for Salafism and Wahabism in the Middle East.

The founder of the contemporary state of Algeria, the Emir Abd-el- Kader Al Jazairy (1807-1883) was a greât admirer and follower of Ibn Arabi. He was able to locate a manuscript of a treatise written by this greât man called "Al Futuhat al Makkieh" which can be translated as "The Mekkan Victories" or the "The Mekkan Epiphanies". It encompasses the Sufi approach to Islam. The Emir bought this manuscript, read it avidly and had it published for posterity. It provided him with the confirmation of his own conclusions on the convergence between ail Abrahamic faiths.

The French invasion of Algeria lasted for 17 years from 1830 to 1847. Abd-el-Kader Bin Maheddine, a descendent of the Holy Prophet, was elected in 1832 as the Emir of Algeria to lead the resistance against the invaders. Despite the cruelty of the French forces, the Emir refused to damn the invaders as Christians. On the contrary, when approached by the bishop of Algiers who was seeking the freedom of a French officer held captive by the Algerian troops, the Emir replied that the bishop should have asked for the liberation of ail the French prisoners and not of just one of them. He went on to cite the Bible, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" suggesting that the French army proceed likewise by freeing Algerian prisoners.

This exchange of prisoners took place in 1841, the one and only such exchange between the two armies. The French decided thereafter that that "whoever had been taken away by force should be recovered by force".

Another sign of the moderation of the Emir towards the Christian invaders was his written request to the bishop of Algiers asking him to designate chaplains to visit his French prisoners. Later in 1843 at a time when the conflict had reached a climax, the Emir convened a congress of 300 of his top decision makers to adopt a code for the protection of war prisoners that prohibited their mistreatment and torture and the killing of unarmed enemies. That was a couple of decades before the Swiss Henri Dunant, who had lived in Algeria and admired the Emir, created the Red Cross to protect prisoners of war.

Later when exiled in Syria after being defeated by the French invaders, the Emir further demonstrated his commitment to interfaith harmony. This was a time when the French Government, in exchange for their support to the Turkish Sultan during the Crimean War, wanted to exact from the latter an enhanced status for the Christian Arabs of the Levant at the expense of the Muslim majority. This led fanatical groups in Damascus to organise pogroms against the Christian community in 1860. The Emir and his men, at the peril of their lives, rescued 12 000 Christians from sure death and brought them to safety in his estate. The Emir then proclaimed to the mob that the demonstrators would have to go over his dead body to get at those placed under his protection.

Many asked him how come he had taken such risks to save Christians when he himself had been fighting other Christians who invaded his nation and ransacked its land. The Emir replied that he had fought the French army for 17 years not because they were Christians but simply because they were invaders. As for securing the Arab Christians, he was only conforming to the teachings of the Koran which asserted that "He whoever kills a single soul wantonly is as if he had killed the whole of humanity and he whoever saves a single soul is as if he had saved the whole of humanity". This applies to the life of any human being whatever his or her faith. He added that he had acted out of respect for the "rights of humanity", a concept later consecrated in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In compliance with the true Islamic tradition that favours the middle ground in the practice of the faith, the Emir abhorred extremism. He used language to express this position which is a perfect answer to the 21st century fundamentalists. Let me quote him:

"The damage wreaked upon the teachings of the faith can unfortunately be attributed to a greater extent to those who claim to enhance religion through inappropriate means rather than to those fighting it". In the book he wrote under the title "Reminder for the Intelligent, Advice for the Indifferent", the Emir refers to the complementarily of monotheistic religions whose believers are glorified by the Koran as "People of the Book". Being a true believer he said must lead one to willing acceptance of religious diversity.

The Emir Abd el Kader wrote a masterpiece of 600 pages on his Sufi approach to life. He called it "The Book of Stations". The Stations he referred to were those on the path leading to divine enlightenment. In Station No 364, the Emir expressed thus his advocacy of inter-faith harmony: "Divinity by its very nature calls for difference in condition and refuses to remain in one way of being". In Station 35 he says "Whoever limits the Real (i.e. God) to a single creed and does not recognize it in any other creed, regardless of who he happens to be, is unaware of God". Finally he concludes in Station 254 as follows: "God embraces the creeds of ail His creatures as embraces them His mercy". The ecumenical approach in the broader sense encompassing ail monotheistic religions is contained in the Koran itself, which proclaims: "Say: We believe in He who was revealed unto us and who was revealed unto you. Our God and your God are one and we are subservient to Him".

Against this background it is no wonder that less than a year after accession to independence, Algeria adopted a decree proclaiming that Jews and Christians are entitled to paid leave on their religious feast days. I know of no western country where Moslem employees are granted paid leave on their two main religious feasts for the end of Ramadhan and for Aid al Kebir!

We do at times, express concern about undeclared places of Christian worship posing safety hazards or at attempts by foreign evangelists to convert young unemployed Moslems which can be a cause of public disorder. But so also do we intervene where Imams use the pulpits of mosques to indulge in politics rather than preach the word of God.

Commitment to interfaith dialogue in Algeria, the land of St Augustine, has been expressed by H. E. Abdul-Aziz Bouteflika, the President himself, who was actively involved in the "Dialogue of Civilisations" initiative.

It is, therefore, paradoxical that Islam is identified increasingly in the western world with violence and even with terrorism. This did not start with September 11. Already in the XIXth century Arabs and Jews, who equally belong to the Semitic race, were the target of the same anti-Semitic stereotyping. The Arabs were branded as violent and deceitful, and the Jews as miserly.

The Emir denounces this stereotyping of Arabs in the following words: "When one sees people devoid of discernment that delude themselves into thinking that the principle of Islam consists of dogmatism, abrasiveness, violence and barbarie stances, this is a time for us to repeat these words: "Patience is in order and on God we must rely".

Since the holocaust, fortunately anti-Semitism targeting the Jews has been eschewed from public speech. However, it continues to be accepted in the name of freedom of expression when it takes the form of Arabophobia, or by extension, of Islamophobia. The columnist Roger Cohen in a recent article in the Herald Tribune notes with regret that "hatred of Muslims in Europe and the United States is a growing political industry. It's odious, dangerous and racist". He adds that "those using anti-MusIim rhetoric are the heirs to Europe's darkest hours".

It was to be expected that xenophobia and racism would raise their ugly heads in the wake of what looks like a double-dip world financial and economy crisis. Indeed today, as in the aftermath of the Great Depression of 1929, unemployment stimulates hatred of people seen as outsiders. Identity based on race and religion is invoked to fuel racial hatred and violence through populist campaigns. Those scourges are spreading like wildfire, even among Scandinavian societies known for their openness. Now, however, it is the turn of the Arabs and Moslems to be targeted.

In conclusion, leadership by responsible decision-makers is required to avoid going further down this slippery slope.

Leadership is required to promote the concept of "togetherness in diversity" that Australien society, inter alia, increasingly projects on the world scène. Leadership is required to desist from seeking to promote unity by resorting to the populist expedient of ganging up against an imaginary "green threat", tarring the whole community of Muslims with the same brush as that tainting its "lunatic fringe".

After protracted procrastination, the international community was able to rise to the challenge at the Human Rights Council in April 2011 with the very helpful rôle of the United States, the Council unanimously adopted a resolution combating intolerance, negative stereotyping and stigmatisation of, and discrimination, incitement to violence and violence against, persons based on religion or belief.

This was a proposal sponsored by the States member of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference. It inter alia "condemns any advocacy of religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, whether it involves the use of print, audio-visual or electronic media or any other means". It is now incumbent on ail states to adopt the necessary implementation action so as to be true to the aspirations of world conscience following World War II. After the horrors to which racism, based on hatred whipped up against another religion in parts of Europe shamefully led to the Holocaust, the international community did not curse the whole of Christendom. It proclaimed that "never again" would the world let this happen. The international community should reaffirm today its resolve that never again will it let this happen, not against Jews, not against Arabs or Moslems, not against any community however weak or vulnerable.

Let us ail be guided by this beautiful thought of Maheddine Ibn Arabi embracing interfaith harmony and rejecting the advocacy of exclusion based on religious differences: "Whatever may be the paths followed by its caravans, love is my religion and my faith."