'Algeria's Orwell' urges writers to fight fundamentalism

Algiers (AFP) - Algerian writer Boualem Sansal, whose novel "2084" depicted a dystopian state governed by religious law, says writers and artists need to join the fight against Islamic extremism.

"Literature and the arts are not playing a big role in this struggle against barbarism," he said.

In an interview with AFP, the 67-year-old elder statesman of Algerian letters urged writers to use their freedom of speech and do more to fight "fundamentalism".

An avowed atheist, Sansal has long been a free thinker, criticising both religious fundamentalists and Algeria's government.

He has continued to live in Algeria despite being personally threatened.

The former high-ranking official and economics graduate began his literary career with a 1999 novel, "The Oath of the Barbarians", describing the rise of fundamentalists in Algeria.

The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had been poised to win a parliamentary election in 1991 when the army stepped in to cancel it, prompting many FIS members to take up arms. The ensuing "black decade" of violence left some 200,000 dead.

The success of Sansal's first novel launched him on a career that won him prizes in France and Germany.

His books, published in France, are sold freely in Algeria. But he is a controversial figure at home, especially since he visited Israel in 2014 -- a taboo in most of the Arab world.

His 2015 novel 2084 (subtitled "The End of the World") described a country, Abistan, governed under extreme laws set by a religion based loosely on Islam.

Citizens were required to pray nine times a day and the main activities were interminable pilgrimages and public punishments.

The book's title was a nod to George Orwell's dystopian classic "1984".

Sansal's work won praise from controversial French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose 2015 novel "Submission" imagined France ruled by a radical Muslim president.

- 'Threat' of fundamentalism -

Sansal said that nearly 20 years after publishing his first novel on Islamic fundamentalism, he still finds "high-level collective violence... an inexplicable mystery."

His fiction echoes his warnings of what he says is the threat of Islamic fundamentalism in Europe, particularly France, home to five million Muslims.

"I tell them to be careful because Islamism lurks around them, and grows under their feet," he said.

"They have already suffered, and they could suffer a thousand times more if it reaches a critical mass that triggers a chain reaction."

He said institutions that represent Muslims in France are not "playing the game of integration, democracy and secularism."

"Sometimes I have the impression they're doing the exact opposite: they are working to adapt France to Islam," he said.

In 2012, with the Israeli writer David Grossman, Sansal launched the "Strasbourg Appeal for Peace", signed by nearly 200 writers declaring themselves ready to act to advance peace and democracy around the world.

He refutes accusations that he is Islamophobic.

"I have never said anything that could justify that accusation," he said. "What I have continued to denounce is the instrumentalisation of Islam for political, social and other ends."

In the past, he said, "it was fascism, Nazism, Stalinism and Khmer Communism which used thought and organisation... to enlist entire populations.

"Today, it's Islamism that is spreading around the world."

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