Algerian Civil Unrest

Although the violence depicted in ‘Rachida’ primarily originated from the civil war in Algeria in the 1990s, conflict has a long and complicated history in Algeria. Numerous empires have made their footprint in Algeria, including Rome, the Byzantines, Arabs, Spain and Ottoman Turks. The most significant impact on Algeria in the modern era was the invasion and colonization of their country by France. Since the Algerian War for Independence from France there has been a Civil War which was followed by religious fundamentalist terrorism, leaving Algerian society deeply traumatized by incessant violence. The infrastructure has never properly recovered and so there now exists a void in which disenfranchised youth turn to radical Islamic terrorist organizations in the hope of bringing change to Algeria.

Decolonization in the second half of the twentieth century had a profound affect on numerous parts of the world, particularly Asia and Africa after the Western powers had conquered much of the world in the nineteenth century. Algeria was no exception and had lived under French rule for over 100 years by the time the War for Independence began in 1954. The war itself was brutal with torture and massacres against civilians executed by both the French military and Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN). While ‘Rachida’ did not focus on this war it is important to understand the legacy of such a horrific war on the psyche and structure of Algeria. Over 2 million Algerians were relocated during the war, leaving many without homes for at least a generation. At the closing of the war in 1962, there were strong divisions in Algerian society between the pieds-nors (Algerians of European descent), religious groups and those who supported the French during the conflict. Despite hundreds of thousands of these minorities immigrating to France there were still deep divisions left by more than a century long of French occupation and such a bloody war to end it.

Algeria struggled to recover and establish itself as an independent nation in the world, but was confronted with a new battle in 1991. In first round elections the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party won the first round and the ruling party FLN, fearing a conservative Islamic leadership, cancelled the elections and put the military in control and outlawed FIS. This in effect marginalized a large section of the community who supported the FIS and the Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and as a result the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerged as terrorist organization. A new group, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), also emerged in 1998 after splitting from the GIA who they believed were too brutal in their war against the Algerian government. These terrorist groups main aim was to overthrow the government and establish an Islamic state from which to administer Sharia Law. Considering more than 99.5% of the population is Muslim, the terrorist cause created yet another schism in Algeria forcing people to reflect on their faith. The civil war claimed the lives of more than 150,000 people and left them to deal with their psychological wounds while also battling ongoing terrorism.

It was in this climate that Rachida attempted to educate her students and live a normal life in the capital of Algiers. Although Rachida is Muslim, she is clearly less conservative than other women in her community. She does not wear a hijab and is questioned about this by another teacher who clearly disapproves of Rachida’s liberalism. Like most religions, there is diversity within Islam and Rachida represents one side and the Islamist terrorists the other. While there is a clear following in organizations such as GIA and GSPC, much of the civilian population are unsympathetic towards terrorist goals. After Rachida is shot by terrorists, her mother screams “What is this religion that allows them to kill people?” Her confusion is symbolic of how many Algerians are unable to identify with the war that is being fought in their country. The fear of the villagers towards the gunmen is also indicative of how disconnected the terrorists are from the population.

This fear appears to be well grounded in Algerian society after years of conflict and violence in their communities. The film dialogue is poetic and penetrating and the director clearly is hoping to highlight the hypocrisy of a religious crusade being carried out by these terrorist organizations on behalf of a population that is disillusioned by their violence and weary from decades of war. Rachida’s doctor believes the whole population is suffering from “post-traumatic psychosis” and it is difficult to disagree considering Algeria’s history. Rachida exhibits clear signs of stress and questions the underlying tension in her society. She is genuinely confused and asks “Where was all this hatred buried? This cruelty, this barbarity? These hearts deserted by all humanity.” She shares her faith with her attackers but does not share their violent convictions. It is clear that the civil war has left Rachida and her society with deep psychological issues which may take generations to overcome.

The long-lasting affects of civil war on a nation are evident in the United States. Even though the war ended more than a century ago there is still some evidence of an ideological rift between Southern and Northern states. We also have our own forms of religious orthodoxy and violence in the US. The classic example is anti-abortion attacks carried out by conservative Christian groups which have been responsible for death, injury and extensive destruction of property. The rise of an ultraconservative movement in America is alarming and has the potential to cause major rifts in society along cultural, racial and religious lines. Issues of anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry need to be addressed so that they do not spiral out of control as they have in other areas of the world like Algeria. Within any faith there will be varying levels of conservatism and interpretation and it is important that we are educated about each others differences so that there is greater understanding. Without understanding, it will be difficult to eliminate religious violence throughout the world.