Black in Algeria? Then You’d Better Be Muslim

Oran, Algeria — For a few years now, families of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been gathering at major street crossings in the large cities of northern Algeria. They come to beg for alms, wearing grotesque outfits: oversize veils for the women, even little girls; cotton djellabas for the men; prayer beads ostentatiously displayed. They say “Allah” too readily and misquote verses from the Koran.

Many black migrants, including those who are not Muslim, are deploying symbols of Islam to appeal to Algerians’ sense of charity. Why? Because poverty helps decode culture better than reflection does, and migrants, lacking shelter and food, are quick to realize that in Algeria there often is no empathy between human beings, only empathy between people of the same religion.

Another example: In October a Cameroonian woman was gang-raped in Oran by a group of men that threatened her with a dog. When she tried to file a complaint with the authorities, she was rejected on two main grounds: She had no papers, and she wasn’t a Muslim.

The Marie-Simone case became a cause célèbre, and the victim, with the support of some Algerians, eventually obtained justice. But it remains an exception.

The situation wasn’t always like this. For decades Algerians mostly treated blacks with discreet aloofness; only recently has that turned into violent rejection. There are no reliable official statistics, but many migrants here come from Mali, Niger and Libya, and their numbers have increased over the past few years, partly due to instability in neighboring countries, especially Libya, once a main hub of immigration from Africa to Europe.

In Europe, migrants can try to play on the humanitarianism and guilty consciences of their hosts, but in Algeria these days, the Other is visible only through the prism of faith. In the West, racism sees skin color; in Arab countries, it sees religion.

Yet these two forms of racism are related: Westerners deny (or accuse) Arabs, and Arabs in turn deny (or accuse) black Africans. Is there a causal link? Is this a domino effect of negation? Perhaps. In any event, the parallel, the mimesis, is troubling.

But such complexities matter little in this country, and are easily ignored. Although many Algerian Muslims are neither sectarian nor racist, they don’t have much influence among the elites or over public debate. Extremist positions crowd out more moderate religious views.

Partly as a result, in Algeria, as in other Arab countries, discourse in the media and among intellectuals is compartmentalized. On the one hand, there are virulent articles about racism in Europe describing the “Jungle,” a migrant detention center in Calais, France, as something of a concentration camp, or presenting fallacious analyses: “No Work in France if You’re Arab or African,” said one headline in an Islamist newspaper in February. On the other hand, there is no shortage of Ku Klux Klan-worthy arguments about the threat posed by blacks, their perceived lack of civic-mindedness and the crimes and diseases they purportedly bring with them.

This duplicity is odd, but above all it’s convenient, and devastating. After a Nigerien migrant killed an Algerian in Ouargla, one of the main cities of the country’s Sahara region, in early March, clashes broke out between locals and sub-Saharans. News of the killing quickly escalated into a popular vendetta, complete with a hunt for migrants through the streets (leading to dozens wounded) and an attack on a refugee camp.

The authorities ordered a massive expulsion of migrants to a transit town further south — the standard prelude to deportation from the country. Similar events occurred later in Bechar, in western Algeria.

This wave of xenophobia, though unprecedented in its violence, wreaked havoc in Algeria’s Sahara region without arousing any large-scale objections. Denunciations of racism are reserved for the crimes of the West. What counts as abuse there seems like a necessity here.

But how does one come to practice what one denounces in others, and apparently without feeling guilty? How do victims of racism develop a racist consciousness of their own?

The secular and leftist elites of Algeria have become myopic from looking at the world solely through their colonial trauma. Perceiving sub-Saharan Africans either as former subjects decolonized or as the agents of decolonization, they can only defend them or idealize them. Blacks are no longer even seen as different; they’re just a representation of one’s own preoccupations.

In their anti-Western discourse, Algeria’s bien-pensants think they protect black people by denouncing the prevailing racism. Yet they would never visit the dreary refugee camps, much less live with blacks, let blacks marry their daughters or shake hands with blacks on a hot day. Secular Algerians often refer to sub-Saharan people as “Africans,” as if the Maghreb were on a different continent.

Religious fundamentalists are no less racist: On the occasion of a soccer match between Algeria and Mali in November 2014, the Islamist daily Echourouk published a photograph of some of the Malian club’s black fans under the caption, “No greetings, no welcome. AIDS behind you, Ebola ahead of you.” But the prejudices of fundamentalists lead them to a different conclusion, simple and monstrous: Either the Other is a Muslim, or he is not at all.

Religious conservatives, like the secular elites, see blacks as victims of injustices perpetrated by white colonizers, but for them redress can only come through Allah. Their propaganda often refers to a precedent from the mythology of Islam’s early days: Bilal, the black Abyssinian slave whose religious conversion led to his emancipation.

Except that for every Bilal there are millions of other blacks, including converts to Islam, who have stayed trapped in servitude for generations. The very subject of slavery in Arab societies is still taboo today, or it is eclipsed by condemnation of Western slavery.

The fact remains that for blacks, embracing Islam is no guarantee of safety. A crime committed by one of them is enough to get hundreds expelled. The punitive expeditions in Bechar erupted on a Friday, the day of Muslims’ main weekly prayer, after sermons calling for purification in response to migrants’ mores, which are seen as loose. For religious conservatives, culture diverts black migrants from strict religious orthodoxy — even sub-Saharans who are Muslim aren’t really Muslim.