The slaughter of the intellectuals

In Algeria `Islamist' groups have deemed artists `frivolous'. So they're shooting them. Robert Fisk reports
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The Independent Culture
In the holy month of Ramadan, the artists of Algeria - the writers and intellectuals and actors and singers and teachers - have reason to feel fear. On Monday, the "Islamists" murdered the national theatre director Azzedine Medjoubi. On Tuesday they shot dead Hocine Leklou, the director of Baraki college in the south-eastern suburbs of Algiers. Outside the capital, Hamid Aberkane, one of the best-known writers on the daily Al Moudjahid newspaper, narrowly escaped assassination. For months the "Islamists" of Algeria have been trying to destroy the cultural life of Algeria; every day, they are nearer to success.

Medjoubi, a popular film actor with a comical drooping moustache, was well known in Algiers for his adaptation of Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire, which was shown many times on national television. He was walking out of his theatre in Port Said Square, after organising a children's theatrical performance, when two men in their twenties fired several bullets into his head. Like all the other killers of Algiers's cultural lite, they got away in safety, their identity - as always - unknown.

Algeria's intellectual world now boasts a grim roll of honour. Ten days ago, "Islamists" gravely wounded Djemal Fezzaz, the film-maker and director of Melody of Hope - which starred the popular Algerian singer Djalti, whose "rai" music is condemned by the Islamic groups. He was gunned down in the Casbah area of Algiers. Ramadan last year heralded the death of the Algerian dramatist Abdelkader Alloula, the director of the Oran regional theatre, who was shot while on his way to give a drama lecture. Four days later, the television producer Aziz Smati was seriously wounded and left a paraplegic, and last September gunmen murdered Cheb Hasni, the best- known performer of "rai" love songs. Only a threat by the Kabyle people to "declare war on Islam" saved the life of kidnapped singer Lounes Matoub, who was released after 15 days captivity.

The two major "Islamist" groups fighting the government in Algeria have made no secret of their assault on Algeria's intellectuals. Accusing them of "frivolity" and of insulting the Muslim religion, the armed groups have come to regard the artistic world as the forefront of the intellectual battle against an Islamic republic. Writers and actors have been the most eloquent in denouncing the principles of the Islamic Salvation Front - the cancellation of whose democratic election victory three years ago started the civil war - as a return to the "dark ages". One of Rachid Mimouni's best-known books was entitled Of Barbarity in General and Fundamentalism in Particular; the only surprising thing about his own death on Sunday was that it was from natural causes in a Paris hospital.

But there is more than just political tactics behind the assassination campaign. Algiers's school of Andalusian music - keeping alive the very spirit of the old Islamic musical schools of Muslim Spain - last year received death threats against its staff. A popular Algerian actor of Tunisian Jewish origin, a football enthusiast who, due to his light skin, played French officers in Algerian films about the 1954-62 independence war, was shot dead in central Algiers last year. Some Algerian secularists see a parallel between the "Islamist" attacks and Nazi Germany's assault on modern art; the Berber cultural centre this week referred to Medjoubi's slaughter as revealing "the Fascist nature of Islamic fundamentalism".

But this may be misleading. The Francophone intellectuals of Algeria generally write and lecture in the French language, thus provoking their enemies to claim that they are both representative of the former colonial power and of the West's new "war" against Islam. In the bookshops of Algiers, works of Islamic learning and biographies of Muslim preachers have a section to themselves; but they are always placed next to science textbooks - works on biochemistry, nuclear physics and medicine. The liberal arts always appear elsewhere. It is not difficult to see why. While Islam is about certainty and faith, and can come to terms with scientific facts, theatre and literature hinge on doubt and uncertainty, and glorify man rather than God.

In Egypt, intellectuals have also suffered along with their Algerian counterparts. The writer Farag Fhoda was murdered. In Cairo, the Gema'a Islamiya (Islamic Group) almost succeeded in knifing the Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz to death. The cultural targeting of Algeria, however, remains the most fearful, with the "Armed Islamic Group" forbidding the enrolment of children in schools and universities. A separate tally by the Algerian daily Le Matin - whose own editor was killed last December - makes more gruesome reading. Last year alone, the paper says, 82 school- teachers were murdered.