Perverse rage of the oppressed

Claire Messud on the lessons of Algeria, home to many of those recently arrested as suspected terror

In the days following 9/11, I, a resident of the United States, received numerous e-mails from well-wishers, chief among them pieds-noirs, French colonials from Algeria, long repatriated to France. They were not people I had ever met; they were men and women who had read the French translation of my second novel, The Last Life, which is set among the pieds-noirs in the south of France. These correspondents all wrote to say the same thing: that they had particular sympathy with Americans over this tragedy on account of their experiences during the Algerian war. This is no surprise to us, they said; this is all too familiar. This is what we knew would happen, 40 years ago. We said so, and nobody would listen.

I thought of these people last month when William Burns, the US assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, explaining his country's decision to sell arms to the Algerian government (a pragmatic turnaround reminiscent of US policy towards Pakistan in the wake of 11 September) said: "Washington has much to learn from Algeria on ways to fight terrorism." I thought of them again when the terrorist suspects arrested by police during raids in Manchester and Barcelona turned out to be Algerian.

The pieds-noirs represent, by and large, a powerfully conservative group, whose dismay over the loss of French Algeria is still an active part of their lives, and from whom such a reaction might have been anticipated. But it is true that Algerian Islamic militants were responsible, in the mid-1990s, for civilian bombings in Paris, and for attempting to hijack a plane and crash it into the Eiffel Tower. The idea that led to the destruction of the twin towers was announced to the world in that failed attack, if anyone had cared to listen. And it is also true that the tactics of what is now Algeria's governing party, the FLN (the Front de Liberation Nationale), during its undeclared war for independence from France, from 1954 until the peace accords of March 1962, provide clear antecedents - for the Islamic militants within Algeria from the late 1980s, and for the tactics of other Islamic and Middle Eastern independence movements, including al-Qaeda and, at least in some measure, Palestinian militants.

Structurally, the FLN worked in hermetic, independent cells, each with little or no knowledge of other operatives, a formulation that made the organisation notoriously difficult to crack - despite the zealous torture in which the French military reportedly engaged. FLN members were ruthless in their attacks on random civilians, slaughtering farmers, families and, if need be, fellow Algerians. They advised their recruits to dress in western style, to frequent western establishments and in all regards to pass as westernised. When planting bombs in cafes and nightclubs, they used women, and even women with children, as carriers, in order not to excite the suspicion of the French police. In all these respects, the FLN has been copied by suicide bombers and terrorist attackers the world over. And the overriding lesson of the FLN is that it triumphed. This, surely, is what is remembered by the militant Islamic factions in Algeria today - the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) - by Palestinian movements and by al-Qaeda, to which the Salafists are frequently linked. The FLN's brutal tactics, and its persistent, wearing terrorism, worked.

Crucially, the FLN's struggle had a distinct, achievable and just goal; it was also a secular movement with Marxist affiliations. The independent Algeria for which it fought was to be a country which, while Muslim, was not Islamist, and this aided its cause on the global level. The reality, however, is more complicated; while the FLN's official secularism and its association with various international left-wing struggles of the time doubtless made it more palatable to westerners and others who would finance their operations, it was, in fact, a movement that drew support from the masses on account of its Muslim underpinnings.

As the historian Mohammed Harbi explained last year in an interview with L'Express magazine, "the religious has, in Algeria, always dominated the political field". Religion, he added, was essential to the Algerian liberation movement. "It was a mobilising factor, and a federating element, which did away with antagonisms and imposed unanimity. But this importance of the religious has always rested on an ambiguity: the elites and directors saw in it an instrument to ensure the greatest number of followers, whereas, to those followers, it corresponded to a vision of the world."

This has remained the ambiguity. The rank and file of the FLN struggled for a Muslim Algeria, not simply for an independent Algeria. As a result, the FLN, once in power, spent the next 25 years playing off the Islamist element within its ranks. To see the FLN as secularist is to fail to see the whole picture; and to see the current Islamic militant movements around the world as wholly religious in their base would be similarly inaccurate. The elites and directors of those move-ments, just like those of the FLN in the 1950s and 1960s, make use of the most effective means to attain their goals.

Those goals are, as the Algerian writer and army officer Mohamed Moulessehoul (who writes under the pseudonym Yasmina Khadra) explained in an interview, broadly destructive: "The Islamists brought people a lot of hope. The country was run by incompetents, there was no way forward. But Islamism is fundamentally violent on all levels because it is born from rage, from rejection and injustice. Before building anything it has to destroy what was there before."

Moulessehoul attended cadet school with an officer, SaId Mekhloufi, who went on to lead the radical Islamic Armed Movement (MIA) and played a major role in the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS): the two men were friends, just as the FLN and the Islamists are ultimately imbricated one with another. After almost 30 years of rule, the tyrannical and corrupt government of the FLN spawned its ostensible antithesis, the FIS. The latter exists in hostile reaction to the former. The Islamists are spurred by a raging nihilism rather than a constructive vision; and even though, in Algeria, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his government have subdued the violence, they have not been able to quell it. The fire of such rage will not simply extinguish itself; constructive alternatives - hope - must be found.

If the FLN, during its fight for an independent Algeria, drew strength from a tacit Muslim agenda, it did so against the weight of more than a century of French colonial rule. In other words, the FLN was, in its day, the raging antithesis born of the tyranny of the French. Last November, in this magazine, Jack Straw acknowledged that the current political situations are in some measure the result of the colonial policies of the 20th century. The ruthlessness and wiliness of the FLN were born of the desperation of its situation, of the intransigence and superior firepower of the French, just as the viciousness of Ariel Sharon's regime pushes the Palestinians to ever more extreme action. The need to unite around a Muslim cause - an Algerian cause - arose in reaction to the imposition of a culturally Christian francophone hierarchy. It is supremely ironic that western Europe's erstwhile colonial powers now harbour the radical refugees of the countries over which they once ruled, and that those radical refugees seek the destruction of western Europe itself.

To the pieds-noirs who wrote to me in the weeks following 11 September, however, there is no irony, merely a supreme logic; just as the historian Harbi would doubtless see only common sense in the current situation. So, too, the novelist Moulessehoul, of whose characters Giles Tremlett wrote last year in the Guardian: "While his politicians are venal and stupid, his Islamists are bitter and vengeful. They are driven by envy, unrequited love, poverty, powerlessness and personal vendetta. Religion is just another excuse to get on with the bloodshed."

Our great desire is taxonomic: to separate "us" from "them"; to see their obsessions and madnesses as unrelated to our own. But, as literature has so often shown us, we are all inextricably linked. Dostoevsky, in his still contemporary exploration of the underground man and his ressentiment, reveals with painful accuracy the perverse rage of the oppressed, and illuminates how closely that rage dogs each of us. King Lear reminds us that ambiguities are the stuff of life: "handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief?".

Little is as clear-cut as we might hope - asylum-seekers are terrorists; secularists are in league with religionists; the enemy of our enemy may or may not be our friend. But this is neither new, nor unknown. Only by attending to the complicating histories and the broader configurations of the present challenge can we hope successfully to confront it. Yes, indeed, as William Burns said, we have much to learn from Algeria.

Claire Messud is the author of The Last Life (Picador), winner of the Encore Prize 2000 for best second novel. Her most recent book is The Hunters: two novellas (Picador)