I was in a taxi heading to Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. My driver, Ahmed, was Algerian. Last year he went home for a visit. I asked, “Did it make you happy or sad?” He said, “Sad.”
I asked, “What keeps the Algerian people down: the religion or the military?” He said, “In Algeria, it’s the military. When people are hungry, they get out of bed and think about feeding their family…not politics. We have no energy to find democracy. As long as the military keeps us poor, they will stay in power.”
Ahmed explained why he thinks the French are dealing with more post-colonial anger than the English. He said that the English really believed in “The Commonwealth” while the French just flat-out milked their colonies. The French ruled Algeria from 1830 until 1962. “When they left, we had terrible terrorism. A hundred thousand murdered. No one noticed. No one cared. It was considered a ‘domestic problem.’ Algerian terrorists were allowed to live in Germany, France, and Britain.”
I asked if he felt angry that the world stopped when 3,000 Americans were killed on 9/11 but no one noticed the hundred thousand Algerians killed in the generation before. (The issue of this disproportionate response to terrorism is one that many outside the USA consider, but almost no one speaks of in polite company.) Ahmed said, “9/11 happened on one day, the victims were rich, and you have cameras everywhere. In Algeria, we are poor and no cameras are allowed when there is killing. A hundred thousand can die and it is invisible.”
Ahmed explained how something good resulted from 9/11. Since then, Algeria’s terrorism (which includes al-Qaeda) is considered an international issue. “After 9/11, other nations stopped our terrorists from crossing borders freely and helped Algeria wage the high-tech battle at home. Since 9/11, things are much better. More peaceful.”
I asked, “Can a tourist like me go to Algeria safely now?” He said, “No.”
I asked Ahmed what the term “Islamist” meant. He said he never heard the term before 9/11. He said an “Islamist” is an aggressive and judgmental Muslim who believes, “I am right and you are wrong.” Ahmed said he was a modern Muslim—he could have a glass of wine and go to a disco when he liked. He could be my friend with no thought about my religion.
Ahmed asked if I thought Bush’s brother would be president and what I thought about Eel-hahar-eeiay (he couldn’t pronounce Hillary). I told him my political hopes.
As we pulled into the airport, Ahmed said, “I hope for a day when we discover life in space. Then we would see we are all humans together. My problem would be your problem. And your problem would be my problem. Then we might live peacefully together.”