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Saving the Grayzone

Why we need moderates, and how their existence helps fight the Islamic State.

Christopher Furlong/Getty

As terrifying and sadistic as ISIS is, its agenda has never been a mystery, nor is its viciousness without precedent. In a 2014 op-ed for UAE state newspaper The National, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck drew an interesting line of comparison between ISIS’s caliphate and the radical Armed Islamic Group that catapulted Algeria into civil war in the early 1990s. In terms of ISIS’s international strategy, however, the more apt Algerian analogue lies with the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the nationalist group that secured independence from the country’s French colonial masters in the 1950s and 1960s.

By the turn of the twentieth century, the population disparity between European colonial families and native Algerians was vast: Thanks to a population boom, there were 8,500,000 natives versus 1,200,000 Europeans, only half of whom were French. In World War II, thousands of Algerian Muslims fought alongside the French; after a few attempts to encourage assimilation between the Europeans and Algerians were quashed by radicals on both sides, native Algerians were finally granted French citizenship in 1947. In a bid to maintain control of the country, however, the French government subverted the massive Algerian majority through a combination of flagrant voter fraud and the targeted arrests of Algerian politicians.

This repression not only discredited native moderates, but also disillusioned many of their supporters, who would go on to form the bulk of the leadership of the much more radical, much more violent FLN. Upon its founding in November 1954, the group declared war on the French Fourth Republic. The war began in earnest, however, in August of the next year, when FLN terrorists massacred European colonists—men, women, and children—and native moderates alike. It terms of sheer cruelty, the Philippeville Massacre, as it’s known, yields nothing to modern ISIS atrocities, and it set the tone for a conflict replete with savagery on both sides. It would be the template for the rest of the FLN’s actions in their fight against the Fourth Republic. As a French commander said of the conquest of Algeria in 1830, the Algerian War of Independence was “neither a pretty war, nor an amusing war.”

“Kill the [local governors],” went the orders from one FLN colonel. “Take their children and kill them. Kill all those who pay taxes and those who collect them. Burn the houses of Muslim NCOs away on active service.” Orders from that colonel’s superior, Ahmed Ben Bella—who would, in 1963, become the first president of a free Algeria—read: “Liquidate all personalities who want to play the role of [mediator].” Just as the horrors of ISIS’s terror campaign aren’t random psychopathy, neither was the FLN’s penchant for violence. As Alistair Horne—whose seminal A Savage War of Peace remains the most well-respected work in the contentious historiography of the Algerian War—argues, the FLN strategy was another example of the cold, implacable logic of modern terror.

In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo shootings last January, the Islamic State propaganda magazine Dabiq ran a feature in its seventh issue entitled “The Extinction of the Grayzone.” The article argues that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 inaugurated a movement that would split the world into two warring camps: that of Islam, and that of the infidels. In between is the “Grayzone,” comprised of Western moderates and any Muslims deemed insufficiently orthodox. With each new act of violence—and, critically, with each new wave of media coverage—ISIS is attempting to erode moderates into nothingness. Sixty years earlier, the FLN’s own propaganda outlet, El Moudjahid, came up with a similar formulation. It decried both “deviationists” and French moderates, like Albert Camus, who pleaded for compromise; in the meantime, the FLN regularly massacred whole towns suspected of collaborating with the French government.

It’s critical to realize, however, the second stage of eliminating the grayzone: forcing governments, because of rampant terrorism, to resort to similar tactics against the terrorists. “A resort to blind terrorism would inevitably provoke the forces of law and order into an equally blind repression,” Horne, the historian, writes, “which would lead to a backlash by the hitherto uncommitted, polarize the situation into two extreme camps and make impossible any dialogue of compromise by eradicating the ‘soft center.’”

In Algeria, the Europeans were more than willing to play their part. For every bombing in an Algiers café or nightclub, innocent Muslims could expect a brutal mob reaction. The French military and colonial government, too, rapidly descended into what longtime French President François Mitterrand termed the cercle infernale. Hardened by World War II and the fresh loss of Indochina, the military struggled to maintain order in Algeria through a cold-blooded counterterrorism plan. It involved carpet-bombing towns suspected of harboring guerrillas, the construction of electrified fences along the country’s borders adorned with dead animals, and the use of torture.

By 1959, a year after the fall of the Fourth Republic, it was clear the FLN’s bloody campaign had succeeded. While the French had almost complete military control of the country, they had lost the battle for international support. In the eyes of both foreign observers and left-leaning and moderate French citizens, the French government had abandoned its purportedly noble mission to “civilize” the native Algerians by stooping to the FLN’s level—and not even these horrific measures had demonstrated that everyday Algerian citizens were safe from the violence.

The current situation in the West, even amid the Syrian refugee crisis, is a far cry from the nightmare into which Algeria descended. But whenever fear is the basis for policy, whenever reprisal and macho declarations of carpet bombing are the order of the day, Westerners repeat decades-old mistakes.

Though Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is the most visibly Islamophobic politician in recent years—promising to bar Muslims from entering the country, expressing admiration for war crimes, and entertaining the possibility of both a national Muslim registry and shutting down mosques—he’s far from the only one. Ted Cruz, who recently suspended his presidential campaign, had decried proposed crackdowns on anti-Muslim rhetoric and surrounded himself with paranoid Islamophobes like Frank Gaffney; even the comparatively moderate John Kasich, another recent dropout, cited a debunked anti-Muslim myth about a “no-go” zone.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee—recent presidential candidates all—are just a few of the people who have helped fringe Islamophobia become the GOP mainstream, and no one in the Republican Party has emerged to stop it. Those who have tried—as Jeb Bush did last December, arguing like his elder brother that Islam is a religion of peace—have been drowned out in a growing chorus of distrust.

The consequences of this paranoia, to American Muslims and everyone else living in the grayzone, are frightening. Last December, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that only 36 percent of GOP primary voters opposed Trump’s proposed ban on Muslim immigration. In more alarming terms, attacks on American Muslims—and Sikhs confused for Muslims—tripled in the wake of November’s terrorist attacks in Paris.

Death threats and violent reprisals against supposed Muslims aren’t simply happy accidents for ISIS’s international strategy. Nor are the politicians using Islamophobia to gain power and influence. As the FLN proved decades ago in Algeria, public anti-Muslim attitudes are part of ISIS’s grand strategy. Creating an atmosphere unsafe for moderates of any kind is how you extinguish the grayzone. That’s why there are no easy answers when it comes to defeating an enemy like ISIS. Reactionary paranoia is part of the enemy strategy, and now that Donald Trump will be the Republican candidate for president in November, it remains to be seen whether Americans will—or can—reject this fear. Coexistence at arm’s length isn’t enough, either, not when ISIS’s online influence is so pervasive.

At the risk of indulging in cozy liberal pieties, maybe the courage of American ideals is enough; maybe we can make the grayzone a home, rather than a strategic consideration. Maybe, with their words and their actions, Americans will put the lie to hatred from ISIS and Islamophobes alike. And maybe, despite the political risks, more politicians will do the same.

The alternative is fear. The Algerian novelist and teacher Mouloud Feraoun, a pacifist who supported Algerian independence, saw the fear firsthand. He detailed it in heartbreaking, humane fashion in his journal in November 1956, one month after three coordinated bombings kick-started the climactic Battle of Algiers. “Each one of us is guilty for the sole reason that we belong to a category, a race, a people,” Feraoun writes. “You fear that someone will make you pay with your life for your place in the world, pay for the color of your skin. You fear that someone will attack you only because nobody has done it yet.”

On March 15, 1962, revanchist French terrorists murdered Feraoun. The French government signed a formal ceasefire three days later.