Dining with the Algerians

Posted: Jul 18, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Having returned from London, in whose gentlemen's clubs we are enjoined to wear "business attire or national dress," I had the perfect explanation for my wife's sexy dress at the Algerian embassy here in Washington the other night. We were invited there along with hundreds of notables (and an occasional rastaquouere) to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Algerian independence. As Algeria is a relatively cosmopolitan country for Arab Africa, the dress was variegated. In the receiving line stood the ambassador in what I think all Americans would consider business attire. Next was his wife, in a silk burka. Next came a military officer in crisp green military uniform, his chest smattered with ribbons and medals. Then there was another Algerian woman in traditional dress, and finally, a very soignee young woman. But still her dress was modest. The modesty reminded me that at my side was a woman in radiant pastels -- her top garment a masterpiece of economy, her skirt abundant, but practically molded round her. My wife looked spectacular, though possibly too spectacular in this celebration of a society that is largely Muslim. A diplomatic acknowledgement would not be out of place, and my recent experience in the clubs of London helped. "My wife," I apprised the Algerian dignitaries, "... in national dress." They seemed pleased. There were no Islamofascists here to huff and puff. In fact, the Algerians are engaged in a bloody fight with radical Islamists who might breed Islamofascism. Why radical Islam has not taken over the government of Algeria I do not fully understand. The country is heavily Muslim. In fact, the state religion of Algeria is Islam, though its constitution forbids religious discrimination. Algeria is situated in northwest Africa along the Mediterranean in an area accessible by geography and trade to Western Europe and, for that matter, to the Americas, as shipping goes that way. Algeria's economic relationship to the United States is strong. It is the United States' fifth-largest market in the Middle East and North Africa. Algeria exports $3 billion in petroleum and liquid natural gas to the United States. Its daily export of 4 million barrels of oil to the United States is scheduled to increase to 5 million shortly. Aside from economic incentives for remaining moderate, the form of Islam practiced in Algeria seems to be relatively reasonable. Unlike some other Arab countries, women can vote in Algeria, hold office and engage in business. They can enter into contracts and pursue the professions. In fact, there are Algerian women in both houses of Parliament, and they compose 25 percent of the judiciary. Obviously with such achievements to their credit, women have similar access to education as men. Perhaps the major reason for Algeria's antipathy to radical Islamists is that its government for over the last dozen years has been engaged in bloody warfare with radical Islamic guerrillas, and a considerable portion of the population is keenly aware of the grisly fate that awaits it if the radicals win. In the reception line at the embassy, I asked Ambassador Jazairy if he was familiar with the writings of my friend Roger Kaplan, who has written vivid accounts of the grim war being waged between the government and the Islamists in The American Spectator and elsewhere. He knew of Kaplan and approved of his writing. It is preeminently from Kaplan's writing that I know about the struggle being waged in Algeria. Tens of thousands have died there, and more have been casualties, many the casualties of torture. Now after Sept. 11, Algeria has become an ally with us in the war against terrorism. Indeed, the head of the State Department's office of counter-terrorism, Francis Taylor, recently called Algeria "one of the most tenacious and faithful partners of the United States" in opposing terrorism. Well, perhaps the Algerians have no alternative. The radical Islamists they face in their country have revealed their intent, and it is not to liberate the country but to swaddle it in fanatical laws and customs. Perhaps the future for Algeria is a secular Islamic state like that of Turkey, complete with a variety of civic institutions. We shall see -- and maybe the way I shall gauge Algeria's success against terror will be by how the dignitaries at next year's Algerian independence celebration respond to my wife's "national dress."