In the Name of God

by Yasmina Khadra, translated by Linda Black. Toby Press, 2000. 212 pages

In the Name of God is a harrowing novel that traces the spread of Islamic extremism in the Algerian town of Ghachimat. The author, an Algerian army officer who writes under a female pseudonym, is obviously familiar with the mechanisms of propaganda, intimidation, and outright terror that have plunged Algeria into a bloodbath in recent years.

As the novel begins, Ghachimat is a fairly typical rural town, poor but reasonably content, devout but not fanatical. Local characters include Kada the schoolteacher, Allal the policeman, Dactylo the public letter-writer, a former collaborator with the French known as Issa-the-Disgrace, and his son Tej, a mechanic. There are tensions in this community, but for the most part they stay under the surface until the arrival of Sheikh Abbas.

Abbas, "the youngest imam in the region," is a fiery speaker who has been in and out of prison because of his opposition to the government. "When he harangued corrupt officials and politicians' henchmen, his inflammatory words alone were almost enough to immolate them." An entourage quickly gathers around Abbas, largely made up of those who have grudges and resentments. Kada, in love with the mayor's daughter, has just realized he has lost her to Allal. Tej wants to get out from under the cloud of his father's shame, and Zane-the-dwarf senses the possibility of getting back at those who have humiliated him.

Organized as the Muslim Brothers, Abbas's followers challenge the authority of the local imams, bully the villagers into the strict observance of Islamic law, and declare anyone in uniform to be the enemy -- even the mailman. Dissenters are beaten, a police station is blown up, and mausoleums are destroyed. Then bodies begin to turn up: charred, hanged, or decapitated.

The progress of the terror is chillingly rendered, including the passive rationalizations the villagers produce to avoid standing up to the Brothers. "Little by little, in the café, at the market, in the mosque, the dread gave way to amusement. People began to find the spectacular attacks had panache, the murderers a thrilling recklessness, the executions a 'legitimacy'." Equally believable is the way in which power transforms the personalities of the newly formed extremists, creating in the case of Zane-the-dwarf a monster of cruelty and cunning, drunk on his ability to wreak revenge on anyone he chooses.

From In the Name of God:

Najib smiled bitterly.

"We've left Paradise behind. The long evening gatherings, the weddings in the balmy nights, the joking on every street corner, the girls we spied on around the marabouts, do you remember? The songs of the old woman on the coping of the well, the mood swings of the old man, Issa-the-Disgrace's absent-mindedness, the troubadours, the braying of the donkeys in the heat of the afternoon ... that was paradise, the true paradise, ours, as easy as falling off a log. It's behind us now. Don't look at me like that, kid. We've been duped, like fools. They wound us up like alarm-clocks and let us ring a twenty-fifth hour that is completely out of step."

"You're not going to tell me that we killed all those people for nothing?"

Najib puffed out his cheeks. His gaze went back to the approaching convoys.

"It's the truth."