PARIS — Algerian writer Kamel Daoud is feted in France — and resented by many in his home country. It’s easy to see why.
Daoud won France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt, for his first novel in 2013. But beyond his literary talents, he appeals to French sympathies by declaring that he is not particularly interested in apologies for colonialism or the violence used to try to suppress Algerian independence. He says colonialism has become little more than an excuse for Algeria to ignore its internal decay.
“As soon as you say anything, they tell you it’s the fault of colonization,” he said in an interview here. “If you say that’s not true, they tell you, ‘Well then, you are in favor of colonization.’ No. I am for the present. Now.”
Daoud reserves the bulk of his criticism for fellow Muslims.
When his father’s grave in the Algerian city of Mesra was vandalized, Daoud blamed the spread of Islamic extremism.
After a group of Arab men orchestrated sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, on New Year’s Eve in 2015, he mocked the “wishful thinking” of the European left, which, in his view, had blindly welcomed Arab refugees without acknowledging that these men see women as “guilty of an awful crime — life.”
In a France still grappling with the aftermath of a deadly series of terrorist attacks, his views have earned him esteem as a brave foreign dissident who speaks the truth. He is a regular commentator on French radio and a mainstay in the French papers, where his essays are routinely billed as “interventions” — often by those who are not especially known for their charity toward Muslims.
“He’s an extremely courageous man,” said Alain Finkielkraut, a right-wing public intellectual. “The problem with Islam, it’s not colonization or oppression by the West. It’s the oppression done by the religion itself, primarily on women, which then drives men insane.” That line also happens to be the thesis of Daoud’s new book.
For Caroline Fourest, a French feminist and critic of the veils worn by some Muslim women, Daoud is the image of the enlightened Muslim man. “Kamel Daoud is a remarkable voice, who clearly fits into our very French tradition of Voltaire,” she said. “He is a dissident who is unafraid to speak the truth, especially in the face of religious tyranny.”
Daoud is not universally beloved in France, where he is also regularly criticized as being complicit in recycling Islamophobia, especially by French Muslims and left-leaning academics.
But in Algeria, the feelings are more hostile. Daoud is sometimes seen as an Uncle Tom figure, who publishes the books that the country’s colonizers want to read. One imam went so far as to call for his murder. Algeria’s foreign minister called him a puppet of “an international Zionist lobby hostile to Islam and Algeria.”
“It’s a very contemporary problem,” Sofiane Hadjadj, Daoud’s Algerian publisher, said in a telephone interview. “How to continue defending your ideas, when the perspective changes based on where you are. The same text written and edited in Algeria will not be read the same way there as it will be read in France or the United States.”
Other Algerian writers of Daoud’s generation disagree that the colonial past is no longer a pressing concern.
“There’s a trauma that’s never been accounted for,” said Akram Belkaïd, an Algerian essayist based in Paris.
Under President Emmanuel Macron, France has begun to acknowledge, officially, the systemic brutality of its administration in Algeria, its signature former colony. In gestures that would have been impossible to imagine even 10 years ago, Macron has publicly apologized for France’s use of torture during the Algerian War and atoned for the forced disappearance of a young mathematician and anti-colonial Algerian activist in 1957, as well as the murder of peaceful pro-independence protesters by Paris police in 1961.
“Colonial mechanisms continue today,” Belkaïd said. “It’s dangerous to put a lid on the issue of historical memory. All countries that have done that have not fared particularly well.”
Daoud says he is untroubled by his popularity among a certain type of European reader.
“Should I stop my criticisms of Muslim society because my writings would serve the extreme right? Or should I continue, even if my writings serve the extreme right?” he said. “I’ve reflected a lot on that, and I reached a conclusion, which is that I have a responsibility to my daughter, to my wife, to the people around me. I should denounce the violence done to them, even if my words are appropriated.”
“Is my voice sometimes appropriated? Yes it is, some of the time. But is that a reason to shut up? No.”
“Chroniques,” an English translation of his newspaper columns, came out in October.
For the novelist Amina Mekahli, what matters most is the example Daoud sets for aspiring writers in a region whose literary talent is often overlooked.
“Kamel Daoud represents the hope of Algerians who have always lived in Algeria,” she said in a telephone interview from Algiers.
“He gives that hope — I see it today — especially among younger Algerian writers who now can say, ‘Yes, it’s possible.’ And that’s because of Kamel Daoud, who comes from a small village in the west.”
“There are people who criticize him very violently, but he also has many supporters,” said Hadjadj, his publisher. “Quite simply, he’s someone who’s read. That is the real accomplishment.”