Islamism in Algeria: a case study

On November 2 1988, Algeria was a one-party state, ruled by the National Liberation Front (Front de libération nationale, FLN). The next day, its Constitution was amended to provide for multiparty elections. A few months later, in February 1989, the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) was formed. It would survive for just over three years before being abolished by the government.

Algeria has had a tough time of the twentieth century. The French weren't known for ruling with a light hand, nor did they decolonize gracefully. In an eight year war lasting from 1954 to 1962 (in which Frantz Fanon fought), the FLN drove out the French and gained independence. It then had to transform itself into a party of government. It did this with success, but inevitably the army came to be dominant. The country strolled along for decades, its government mired in corruption and inefficiency.

The newly constructed state had an ideology which focused mainly on nationalism and socialism. However, ruling over a very Islamic country with such an ideology was never going to be possible, and the ulama took on the role of protest against the government. The state could not clamp down on the people's religious voices, so instead they invented an 'official' Islam of ulama who were compliant with the state's wishes and gave justifications for their actions. This strategy was doomed to failure, as the state ulama were tainted by their servitude. It has been a commonplace of Islamic literature since the Middle Ages that spiritual heroes reject an offer of employment by the state. The offer confirms their reputation, and the refusal their piety.

This meant that the discourse of Islam in Algeria was controlled by the opposition, who had a basis of social support and greater legitimacy than state functionaries. It was within this competitive arena that the Islamic Salvation Front emerged in 1989. It is strange for an Islamic political party to call itself a 'front', a word usually associated with Arab nationalism. A 'front' implies a cobbling together of disparate groups with different aims, such as a National Liberation Front which unites different social classes for the purpose of overthrowing a foreign occupier. Islamic movements prefer to stress their holistic nature and the unity of their followers. The choice of name is, hence, instructive.

Les fils du FLN?

It is so for two reasons. Firstly, the FIS was just that, a cobbling together of disparate Islamic groups. This is what accounts for the incredible amount of infighting within the group during its three years of existence, and the constant expulsions of members that took place. But even more so, FIS was a play on words. It is pronounced fils, the French word for son. Making plays on words between French and Arabic is a standard part of Algerian humour and culture, and the meaning was clear: the FIS was an offshoot of the FLN, its true heir.

The original founders of the FIS are commonly known as the 'preachers'. Like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, they believed in working within the state system so that they could be a force for good in the sphere of interest which they felt most appropriate to the role of Islam, the social and economic realm. They wanted to establish schools, clincs and support services for the people of Algeria, and this made them very popular with the Algerian people. They saw themselves as a counterweight to the corrupt FLN, and the true heirs of the Algerian Revolution that had overcome the French. The FLN had done its job nicely, but now it was time to step aside, thank you very much. Corrupt and inefficient, the FLN no longer represented the people's will.

The FIS enjoyed very good electoral success. In local elections in 1990, they won 54% of the vote, including 93% in the towns and cities. When the government tried to redraw electoral districts in the favour of the FLN, there were huge protests in Algiers and the government was forced to rethink. As the state began to resort to coercion to try and get the genie back in the bottle, a new wave of people moved into the leadership of the FIS - young, economically weak radicals from the cities who felt locked out of the current system and sought decisive change. The movement was becoming radicalized.

Repression and radicalization

Islamism as an ideology is not compatible with the state system. It is the Islamization of every aspect of human interaction and communal life, along with private morality. States construct laws not derived from the Shari'ah, and they worship ideologies (nationalism, socialism, the free market) rather than Allah. For such groups and individuals - Shamil Basayev (the architect of the Beslan massacre), Egyptian Islamic Jihad (whose leader, Ayman al Zawahri, spends his time with Osama nowadays), and the Armed Islamic Group in present-day Algeria - working within the state is not an option. The state must be destroyed and a new community of believers built on its ashes.

It was men of this mindset who increasingly became prominent in the Algerian Islamist movement. It is they who during the 1990s have perpetuated bloody massacres in the Algerian Civil War, with the moderates sidelined. It now indeed seems possible to posit a cyclical theory of Islamic protest movements, in which they begin as moderate enterprises (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Aslan Mashkhadov in Chechnya), then become radicalized by coercion from a repressive state, with the result that a more radical movement takes the political initiative (Egyptian Islamic Jihad, Shamil Basayev). So when the FIS won 48% of the popular vote in the first round of the parliamentary elections in 1992, and the army shuddered at the prospect of FIS rule and declared a national emergency, the result was that the radicals in the movement suddenly seemed to have a point. The state could not be dealt with: and so it must be destroyed. The result was the group we now know as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Algerian Civil War.

The paradox of Algerian Islamism and the weakness of moderation

There is another aspect of Algerian Islamism which is worth pondering. It must be asked why exactly the government suddenly decided to promulgate the multiparty constitution in 1988, given the clear possibility that it would all end in tears. This objection seems perfectly legitimate if we accept the Islamist version of events, which is that a totally secular and un-Islamic state was repressing God's people and trying to eradice all religion. Such was the view given in much of the Western media, which often mischaracterizes such complex issues through oversimplification.

Like most one-party states, the FLN is not as monolithic as it appears and as it likes to present itself. There existed inside the FLN a number of individuals who were just as annoyed by the corruption and inefficiency of the system as the rest of the population were. An upwardly-mobile bourgeoisie existed which wanted to take control of the process of modernization from the army and bring the country kicking and screaming into the late twentieth century. Many were educated in the West. They were fed up of needing the patronage of some army man to get anywhere in business and politics, and wanted to take control of things themselves. A similar mentality existed among some members of the FIS, who asked the electorate "Who do you trust more to get things done - us or them?"

The main purpose of this group was to try and bring about a paradigm shift in the economy from socialism to capitalism. Capitalism would provide them with the efficiency, meritocracy and modernity they so desired; and they would be the personal beneficiaries in terms of power and wealth. But in the FLN, this group was disparaged by the mainstream as "too Western" or "too French". Nationalism was wielded as a weapon against them, with the army claiming to represent the true nation. The young technocrats of the party couldn't convincingly claim otherwise or wrap themselves in the flag, the criticism being rather too close to home. But there was one thing they could do - wrap themselves in Islam.

It was this group of people who managed to have the Constitution amended to create an atmosphere of political freedom, and it was their opponents in the party who eventually had matters reversed. This explains the curious support of the FIS for the government's laissez faire economic policy, despite the fact this was the least popular aspect of government policy. This isn't to suggest laissez faire economics is not compatible to Islam, it is simply to suggest that it is the primary purpose of opposition parties to hit their opponents where it hurts the most. This also explains why key players in the FLN stood up for the Islamists and let them continue to exist even though the Constitution banned religious parties. The two needed each other - the forces of modernity needed Islam to legitimize themselves, and the forces of Islamism needed modern elements in the state to let them continue to exist.

This compromise with the state structure, while not depriving the party of electoral success, did mean that it was eventually overtaken by radical elements who preferred armed struggle. The FIS had tried to exist in a paradoxical situation, using the rhetoric of Islamic revolution to mask a reality of political opportunism and compromise. In such a situation, wiser men often do not appreciate that the young are taking them deadly seriously.


Primarily 'Islamism and Islamists: The Emergence of New Types of Politico-Religious Minorities' (Séverine Labat) and 'Doctrinaire Economics and Political Opportunism in the Strategy of Algerian Islamism' (Hugh Roberts) in Islamism and Secularism in North Africa ed. John Ruedy (New York, 1994). Bernard Lewis writes interestingly on Islam and modernity in The Crisis of Islam (Phoenix, 2003) and What Went Wrong? (Phoenix, 2002).

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