Has Political Islam Failed in Algeria
The question whether Political Islam has failed or not due to the internal structure of the Islamic political movement, in either Algeria or any other country in the Islamic World, is an important question for the analysis of the politicized Islamic phenomena. Olivier Roy sees the movement as a failure, not only in Algeria but also in the whole area from Casablanca to Tashkent, the movement has resulted in failure due to many reasons that are seen as common among all the divisions of the movement regardless of their different socio- economic and political background that are more or less responsible of the eneration of such movements.
The Algerian case is the best case one can see as a direct application of Roy’s theoretical analysis of the Failure of political Islam. The Islamic movement started in Algeria by the end of the 1980’s, after a long era of the corrupt regime and it’s economic in efficiency that led the country to live under extremely harsh standards of living for the average individual.
While most of the Algerian citizens are under 30, namely 75%, which means a huge number of people in need for a high rate of creation of jobs, especially with the growth rate of population that is up to 3%, thirty percent f the Gross National Product used to go to service the payment of the national debt . This, of course, resulted in the decline of the growth rate of the GNP. What made it even worse is the fall of natural gas revenues during the 1980’s. In the days after the dual fall of the price of oil and the value of the dollar, the demographic expansion had pushed the GNP’s growth curve below the horizontal for the first time in years.
Such economic conditions were very much responsible for the instability and the weakening of the legitimacy of the FLN government. The plummeting of il prices in the 1980’s combined with the mismanagement of Algeria’s highly centralized economy brought about the nation’s most serious economic and social since the early days of independence. Housing conditions were extremely bad and it was normal for the average citizen to live in one room with six other people. The economic frustration was a general of the Algerian citizen and still is.
This economic frustration led to street riots that were not characterized by an Islamic attitude but rather a normal frustration that any population would feel towards an inefficient corrupt regime that seems to be irectly responsible for such economic status. The masses that took the streets of Algerian cities, in October 1988, were not only Islamists but workers, students, secularists, leftists, feminists and Berberists, all demonstrating their disillusionment with the FLN (National Liberation Front). The FLN government responded by the Army intervention and the arbitrary arresting of the protesters.
They used torture against people which ultimately created a high measure of resentment and destruction of the government legitimacy. Moreover, the government doctrine to reform the Algerian economy was so much supportive to hose who had money already, which gave no benefit to the crushed masses that were striving under poor standards of life, which is the case in most countries that undergo transitional periods of economic reform where the desperate need for investment forces the government to grant the investors more rights and less duties to assure an attractive business environment.
However, the corrupt regime seemed to do that for its own benefit since most of the rich Algerians were practically either government officials or having strong connections with the authority. Thus, the economic reform fired back on the FLN. Meanwhile, there was another severe problem that affected the countries domestic politics; the problem of identity. As a French colony under the French authority, prior independence, Algeria suffered what Arab writers and journalists call farnasah which means Frenchization of Algeria.
This is what is noticeably seen in most if not all French colonies. Spencer mentions that Largely -but not exclusively- because of the colonial legacy of France, language has been politicized since independence and continues to present problems for national unity. The French suppressed any attempt to apply Arabization of ducation and thus succeeded in creating an elite of French speakers.
After independence, Arabization of education in Algeria started to grow which gave the rise to a frustrated Arabic speaking population that suffered from the lack of job opportunities for them which was a sort of discrimination against those who cannot speak or write French in a country that is a member of the Arab League with an official religion that has Arabic as a necessity. In 1979 the so called Arabised demonstrated their frustration through the use of mass mobs asking for equal rights with the French educated.
Chedli Benjadid, the Algerian president ried to rectify the bias against Arabic educated but still they felt that discrimination. The Islamists, always encouraged Arabization to create a national identity separated from France. The problem of national identity and unity is basically drawn along linguistic lines, especially with the existence of the Berbers who have their own language that has never been recognized by the authority as an official language although the Berbers constitute 15-20% of the Algerian population. In addition, being a French speaker has been stereotyped as being a pro-France anti-Islamic .
Thus, the Algerian society suffered from oth cultural divisions and economic frustration which gave rise to the FIS. As a way to gain the lost legitimacy the mono-party people’s assembly approved a new multi-party constitution under which the formation of the FIS ( Islamic Salvation Front) took place. In one year time, FIS was very successfully able to spread its popularity among the frustrated population by a doctrine to solve the national identity problem, since practically all Algerians are Muslim despite the clear bias of the FIS to Arabic because of its Islamic appeal.
The main success of FIS was that it could quickly unify the Islamic deological fanatics under its banner, getting over the differences of the streams between the groups forming this organization. This is why it is seen that FIS is a revolutionary type organization which is willing to take of power using all necessary means, as power is the major objective because it is the tool with which change might be a possible act. The founders of the FIS were able to permit ideological quarrels between its members and postpone them till they assume power, which was the basic objective .
Since the FLN was supported by the most powerful institution in the country which is the army, violence was ot to serve the FIS and would not assure them the assumption of power. The democratization process that was taking place in Algeria was a golden change to try to peacefully change the current regime by stepping firstly in the local government level to increase their popularity. What shows that Olivier Roy was right to categorize the FIS as a neo- fundamentalist group is their political attitude. The definition he sets for a neo-fundamentalists’ approach is the strive for power whatever it costs.
Violence, compromise, mobilization of masses and whatever it takes to get to ower is possible as it serves the ultimate goal which is establishing the Islamic state, since no virtuous population without the establishment of an Islamic state. This is what seemed to be a vicious circle for Roy How can one escape the cycle: no Islamic state without virtuous Muslims, no virtuous Muslims without Islamic state. This might seem Machivillian to a large extent. Yet, the FIS was able to do that in more than one case to assure reaching the domination of the National Popular Assembly.
The two most spectacular examples of this were the mobilization over the United Nations’ war against Iraq in January 1991, and the mobilization over unfair electoral laws in May-June 1991 . This happened despite the fact that Iraq is dominated by the infidel Ba’athists who cannot be Islamic. Forming a party, in itself, is not something that Islamists should do since they would have to compromise with the mass support by neglecting some of their principles for the sake of mobilization of voters .
In June 1990, the municipal and provincial elections were held and they resulted in an extensive defeat for the ruling FLN. Their loss was the FIS’s gain since they were the only main player on the political scene. Of course there were so many others since Algeria opened up to the multi-party system to the extent that something like 50 parties or even more appeared at once. Yet, there were only two main parties and the others were real not political parties but they were mostly debating societies around one or more old politician .
The FIS was able to run the local provinces efficiently while preparing for the elections for the National Popular Assembly (APN), that was supposed to be held in the first quarter of 1991. The government, however, delayed the election to the June 1991 and then it was held in December 1991. The FIS was able to survive the elections victoriously at the first round of elections when they won 188 seats, with about three million votes while the FLN got half of the number of the votes but only 16 seats in the assembly.
This was due to the system of election individual election in which one votes for a person not for a party as it is in the proportional representation system electoral system. This was seen as unfair since the ruling FLN had gotten half of what the FIS had while the FLN won 188 seats the FLN only gained 16 seats. This is why, Liamine Zeroual, supported by most of the political figures in Algeria, has decided to change the electoral system to the proportional representation instead of voting for individual candidates. Thus, a balanced parliament would be conceivable given the nature of the political life in Algeria .
What made it possible for the FIS to achieve such a victory over the FLN although it could not socialize its Islamic ideology as much as the results of the elections of 1991 may show, was the weak position of the FLN that had ruled the country for three decades and resulted in ultimate failure. Most of the voters, according to Burgat and Dowell statistics, 55 to 82 %, voted for the FIS lthough they had no Islamic ideological orientation. They call these votes rejection votes. The FIS had used the other weapon the FLN used to use, which is nationalism.
They seemed to be able to find a paradigm that can unify the country under one banner no matter what it is and decrease the separationist trend in the country . The voters had decided to bring the FLN down because of their frustration and despair of this ruling party that brought all of these problems to the country. This seems to be the case in, not only Algeria, but also in so many other Muslim societies where the population is very frustrated because of he severe economic conditions and the repressive behavior of their government.
The Islamic solution attracts the attention of the crushed cynical population that lost hope in the current regimes. Nevertheless, no one can argue whether the FIS were successful at maximizing their benefit out the frustrated masses and they could mobilize them in more than one incident. This is a very strong point that shows how organized the FIS was and how it could lead the government to do whatever the FIS wanted. On the 29th December 1989 they mobilized the “one of the most important opposition demonstrations in the history of independent Algeria.
The mob was asking for the application of Sharia law and the abolition of mixed education. They wanted different schools for the different genders. The FIS did that again on 20th of April. Despite the fact that the government tried its best to scatter the mob and used some other Islamists like Nahnah and Sahnoun to counterattack the FIS, the popularity of the FIS and its massive support of its followers, who are very politically articulate, managed to keep the struggle which led the government to go for the election which was the beginning of the end of the FLN control of the situation.
After the first round of the election and the overwhelming defeat of the FLN, Chdli still thought that he could keep his position without the FLN in parliament. Yet, the army stepped in and took power with a military coup d’etat against him on Jan 11, 1992. This anti-democratic move of the army that was keeping an eye on the event and ready to intervene was the worst move in Algerian history. This started the bloody story between the military transitional government and the FIS, which is still going on up till now with almost no significant government control over anything.
The situation in Algeria is a civil war that no one can win. The dissolution of the FIS, although it seemed to be the only possible way to get rid of their huge influence, was a very unsuitable thing to do. Both of Abbassi Madani and Belhadj were put in prison. Democracy was killed and the FLN lost its credibility forever because it committed itself to democratization and it then, after they lost elections, are there with an iron fist to crush the civilians who have all the right to choose whom to rule the country.
Now Algeria is in civil war, decline of GNP, foreign debt accumulation and all sorts of problems that appear due to lack of governmental control over he society that turned wild. Estimations of casualties and deaths among the fighting armed groups with the state authority ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 deaths. The destruction of the infrastructure of the country and the impossibility of development is such a situation makes it seem like a nightmare. Nevertheless, it is quiet obvious that political Islam has succeeded in Algeria in many ways while it did not have the chance to be tested in others.
The theory of Olivier Roy is, therefore, subject to question. It is true that some of what Roy says about political Islam in general has happened in reality in Algeria. It is also true that he has done a very good analysis and characterization of the FIS as the main Islamic force in Algeria. Yet, there is a sort of underestimation of the success of the political movement. Such an organization that can force the government to get in elections that was known to be lost from the very beginning deserves to be acknowledged for what it has done in unifying the country under its banner.
Whether they succeeded or not to get the official control is another issue, since their victory was aborted illegitimately by the force of the army. Roy categorizes the types of Islamic groups into three main categories. Firstly, there is the Islamists or the extremists who are trying to change the society from top down by means of assuming political power. Their aim is to get the power using any means possible to be able to impose the Shari’a Law so that they can make the people virtuous by order as they will get habituated to what is imposed on them.
Secondly, there is the religious fundamentalists who are peaceful groups that are trying to change the society by grass roots technique with no need to authoritarian powers. The basic aim is to provide the population with a model of how to be a good Muslim rather than forcing them to e so. Thus, they are not very much into conflict with the governments under which they live. Thirdly, the most radical of all is the neo-fundamentalist groups, like the FIS who are striving for power no matter what it takes to do so. He sees the FIS as the clearest example of that kind of Islamic groups.
I agree as I mentioned before on that issue since the nature of their political behavior is typical of a neo-fundamentalist group. The main question is “Has political Islam failed in Algeria or not? And if the answer is yes, did it fail for the reasons he mentioned in his book? ” Roy, sees the failure of political Islam as a result of many factors that are common among the different Islamic movements from Casablanca to Tashkent. The case study of Algeria is a good example of what Roy is mentioning in his book as reasons for the failure. The absence of an Islamic Alternative” is one of the main points behind the failure of political Islam in the Muslim World.
Roy argues that Islamist thinkers did not provide the population with any other alternative to the existing situation that is the main reason for their frustration. Saying that Islam is the solution would not help decreasing the both internal and external ebt, raising the rate of growth of the GNP, develop up to date technical assistance to develop industrial infrastructure and high value added products or solve the problem of repression and authoritarianism.
In addition, the Islamists do not have a clear political agenda to tell what they are going to do with the banking system that is based on interest. Neither do they have a clear view of how to keep the government budget and save it from deficit while canceling out taxes according to the Shari’a Law, depending only on Zakat which is only 5-10 % of the yearly income of the population . For the Algerian case, Roy makes perfect sense. Hugh Roberts reports on that by saying, “Yet, in fact Algerian Islamists had virtually nothing to say about economic policy.
Not only did not have positions of its own, it did not even bother to canvass the kind of notion concerning properly Islamic banking and so forth that has been fashionable in international Islamist circles since the Iranian revolution. ” In addition the FIS did take the government side on the issue of economic reform and saw that privatization of government’s enterprises . This resulted in the decline of their popularity among the workers in Algeria. The notion of “Bleak Society” is mentioned by Roy to emphasize that the Islamic movement have drawn an image of their ideal society which seems rather bleak and depressing.
All entertainment methods would be “Haram” banned because they are either Western or they are helping the bad habits to spread away among people which makes them not virtuous. The Islamists, he argues, want to live in the past while it is impossible because people have gotten used to entertain themselves in many way that are not harmful. Closing cinemas, theaters and night clubs and banning music would be very unacceptable by the population. This is exactly what the FIS did when they controlled the local level of the society after the local elections.
They banned the Rai Music and they banned serving alcohol. This is a very valid point that Roy makes. Yet, the Algerians themselves participated in mobs, as mentioned above in one of the greatest demonstrations ever seen in Algeria since independence. A huge number of people have adopted the ideas of how the society should be. The ideology of the FIS was well known by the Algerians and every one knew what they would do if they assume power in the Parliament. Still, the first round of the elections gave hem 188 seats while the FLN got only 16.
The movement has succeeded to socialize and sell their ideas to the population. This results should not be considered as a failure by all means. The notion of “Islam of Resentment” was mentioned by Roy to illustrate why these movements got established from the very beginning. For Algeria, with its history of being a colony of France till the mid 1960s, and the FLN failure to find a paradigm to solve the problems of the society with its socialist model, it is quiet probable that resentment was a basic factor for the creation of the movement and its success among the population.
The socialization of the FIS was more than excellent, especially if one takes in account the very short period it took to form a political party and defeat the ruling regime. In conclusion, the failure of political Islam is a theory, although seems to apply successfully to the Algerian model, but it is rather a mistake to think that Islam has failed in Algeria. Although the FIS did not have a real economic plan that could save the Algerian economy, one cannot say that if they are to come back and elections are to be held again democratically they would loose the elections because they have failed.
The FIS had been very successful in convincing the masses with their plans and what they would do. Yet, the extremely undemocratic action that was carried out by the army to cancel the elections was what prevented the movement from doing something to save Algeria. In fact, no one can say whether or not Political Islam would have failed in Algeria hadn’t the army intervened to cancel the elections. Yet, it is very obvious that the FIS would have had a really hard time to solve these problems and, at the same time, keep their popularity among the crushed masses that were striving under very poor conditions.