Has Political Islam Failed In Algeria? Essay, Research Paper
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
generation 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
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
of 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
oil 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
directly 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
those 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
education 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
tried 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
both 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
The main success of FIS was that it could quickly unify the Islamic
ideological 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
not 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
power is possible as it serves the ultimate goal which is establishing the
Islamic state, since no virtuous population without the establishment of an
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
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
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
although 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
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
the 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
the 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
be 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
debt, 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
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
them 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.