Dr Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck is worried; she is seeing Algeria caught between a patriarchal state and an Islamist revival.
Islamist parties are in decline in Algeria. They have been incapable of rallying around a successful candidate for presidential elections in the last ten years. Parties such as El Islah, Ennahda, and the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP), have been deeply shaken by personal and ideological disputes that eventually led to a number of breakoffs in their ranks and the crumbling of their electoral power. Despite forming a parliamentary coalition called the Green Algeria Alliance (AAV) to snatch up a greater share of the vote, the various Islamist parties were crushed in the legislative elections of May 2012, securing only 48 out of 462 seats in parliament. In the municipal elections of November 2012, the alliance fared even worse and secured only 10 out of 1541 municipalities.
However, this does not mean that Islamism is over in Algeria. There is a reformulation of Islamism: the Islamists have understood and internalized the idea that for a variety of reasons the establishment of an Islamic state in Algeria is not possible. They internalized the political impasse*. Moderate Islamists in Algeria, such as those of the main Islamist party the MSP, among others; have abandoned their project of establishing an Islamic state upon the argument that Algeria is already an Islamic country that respects the precepts of Islam. Nonetheless, this does not mean that they are eager to accept a diversified public sphere. Unable to capitalize on social discontent – as the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) did during the 1990s, where it mobilized millions of Algerians – the Islamists play up their role as being “guardians of public morality”.
Islamists within the High Islamic Council, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Wakfs, the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama (AUMA) and the Islamist parties, remain a visible force. In 2005, during the reform of the educational system and the government’s decision to eliminate the Islamic sciences from the baccalaureate, the Islamists of the MSP, Movement for National Reform (MRN), and several Islamist associations, called for national demonstrations and accused the government of “a secularist plot against the Algerian society, its foundations and its faith.” The same year, the Islamists opposed revising the family code, a measure that sought to give more legal freedoms to women in family matters. The Islamists threatened to take to the streets and the government did not ban the major obstacle to women’s equality in Algeria, which is the “guardianship” of a man that makes Algerian women minor for life.
In 2006, the MSP, backed by other Islamist parties, prohibited the broadcast of the Lebanese variety show “Star Academy,” arguing that the program was “contrary to the Algerian traditions and culture.” In 2008, the AUMA led a violent campaign against the poet Adonis after he was invited to the National Library of Algeria to give a talk on “religious burdens crushing Arab thought.” As a result, the director of the library, Amin Zaoui, was dismissed. The same year, the AUMA issued a fatwa calling on the Ministry of Interior to begin allowing women the right to wear veils and men to don beards for ID photos.
More recently, in March 2015, the Islamists of the AAV, tried to block from passing a bill that criminalized violence against women. One of its members, Mohamed Daoui, explained that women were responsible for the violence against them because of their “attire” and their “makeup”. The bill was adopted on March 5, 2015.
Last April, Islamists from different parties stood firmly against the liberalization of the wholesale trade of alcohol. The Islamists threatened to demonstrate against this liberalization, perceived as the proof of “the decadence of the people.” The government conceded and the instruction was canceled. From 2006 to 2011, more than 2,000 commercial premises such as bars were closed in the country.
Paradoxically, the regime that claimed to have conducted its battle against the FIS in the name of the “protection of the Republic” does exactly what it accused the Islamists of: instrumentalizing religion. Far from creating a secularized Algerian society, the regime has both tolerated and trivialized Islamism. With the crisis of Algerian nationalism and waning “historical legitimacy” of the regime, the State is trying to win over the support of the society that it lost a long time ago.
“Islamists of the AAV, tried to block from passing a bill that criminalized violence against women”
The ordinance setting “the conditions and rules of exercise of religious worship other than Muslim” is one other example of the prevalence of Islamist discourse. This law, promulgated on February 28, 2006, punishes anyone “who motivates, constrains or utilizes means of seduction inclining to convert a Muslim to another religion with a two to five year prison term and a fine up to $5,000. In 2008, Algerian authorities began a “witch hunt” that involved a series of trials—including some foreigners—for “religious proselytizing and practice without authorization of a non-Muslim worship.” Following the trials, twenty-five churches were shut down. There is also a continuous war against Algerian Muslims who converted to Christianity or to neo-evangelicalism, whom the Minster of Religious Affairs and Wakfs Bouabdallah Ghlammalah called “foreign agents” and “outlaws.” The state and its institutions have also targeted non-fasting Muslims during Ramadan. Tens of trials were held against them for “denigrating the dogma and the precepts of Islam.” Some were fined $1,000 and sentenced to three years in prison.
As for Algerian society, despite its deep trauma caused by the extreme violence of radical armed groups such as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) during the civil war, it remains deeply conservative and traditionalist, especially the middle classes. The social and cultural re-islamization or trivialization of Islamism is clear. There is an increased visibility of religious practices in the public sphere. The veil has become “the norm” and a full 50 to 70 percent of Algerian women wear one, reaching more than 90 percent in the countryside. The number of new mosques being built is further proof: in 2012, a report mentioned 15,000 mosques in Algeria but the number climbed to 17,000 only a year later. Not to mention the construction – with a budget of more than a billion dollars – of what is expected to be the largest mosque in Africa and the third in the world.
Twenty-three years after the bloodiest chapter in contemporary Algeria, with 150,000 dead and 7,000 missing, victims of a war between the state and armed Islamist groups during which a whole society was held hostage, things do not appear to be very optimistic: here we are again in the same place caught between a patriarchal state and an Islamist revival.
* Roy. Le post-islamisme. In: Revue du monde musulman et de la Méditerranée, N°85-86, 1999. pp. 11-30.
Any views expressed are the author’s own.