Islamism and the recolonization of Algeria

Islamism and the recolonization of Algeria – Beyond Colonialism and Nationalism in North Africa

Marnia Lazreg

In November 1988, during a visit to Sidi Abderrahmane’s shrine, a popular sufi and guardian of the old city of Algiers, I noticed two apparently “mad” people (or as they are called in colloquial Arabic madroubin, meaning “stricken,” a young woman dressed in a hijab and a man in his late thirties, dressed in Western clothes. They were unrelated but their presence in the small terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, and their delirium brought them close to each other. She spoke to herself about God and His wrath, he spoke to the few visitors about injustices perpetrated by an unspecified “them,” of history that will be remade. Addressing me, he also asked a rhetorical question about the meaning of women’s “oppression” (or hogra) without seeming to see the young woman walking to and fro, absorbed in her soliloquy. In many ways he was a throwback to the North African tradition of the illuminated man who speaks his mind about the powers that be in a more or less metaphorical fashion. She was brought to the saint’s mausoleum to regain her sanity and stop mumbling about the divine. In June 1991, as I was waiting for the bus at a stop on the heights of Algiers, in Hydra square, a middle-aged woman wearing a hijab stood next to me. She appeared to speak to herself, in a low voice, unintelligible words interspersed with a recitation of the shahada. I had noticed in the cab that had taken me to Hydra that the driver played a cassette of an imam who broke into loud sobs in the middle of his khutba, moved by his own words.

I began to ponder the meaning of these unrelated episodes in the context of the emergence of the Islamist opposition and the rise of a new religiosity. Radio and television were replete with religious news and messages. The loudspeakers in every neighborhood that, as is customary, announced the time for the regular five prayers seemed to blast warnings of an impending doom rather than reminders of one’s duty toward God. I wrote in my diary, “Algeria has become saturated with religious symbols.” I meant to remind myself of the official as well as the individual references to God, the sudden concern among friends and acquaintances for the validity of their daily activities measured against this or that Tradition. Algerians have been Muslims since the seventh century – whence comes, then, this ostentatious display of religiosity and the delirium it seemed to provoke? Algerians have traditionally considered their attitude toward religion a private matter that could not be legislated by any group or man. Now it is not only a public matter, but judging by the violence that has erupted since 1992, it is coercive. The political discourse has turned into a religious discourse, and personal expression can only occur in the delirium mode.

I would like to take the case of the nameless young woman at Sidi Abderrhamane as a metaphor for the Algerian crisis since 1992. Algeria can only be apprehended as a society in a state of delirium politically and culturally. The nature of the violence whereby children, women and men have been hacked by power saws, swords, axes, and double-edged knives has a haunting, nightmarish, delirious quality to it. Social delirium or the loss of control over the ability to reason accompanied by discursive excesses marked by an obsession with selective historical experiences such as colonialism, results in actions that are meant to redress mythical rather than real grievances. For example, civilians are massacred today for not conforming to the myth of the ideal Muslim or for being part of a society that is deemed un-Islamic, thrown into a state of jahiliya (or ignorance), an equally mythical concept, by a government deemed heretic.

Colonialism looms large in the Islamist discourse of deconstruction of Algeria’s culture and politics. It too has acquired mythical proportions referring to all that does not conform to a religion-based model of behavior. It is a constructed standard against which to measure happiness, justice and change. Colonialism has become an ideological concept that helps to remake Algeria’s historical map. On the one hand, the Front of Islamic Salvation (or FIS) intended to present itself as endowed with the mission of relinking the society with its pre-colonial past, thus forging an historical continuity that somehow bypasses the colonial era. This meant cleansing society of the colonial legacy as exemplified by the continued use of the French language, a constitution defined as “secular,” unveiled women, co-education etc. On the other hand, the FIS attempted to reshape people’s lives by insisting, just as the French did, on the superiority of its vision of culture, society and politics. The “civilizing mission” advocated by the colonists in the Nineteenth Century has been succeeded by what might be termed the “re-civilizing” mission of the FIS. The Islamists’ aim is not to “re-Islamize” people as is often said.(1) Rather, it recolonizes private and public spaces by infusing them with new meanings and norms derived from ideational and behavioral sources that sound familiar to individuals because they are expressed in the Arabic language and refer to a monolithic “Islam,” but in effect are alien to the historical and daily experiences of individual Algerians. In the end, Islam as understood by Algerians, prior to the emergence of the Islamist movement, is transformed. This is a complex and often ambiguous task that plays itself out on several registers, emotional, cultural, social, and political. It capitalizes on Algerians’ attachment to their religion, their thirst for dignity, and their desire for equality. I am referring to this process as one of recolonization because of its targeting of Algerians’ cultural space in a manner similar to the French who, in the Nineteenth Century, attempted to displace local norms and values to suit their political purposes. Just as the French hoped to make a tabula rasa of Algerians’ culture, Islamists intend to impose new models of behavior and attitudinal changes to replace existing ones deemed un-Islamic because they do not conform to Islamists’ political conception of religiosity. This article examines the process through which Islamism in Algeria has “recolonized” individuals’ “life world.”(2) The social changes that have taken place in Algeria since its independence as represented by the spread of education, a slow but real transformation of the structure of the family, an evolution of women’s consciousness of their rights, and social pressure for political democratic reform have been perceived by the Islamist movement as challenges that needed to be controlled. I will argue that the Islamist movement means to redirect the sociopolitical evolution of Algeria through cultural recolonization. In so doing, Islamism has in effect imposed on Algerians a new belief system and created a new counter-culture that thrives on nihilism, a blatant disregard for human life that cannot advance any political cause as is expressed in the Armed Islamic Groups’s attacks on defenseless and innocent civilians, admittedly to emphasize the government’s inability to protect its citizens.

The use of colonial methods of social control is not the monopoly of the Islamist movement. The state too has adopted colonial strategies especially in its dealings with religion which it attempted to place under political control. However, the Islamist movement has provided a total ideology using colonial strategies of acculturation for political purposes, just as the French did throughout the colonial era. This essay does not delve into the multiple reasons that led to the emergence of the Islamist movement. Nor does it condone any party involved in the on-going civil war. It is primarily concerned with the ideological uses of the historical reality of colonialism and the transformative impact of Islamism on indigenous culture. It is an analysis of the reproduction of the colonial idea, an obsessive idea that the state failed to deconstruct and the Islamist movement succeeded at appropriating in a mythic form.


Since 1990, when the Front of Islamic Salvation won municipal elections, Algeria has been studied as a nation that has gone awry, “choosing” the path of tradition over modernity, Islam over secularism. The fact that it is precisely Algeria’s experiment with “secular” democratic rules that enabled the Front of Islamic Salvation to spread its message and come close to winning parliamentary elections was often lost on journalists and political scientists ready to capitalize on the apparent “turn” away from “nationalist” rhetoric. It is not the much touted “nationalism” that failed in Algeria. Rather it is the ideal of what Malley calls “third-worldism” within the contexts of national crisis and international change.(3)

It is fruitful to explore the notion of “crisis” to make sense of the rise of the Islamist movement in Algeria. The crisis of the late capitalist state studied by Habermas bears strong similarities with that of the Algerian state between 19651984. Habermas revealed that the late capitalist state undergoes a loss of legitimacy due to its increased intervention in the economic sphere to shore up flagging business or sustain private enterprise. The state seeks to compensate for its lack of legitimacy due to its forsaking the universal good by appealing to residues of tradition.(4)

In the Algerian context, the state directly performed economic functions while at the same time fulfilling a political role. Its double function was necessary in a first stage to permit the emergence of new social classes, a professional political class, and a business class linked to the state through access to power holders. The sale of the formerly state-owned economic enterprises to private individuals in the past few years as a result of structural adjustment, has benefited former members of the government and/or their affiliates. In other words, the Algerian state up until 1978 acted as an incubator of social classes while at the same time preventing class conflict from emerging by providing social services such as medical care, free education, subsidized foodstuffs made possible by petrodollars.(5) By the mid eighties, the state could no longer satisfy the needs it generated for more and better services. In addition, it could no longer maintain mass loyalty as the ideology and practice of socialism were dealt a severe blow by the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was compounded by a loss of status in the wake of the demise of the non-aligned movement in which Algeria played a pivotal role, and greater vulnerability to the dictates of the global economy.

Until 1978, the state monopoly over the economy meant not only the restructuring of social classes but also a brake on cultural development. On the one hand, the state appealed to religion as a reliable institution to secure social consensus already made possible by the provision of social services. On the other hand, it secured mass loyalty through a progressive foreign policy that acted as a substitute for political participation. Social consensus collapsed when the oil crisis of the mid-eighties made it difficult to hide class inequities and even more difficult to stem the tide of protests from those most affected by a state that claimed to be universalistic in its aims yet was privatistic in its practice: the urban, disenfranchised youth and women. Thus the crisis of the state became a crisis of identity and motivation.(6) Identity in the sense that the state in the eighties had lost its socialist facade as President Chadli Bendjedid essentially legalized the black market when he took power, and slowly moved toward a market economy under the alibi of economic adjustment required by a newly discovered foreign debt of $26 billion.(7) Having secured the emergence of postcolonial classes, the state could hope to motivate the public by the introduction of formal democracy which it did in 1989. Mass loyalty without participation of the seventies gave way to the fetishism of democracy in the late eighties. Lacking the experience necessary to make the democratic game at least enjoyable if not useful, the electorate realized the contrived nature of this new phenomenon that brought it 58 parties all claiming the virtues of the polls. Voters elected those they knew best because they understood their language, although they may not have been convinced by their message. Thus, the Front of Islamic Salvation candidates’ won the municipal elections of 1990 and the first round of parliamentary elections of 1991.

In sum, the crisis that brought the Islamist movement to the forefront of politics was caused by the preeminence of the political sphere under the cover of which social inequality deepened, new classes emerged and social conflict could no longer be contained. The state’s appeal to religion in its attempt at securing social cohesion backfired for two reasons: a) a new religious leadership resisted its subjugation by the state and created “new mosques” within which it mounted a counter-discourse of liberation from what it presented as a pro-“colonial” state;(8) b) the social inequities laid bare by the oil crisis of the eighties made it easier for the new counter-discourse to be listened to.


The Islamist discourse in its manifold expression centers on the colonial past, intends to erase it, and promises to reconstruct a future that reaches back to a mythical primordial era by reconstituting the present on principles deemed anti-colonial. That Algeria is no longer a colony does not deter the proponents of this view. The Algerian state is defined as just an extension of the colonial state that must be dismantled. Ironically, the Islamist discourse proceeds along lines similar to those followed by the colonial discourse by privileging the cultural and the political over the social and the economic. The bible (used to convert Algerian orphans in the Nineteenth Century) and the values of the colonial version of the Enlightenment have been replaced by the Sunna and the Hadith – the Quran being given short shrift notwithstanding its invocation when convenient. Thus, rules governing every aspect of everyday life are explained in mosques and pamphlets on sale in bookstores. For example, a woman’s duties toward her husband and children, her relatives and friends are codified.(9) Similarly, a man’s business behavior is also codified down to how much he should charge without losing money or appearing to take advantage of his clients. At the same time, class consciousness is introduced in business transactions in the sense that the customer’s social position enters into the price he/she is charged.(10)

Just as the colonial project of social engineering was alien to the customs of the Algerian people, the Islamist project of reconstructing social life by giving it a new normative framework expressed in the familiar language of God, His Prophet and the Traditions, is equally alien to Algerians. It is not uncommon to hear Algerians wonder whether the scrutiny of everything they do in everyday life is part of the religion they have practiced since birth. The difference between the colonial and the Islamist projects lies in the Islamists’ manipulation of familiar religious symbols and the identification of the new language of religion with a collective “us,” the people, and “them,” the government. Essentially, the Islamist discourse as expressed by the former Front of Islamic Salvation and the Armed Islamic Group redefines the relationship between the Muslim and God from unobtrusive worship and individual piety to exalted display of public religiosity; from awareness of multiple interpretations to submission to one interpretation of the texts, if not re-interpretation, chosen by the movement; and from tolerance of different modes of being Muslim to a rejection of all deviations from a normative way of being Muslim.

The new discourse on religion is not religion but politics under a religious garb. Thus, crossing the line between religious militancy and direct action to topple the government, Said Mekhloufi, a former chief of the Army of Islamic Salvation called for civil disobedience. He justified his call by pointing to social injustice caused by “Judeo-Christian laws” and warned that whoever did not heed his call would be guilty of “treason and crime against Islam, against Muslims and against the future of this religion.”(11) In this amalgamation of religion and politics, religion is typically invoked as punishment for not engaging in political action. Similarly, Imam Ikhlef Cherati, founding member of the FIS, issued a fatwa in the summer of 1992 authorizing a jihad against the state on grounds that mix colonialism with state despotism. He pointed out that “while Muslims are hounded everywhere, the old colonists whom our fathers booted out yesterday are welcomed with fanfare; they have come back thanks to their children [meaning the leaders and possibly Western foreigners working in Algeria], to combat our religion and customs, to degrade our culture and personality, to appropriate our wealth and enslave our people. God orders us to fight too and warns us against their assistance.”(12)

Injustices, social inequities and social problems are criticized not as products of an incompetent or misguided government but as the outcomes of a government identified as ruling by proxy-a colonial institution headed by native men. This use of colonialism as a factor of political destabilization transcends the actual nature of the policies undertaken by the state since 1962. It is meant to establish a new historical periodization by occulting the war for independence in order to justify a new war of decolonization. By the same token, an appeal to native colonialism questions the legitimacy of the war for independence, the implication being that it should have been waged against local enemies. In other words, the post-independence state is illegitimate, alien, and must be fought as such. Within this context, acts of violence against members of the government, the military and the police resemble those committed against their French counterparts by the F.L.N. during the first year of the war for independence. Similarly, the random acts of violence inflicted upon the civilian population by the Armed Islamic Group since 1993 evoke urban guerrilla warfare waged by the F.L.N. against the civilian colonists. However, the use of the colonial imagery by the Islamist movement founders on the issue of democracy. While the wartime F.L.N. invoked the democratic principle of self-determination to legitimize its straggle against the French colonists, the Islamist movement scorns democracy.

The state based on God’s commandments does not represent the kingdom of God on earth. Rather, it is a formal institution established for its own sake, independently of the actions and policies of the existing state. It does not address individuals’ spiritual life as such. Rather, it aims at reordering the social and political spheres. Salvation, the soul, compassion, forgiveness, love, affection are not central to the new life under the Islamic republic. God is invoked within the context of straggle, rebellion, and war. Demonstrations, general strikes, sit-ins have all been used between 1990 and 1992 as so many methods to “destroy the primary obstacle, this offspring of colonialism, born out of our own blood.” Having entered the political arena as contenders for power, the Islamists’ appeal to God and religion is not meant to liberate people from mundane cares but to justify their search for power. Where they delve in daily matters of morality Islamists do so through a combination of unrelenting exhortation and coercion, brow-beating (especially of women, generally less versed in religious texts than men), and social pressure. The definition of the existing state as a colonial institution dispenses with the formulation of a viable alternative. If being colonial means being “Judeo-Christian,” the alternative can only be an Islamic state.


Islamists have made the claim that they are the heirs of the Ulama movement of the 1930s and see Abdehamid Ben Badis as their spiritual leader. However, there are more differences than similarities between Ben Badis’ social project and the Front of Islamic Salvation’s. Ben Badis lived and preached under colonial rule which he did not repudiate. His goal was a reinvigoration of a culture that had become largely oral due to the dearth of schools that taught Arabic. He denounced the popularity of sufi leaders in rural areas whom he despised and accused of spreading superstitions, and the acculturation of young Muslim men who went to French schools and often married French women. His cultural program included teaching Arabic to boys and girls; extending education to girls in order for them to become suitable matches for acculturated men; a return to a strict application of the Quran and the Sunna as guides in everyday life. Ben Badis did not call for the independence of Algeria, nor did he advocate the overthrow of colonial rule through peaceful or violent means. In fact, he appeared to have favored a renewal of Algerian culture within a colonial framework, an implicit separate but equal treatment for the native population. Thus, he argued that to be a French citizen did not mean to commit apostasy. He distinguished between political and cultural citizenship. The former could be French, but the latter is Muslim.

The area of overlap between Ben Badis’s so-called “reformist” project and the Front of Islamic Salvation’s plan for the establishment of an Islamic republic lies in the advocacy of purified religious mores, a break with popular sufism and a stricter application of the foundational religious texts. Yet even here the similarity breaks down in so far as Ben Badis and the ‘Ulama movement did not use coercion to achieve their aim, although they did mount scathing verbal attacks against sufi orders. The ‘Ulama movement meant to save a society from cultural neglect, not from development as seems to be the case with the Islamist movement. Initially, the FIS did perceive the reemergence of sufi orders that had been all but repressed under the Boumediene government as a threat to its attempt at monopolizing religious activity. The FIS rejected the developmentalist policies of the state, its secular education, and technologies of communication such as dish-antennas. However, it must be noted that Ben Badis found little support in many rural areas where being a Muslim also meant being a sufi. If the FIS achieved a measure of success among the urban population it was due less to its religious message than to the historical conjuncture that pitted a disgruntled people against an increasingly unpopular government. It is instructive to note, however, that the ‘Ulama as well as the FIS were essentially urban movements. The FIS’s claim to the ‘Ulama’s ascendancy constitutes another attempt to remap history, redraw its contours, and present itself as more indigenous to Algeria than the Front of National Liberation party.

A second instance of historical remapping is provided by writers who unwittingly bolster the legitimacy of the FIS’s opposition to the state. Increasingly, Algerian scholars who attempt to interpret the present crisis in the history of the nationalist movement, argue that from its inception, the Front of National Liberation included among its members a number of ‘Ulama sympathisers who were excluded from government after independence. This view legitimizes the notion that the Algerian revolution was a religious revolution, somewhat reminiscent of the Iranian revolution, that had been appropriated in 1962 by a group of secularists bent upon “westernizing” the nation. The caricatural nature of this approach is a measure of its ideological import. The Algerian revolution was a peasant revolution led by lower middle-class (or petty bourgeoisie), generally French-educated men who also saw themselves as Muslims. Islam was a dimension of the revolution in so far as the majority of the people involved in it were culturally Muslims. But the revolution was not fought to bring about an Islamic republic even if some religious symbols were used to define the struggle for decoIonization as pitting non-Muslim (kuffar) oppressors against Muslims.


The symbolic significance of the colonial imagery in the Islamist discourse has played a functional role in re-territorializing Algerian culture. I am borrowing the concept of re-territorialization from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to refer to the phenomenon of displacement of symbols from one terrain into another by mapping familiar events and actions onto a different historical or social reality. For example, democracy is hailed as a “western” secular invention that is meant to confuse Algerians and perpetuate colonial rule by proxy. At the same time, it is also claimed that democracy already exists in Islamic thought as the old institution of shura. In so doing, relations of power that underlie the Islamists’ claim to be the legitimate heirs to post-colonial sovereignty are glossed over, and Algerian political culture is displaced from its present space and projected onto a new plane: the history of Islamic political thought that Algerians as a whole have not experienced at least since the Sixteenth Century. Thus concrete relations of power between the government and its Islamist opposition as well as their social foundations appear abstract and their abstraction becomes reified. The colonial imagery helps to naturalize the cultural model that is essentially “sneaked” into the existing culture. Consequently, the model effects a de-territorialization of the existing culture which it provides with a new symbolic territory.

This process is best studied in gender relations. By-passing the changes that were made possible by the war of decolonization, the FIS as well as the Armed Islamic Group have insisted that women’s roles in society be redefined according to a strict reading of the shari’a. That the shari’a does not legislate the modalities of the veil currently imposed on women has not seemed an obstacle to the Islamists’ desire to erase women’s cultural/historical break with the tradition of the veil. Similarly, the introduction of the shi’a custom of temporary marriage (mut’a) constitutes an attempt at re-territorializing Algerian culture. Women have been forced into mut’a marriage by guerillas belonging to the Armed Islamic Group eager to satisfy their sexual desires in a “licit” fashion. They could have sex with an unwilling woman under the cover of “temporary marriage.” In so doing, they actually distort this old custom (which is based on the consent of both partners), and create a forced continuity between Sunni Islam, prevalent in Algeria, and Shiite Islam.

The renewed concern for the veil as a tangible mark of faith for women has been accompanied by coercive practices from some men who now insist that their brides must wear it. In 1991 I interviewed two newly married women in Algiers who had never worn the veil prior to their marriage, but had to comply with the custom because it was included as a non-negotiable condition of their marriage contract. Increasingly, young men seeking “virtuous” wives require their future brides to wear the veil. As the leader of the Islamist party Hamas, recently renamed the Party of Peace in Society put it: “A woman clad in a hijab is to me preferable to a thousand Friday sermons. She is a moving tank.” Whatever the meaning of this war metaphor, the fact remains that women’s role in society is redefined in terms that overturn the changes that had slowly made it possible for women to no longer worry about veiling and focus on education and jobs instead.

Similarly, the insertion of religiosity in everyday life as a result of the weekly khutba in the free mosques has caused religious norms to displace work norms. Thus, workers in state-owned corporations have in 1990-93 taken unauthorized breaks to pray between noon and six p.m., often leaving their office buildings for a nearby mosque. Once more, Algerian culture was displaced and re-territorialized in an effort to create a new social order under the pretense of re-establishing an old one purportedly displaced by colonialism.

Finally, The Armed Islamic Group’s destruction of schools throughout the country on grounds that they teach secularism is meant to be an answer to the colonial policy of imposition of French cultural norms in schools seen as still operating in present-day Algeria. The fact that some religious education has actually been the norm in elementary schools has passed unnoticed, the reason being that religious teaching must be done according to the new (Islamist) interpretation of the texts.


It might be argued that the paramount importance of the colonial imagery that underlies the thinking and strategies of the Islamist movement in Algeria makes sense not only within the Algerian context, but also elsewhere in the Middle East. Indeed, a theorist of Islamism, the Pakistani Abu Al-‘Ala Al-Mauwdudi, specifically defined one type of jahiliya as being caused by the colonial impact on native Muslim culture. Even Muslim reformists of the Nineteenth Century formulated their thoughts within the context of the encounter of their societies with Western imperialism. This is true. However, it does not explain why contemporary Islamists chose to recolonize the life world of their country men and women (in a manner reminiscent of the cultural policies of the former colonizers) rather than bring about a renaissance of Islamic culture.

A renaissance might build on the achievements of early Muslim societies in the fields of science, medicine, social solidarity, and tolerance. This would mean not simply a return to the foundational texts but a critical reading of the evolution of Islamic thought in philosophy, politics, and the law. It would also mean a critical evaluation of the causes of the Muslim world’s vulnerability to colonial conquest and an understanding of the mutual impacts of the colonizers qua-Christians and the colonized, qua-Muslims. Finally, a renaissance would pave the way for a synthesis of some of the Western cultural achievements that cannot be dispensed with and Muslim contributions to social relations especially race relations. The western-derived institutions that cannot be dispensed with are science and technology, and citizenship. The FIS has benefited from and used high- tech devices to campaign in the 1991 elections when lasers flashed slogans at political rallies. The use of computers, fax machines and cellular phones is widespread among Islamists in Algeria and elsewhere. However, the adoption of these devices is seen as purely instrumental and divorced from any cultural content. There is no reflection on the cultural and social changes that had to take place, in the West, before technology could develop. Nor has there been reflection on how to create the conditions of possibility of autonomous scientific development in Algeria. If technology is good enough for Islamists regardless of its cultural origins, so should other allegedly Western inventions such as respect for man-made laws and citizenship.

The mythification of colonialism has resulted in an attitude that thrives on a form of cultural revenge focused on mapping Algeria’s history onto a mythical past achievable through an erasure of the present. Erasure takes place in two modes: lapse into formal religiosity focused on an ostentatious display of the implementation of the five pillars of Islam, and violence against those deemed imperfect Muslims. The FIS has engaged in both. The Armed Islamic Group refined the art of violence while paying lip service to an eclectic assortment of practices combining neo-fundamentalist Sunni and Shiite traditions. The ultimate project of the Armed Islamic Group is nihilistic in the sense that it is linked to no concrete and/or practical socio-political goal. The deaths inflicted upon innocent civilians of all ages and both sexes, especially during Ramadan of 1997, cannot provide their perpetrators with legitimacy. Yet, they can be explained in terms of the achievement of a mythic society peopled by mythic neo-fundamentalists that never existed in Algeria prior to the colonial incursion.

Man-made laws (or what Islamists refer to as secularism), mean respect for due process, equality before the law, and an end to arbitrariness. These laws cannot be established if oppositional groups respond to government failures with their own arbitrariness. Calls for civil disobedience made by various FIS figures in 1991 which included destroying street lights, therefore plunging Algiers in darkness and making it difficult for people needing emergency hospital care to move about, betrayed a fundamental disregard for the law deemed illegitimate because it was alien to the shari’a. To argue, as some American political scientists have, that the FIS’s methods were a response to a ruthless and illegitimate government is inaccurate and wrong. The tactics adopted by the FIS were extreme and belligerent before the government crackdown as the history of events throughout 1990 and 1991 can demonstrate. Algerians did not question the existence of their state. Rather, they questioned the ability of their leaders to manage the economy. Unlike their Egyptian counterparts, Algerian Islamists provided limited social services in urban centers such as Algiers, and they began to do so only in the 1980s as the oil-based economy suffered from significant shortfalls that affected state subsidies. It cannot be claimed that Islamists were needed by the people and somehow fulfilled functions that the state ought to have taken care of, hence their power is legitimate. The notion of legitimacy that has been bandied around needs redefining. Does it refer to the existence of democratic institutions? If so, very few countries of the Third World have legitimate governments. Does it mean that the authority of leaders is grounded in a social consensus? In this case, Algerians have agreed in 1962 that they ought to have a government comprised of Algerians. The form and orientation of this government was a matter of dispute which, nevertheless, did not affect Algerians’ acceptance of their government.

One need only recall the massive popular effusion during the funerals of the late President Houari Boumediene in December 1978 to realize the extent to which Algerians had, by and large, accepted their government then. The tendency to take the present experience of the U.S. government with legitimacy as normative and subsume the Algerian form of government under it clouds the specificity of the Algerian experience and prevents an understanding of how Islamism emerged. One can only bemoan the failure of the FIS to formulate oppositional strategies that would have pushed for political reforms in a peaceful fashion. The banning of the FIS after the parliamentary elections 1991 is often invoked as the cause of the militarization of the FIS and the rise of its radical offshoot, the Armed Islamic Group. Yet, as a party that claimed to represent an alternative to the existing government, it was incumbent upon it to distinguish itself from its opponent by opting for peaceful means in a society that had barely recovered from a bloody war of decolonization. Violence, within the context of post-independence Algeria, victimizes those who supported the FIS in the hope that it would bring about changes in their lives, primarily young people in search of a better life as well as meaning. In this the FIS differs from the theologians of liberation in Latin America who used religion to defend the oppressed and the disenfranchised. The FIS seems the have represented only itself if one considers that its pronouncements were anti-secular not liberationist, their references to injustice notwithstanding.

Citizenship is perhaps the most important principle that the Islamist movement must come to terms with. It concretizes the rule of law by stressing that all individuals are bearers of rights and obligations that must be protected by the state. The implementation of citizenship in Algeria has suffered from gender-bias. Women are nationals (individuals who carry Algerian passports) but not full-fledged citizens. Their citizenship rights are curtailed by family law as spelled out in the 1984 Family Code which legalizes gender inequality in violation of the constitution. Being subject under one law and formal citizen under the constitution accounts for women’s vulnerable position in society. The FIS would have rationalized women’s legal status by removing their formal citizenship and more thoroughly and unambiguously made them subjects of the shari’a.

As harbingers of a new socio-political order, the FIS had a chance to evaluate the woman question in light of the heroic period of Islam when women are said to have played a significant public role. Using the principle of ijtihad (or striving to do better) it could have helped to show that it, a religion-based group, could improve women’s status where the state failed by lack of will. Instead, the FIS chose to deny women the rights they won after the independence of their country by systematically calling for their confinement to the home, This violation of the concept of citizenship cannot be said to be motivated by Islamists’ fundamental opposition to gender equality only. It betrays a deeper opposition to all practices that in one way or another are linked to the notion of secularism. Hence Islamists’ aversion for democracy.

Democracy is rejected not only because it is the rule of the majority which may exercise tyranny over the minority, but also because it is the rule of the people. A critique of the formalism of democracy as practiced in many industrial societies is legitimate. However, the rejection of formal democracy as “heresy” in the words of the FIS co-leader Ali Benahdj, because it is based on the sovereignty of the people rather than God is problematical. The rejection of the entire state regardless of whether it is democratic is seen as matter of course. Thus, in attempting to legitimize civil disobedience, an Islamist imam pointed out that “admittedly, we could argue about whether we have the right to rebel against an unjust government, but the people did not pay allegiance to this government since it is not based on God’s commandments, the Sunna and the Caliphs. . . .”(13) In other words, rebellion is advocated independently of the actions and policies of the existing government; it is advocated for the purpose of establishing a new institution. The state founded on God’s sovereignty begs the question of who, among members of the FIS, has the right to decode God’s will? The shari’a does not provide a treatise on political philosophy or guidelines for political rule. The inclusion of the divine as the source of sociopolitical institutions that have traditionally been secular leaves open and unresolved the question of the legitimacy of the human medium through which God rules. Countries where the sovereignty of God has been upheld as a legitimating factor of political rule are fraught with abuses of categories of people deemed imperfect, be they women, “secular” men, or other minorities as exemplified by Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. The Islamist movement does not promote a theology of liberation from existing needs and wants but translates these into a political language that aims at making the divine an earthly authority. Indeed, the Islamic republic that is often invoked is a republic of men by men using God as a trope in the struggle of men for legitimizing the political.

No alternative to western-style democracy has been offered that might be more suitable to Algeria except for references to the principle of shura or consultation which leaves open the process by which members of the Council of Shura are chosen and the representation of groups such as women. Citizenship connotes the acceptance of the notion of equality of rights that in this end of the Twentieth Century is of paramount importance. It is the stumbling block for Islamists who wish to supplant equal rights with difference and complementarity. In gender relations, for example, anatomical difference is seen as a ground for social and political inequality regardless of its impact on the individual as well as society. The Islamists’ claim to institute the realm of justice is seriously compromised by their belief in unequal legal standards. The notion that equality is a western idea that promotes the individual at the expense of the group is a lame defense for the social and political conservatism of a movement that equates change and evolution with colonialism.

It is often claimed that the Islamist movement in Algeria as elsewhere expresses a desperate search for identity in a world that is increasingly dominated by cultural symbols and practices originating from former imperial powers. Algerians born before independence know only too well the meaning and effects of French policies of cultural assimilation. However, these policies did not change their belief in their religion despite attempts at conversion to Christianity made by the Franciscan order of the “White Fathers”. It is nevertheless true that Algerians’ identity was problematized by being politicized by the colonists. Colonial authorities created the category of “Muslim natives” who were deprived of equal rights because of their religion. In the colonial encounter, Islam became the most salient feature of Algerian identity. However, after Algeria recovered her independence, Algerians took their affiliation with Islam for granted and began to emphasize other dimensions of their identity such as social class, profession, gender, etc. This process was thwarted by a reproblematization of identity by the Islamist movement, which just as colonists did before it, politicized religion and made it the only form of identity Algerians could have. Islamism does not provide a solution to the issue of identity; it is less about identity and more about power politics, just as colonialism was less about a “civilizing mission” and more about power. To the “native Muslim” succeeded the “Islamist” who is not a citizen but a new subject of a theological discourse of power. Identity is a very complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to one dimension only. Throughout the colonial era, Algerians managed their identity by keeping their religious beliefs while negotiating their way through the colonial system by taking advantage of its educational opportunities as limited as they were. There is no reason why they should be told today that their identity was a lie. All identities are unstable. Fixing them whether in a restricted view of Islam, or race, or ethnicity, is one of the major problems in contemporary societies. The debate over identity politics is one expression of the abuses that identity can suffer. There is no reason to claim, as Islamists do, that identity is founded on the shari’a which in its essentials means the subjection of the female population, no more, no less. If a Muslim ethic is to suffuse a new, industrial society, Islam must cease to supplant the political. Rather, it must attempt to act as its conscience.

In sum, the Islamist movement in Algeria has not brought about a renaissance in Muslim thought and institutions. It is neither a reformist movement, nor a social movement bent upon socio-political and economic transformation. It is an oppositional movement to overthrow the existing order by using religious symbols familiar to Algerians but infusing them with different meanings in order to re-establish a mythic society, untainted by colonialism. The unrealistic character of this project qualifies it as political delirium.


The major role played by the colonial imagery in the Islamist movement and the consequent strategy of re-colonization of the life world need to be explained. Why is it that a movement that could have successfully challenged the government by focusing on its failures and formulating concrete alternatives consumed itself in the mythification of colonial history? Tactical and structural reasons may have been operative. The FIS was eager to motivate people to undertake action against the government. Considering Algeria’s recent history, Islam and colonialism were the most powerful symbols of mobilization. The appeal to Islam stirred up a latent anger with the condition of being a Muslim in a global context. News of racist practices against Algerian immigrants in France, American attacks against Libya, and the Gulf war were so many reminders that Islam is under siege. The appeal to colonialism was more risky but equally powerful. It was risky because the rank and file of the Islamist movement is comprised of young people who were born at the end or after the war of decolonization and who, therefore, had no experience or memory of the colonial period. Symbolically, the linking of Islam with colonialism fulfills the function of uniting the constituency of the FIS thereby occulting serious class differences. The typology of the membership of the Islamist movement in Algeria formulated by Gilles Kepel reveals a wide spectrum of classes ranging from the commercial bourgeoisie to the chronically unemployed.(14) In a historical replay of the configuration of the wartime Front of National Liberation, the FIS also perceived itself as a front. As such, it needed to gloss over and contain class differences and interests by choosing the symbols of Islam, the common denominator of Algerians, and colonialism, a phenomenon that historically elicited resistance. The nihilism of the Armed Islamic Group is a function of the lack of understanding and experience of the post-war generation of people who were mobilized by a slogan that mythified what was once a lived historical reality. Colonialism for them means absolute evil as embodied by the state and those who do not rebel against it. In this sense, the Armed Islamic Group simply pushed to its logical conclusion the FIS’s use of the colonial imagery. Indeed, the unbridled violence that has been claimed by the Armed Islamic Group may be understood in Fanonian terms as providing a cathartic function. Blood and sex seem to cleanse the imputed colonial traces in Algerians’ culture and behavior just as the state’s merciless repression is meant to cleanse the country of political Islam. Violence has acquired the characteristic of delirium by its lack of focus, its randomness, and its arbitrariness.

The saturation of Algerian life with symbols laden with religion and mythified history can only give more poignancy to the plight of the anonymous young woman pacing Sidi Abderrhmane’s terrace while mumbling the name of God. This symbolic saturation has further confused Algerian history and confounded Algerians’ sense of the future. The re-colonization of Algerians’ life world and the re-territorialization of their culture serve as a reminder that Islamism may not be a movement for a renaissance of Muslim culture, or an alternative to existing forms of government. To attain these goals it must rise above its thirst for power politics and come to terms with a world it has not made but in which it must live. It must analyze Algeria’s colonial past as it actually happened and attempt to overcome it rather than mythify it.

As social scientists from the Middle East, it is incumbent upon us to take a hard look at the power that lurks behind movements that at first glance may excite our latent expectation of meaningful change in our societies, our unsatisfied hunger for a sense of belonging, and our frustration with having made time, not history. The Islamist movement has given us a jolt. Here are people who tell governments things many intellectuals refrained from saying. But, speech can be oppressive. It can also kill as the Islamist discursive remapping of Algerian culture can demonstrate. If God is after all clement and merciful, is any word, concept or discourse worth dying for anymore? To think that it is can only make us repeat history. The point is to learn from it.


1. This concept is frequently used by analysts of Islamist movements such as Gilles Kepel and Olivier Roy.

2. Robert Malley, THE CALL FROM ALGERIA. THIRD WORLDISM, REVOLUTION AND THE TURN TO ISLAM (Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1996), chapter one.

3. See Marnia Lazreg, THE EMERGENCE OF CLASSES IN ALGERIA. A STUDY OF COLONIALISM AND SOCIO-POLITICAL CHANGE (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1976). See also Hassan, ALGERIE: HISTOIRE D’UN NAUFRAGE (Paris: Le Seuil, 1996), chapters 7 and 8.

4. See Smail Goumeziane, LE MAL ALGERIEN. Economie Politique d’une Transition Inachevee (Paris: Fayard, 1994), especially chapter IV.

5. See Noureddine Touaba, WAJIBAT AL MAR’A FI AL-KITAB WA AL-SUNNA, 3rd edition (Qasantina: Daar Al Baath, 1989).


7. Ibid., p. 257.

8. Lhouari Addi, “Religion et Politique dans le Nationalisme Algerien: le Role des Oulema,” Revue Magrebine d’Etudes Politiques et Religieuses, Universite d’Oran, #1, October 1988.

9. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, ANTI-OEDIPUS. CAPITALISM AND SCHIZOPHRENIA, vol. 1 (New York: The Viking Press).

10. See Marnia Lazreg, THE ELOQUENCE OF SILENCE, Algerian Women in Question (New York, Routledge, 1994), p. 217.

11. John L. Esposito ed., VOICES OF RESURGENT ISLAM (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), Chapter 5.

12. For an analysis of the Family Code, see Marnia Lazreg, THE ELOQUENCE OF SILENCE, pp. 150-57.

13. Amine Touati, LES ISLAMISTES A L’ASSAUT DU POUVOIR, op. cit., p. 257.

14. Gilles Kepel, “Islamism and the State in Algeria and Egypt,” Daedelus, vol. 124, Summer 1995, pp. 109-127.

Marnia Lazreg is a professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Hunter College and The Graduate School of the City University of New York. She has published in the areas of social theory, social class, cultural movements, development, human rights, and gender.

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