By Vish Sakthivel*
Despite the considerable attention in recent years to Islamist movements in the Middle East and North Africa, the situation in Algeria often goes overlooked. This oversight is perhaps due to a persistent focus on Algeria’s high politics as well as the chiefly terror/counter-terror lens through which Algeria has been understood since the end of its civil war (1991-2002). Moreover, to many it appeared the 2010-11 “Arab Spring” uprisings did not profoundly alter the country’s political landscape. Because of these analytical biases, Algeria’s Islamism, the country’s parties, civil society, and its contentious politics at-large have not been adequately explored.
Algeria’s Islamist politics are often presumed dead. Indeed, most discussions on the subject begin and end with the “first” Arab uprisings that took place twenty years ago. These reference the rise and fall of Algeria’s Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party between 1988 and 1992, Algeria’s descent into a harrowing civil war (sometimes called the “Black Decade”) after they were stripped of power, lessons to be drawn from the FIS’s demise, and the lingering effects of the war on North African security and terror. Algeria’s armed groups and terrorist organizations exist mostly on society’s margins. And while they are central to understanding the country’s geopolitics, foreign policy, and the ruling political-military machine,1 they are arguably less important to understanding current dynamics and trends in the country’s domestic religious and social scene.
This essay broadly examines how Islamist currents in Algeria have evolved and contended with deep changes in the domestic sociopolitical milieu since the Black Decade.2 It focuses chiefly on the case of the Islamist party Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), Algeria’s self-avowed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the largest formal Islamist organization to emerge from this war. It also devotes some attention to the shifts in and spread of Salafist strains, Sufi brotherhoods and smaller Islamist parties. Some of these actors are represented in the formal political sphere and have expressly political/electoral goals, while others exist outside this fray with avowedly non-political impetuses but still actively shape the electorate. These dynamics are in many ways reflective of larger patterns in North Africa and the Middle East. But Algeria’s complex political-religious landscape also compels us in its own right, to reconsider how Islamism can be defined, as well as conventional wisdom about Islamist behavior.
Since the birth of modern Algeria in 1962, Islam and Muslim identity have been a foundational pillar of the sovereign Algerian state. The revolutionary generation saw a centralized Muslim-Algerian identity as a bulwark against attempts by the French during the colonial occupation to erode the country’s social fabric and sow division among ethnic groups, regions and religious sects. Islam thus was discursively linked with Algerian indigeneity and identity, and religion became a central rallying point of the revolution itself, whose many voices and movements were eventually consolidated under the National Liberation Front (FLN). The religious and existential character of the country’s liberation struggle was—and still is—reflected in the fact that the freedom fighters are called moudjahideen, and those who died in the struggle are called chouhada, or martyrs.
In the run-up to independence in 1962 and during the nation-building that followed, various religious tendencies were integrated and consolidated by the state—the FLN party-army machine. To this end, the state appropriated the famed refrain of 20th century Islamic reformist Abdelhamid Ben Badis3: “Islam is my religion, Arabic is my language, and Algeria is my country” along with the full extent of its attendant religious-nationalist symbolism.4 In practice, the state attempted to control religious doctrine by creating a Religious Affairs Ministry that monitored and administered Islamic activities throughout the country. Religious scholars and preachers became state employees, and Islamic practices and ideas outside the government-approved framework were dissuaded and suppressed. (Who and what exactly constitutes the “state” remains obscured to most. It is usually seen as a trifecta of the FLN party, the military, and the security services, known as Le Pouvoir, or “The Power.” These elements have jockeyed with one another for clout over the decades.)
However, as far back as the early 1960s the government faced opposition to its efforts to centralize religion under the state.5 Within the FLN itself, religious opponents to second Algerian president Houari Boumediène’s socialist policies called instead for an “Islamic socialism.”6 Outside of the party, organized Islamic scholars7 fervently criticized the various presidents’ secular, leftist policies, and specifically attacked the alleged moral laxity of Boumediène’s 1971 “socialist revolution.”8 Influential religious associations such as al-Qiyam9 also pressured the regime to draw upon both Shari’a and nationalism in crafting policy—alleging that elements of the socialist proposals contravened Islamic scriptures outright.
In the 1970s and 1980s, religious, political, and economic grievances continued to build throughout Algeria, and in 1988, these pressures erupted in violent protests that shook the heavily populated north. In response to the unrest, the Algerian state abolished the single-party system in 1989 and replaced it with a multi-party system—albeit one still dominated by the FLN—in a new constitution. This political opening led to an explosion of new parties each along the lines of almost every ethnic, religious, intellectual, and cultural current in the country.10
Though the Islamic activists had disagreed with Boumediène’s policies, he nevertheless promoted Islamic activity and Arabization to cement the nationalist identity the state had been trying to forge since before independence.11 This empowered religious activism, which had intensified throughout the 1970s and 1980s, as Islamist movements and tendencies had converged and splintered along ideological and strategic lines. By the 1989 opening, three main (though not comprehensive) partisan movements had taken shape: The Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP, known as Hamas until 1996, although sometimes still referred to as such by party outsiders) under Mahfoud Nahnah, the Al-Nahda tendency led by Abdallah Djaballah, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) led by Ali Belhadj and Abassi Madani.12
The FIS formed from various religious movements, platforms, and intellectual strains in direct response to the mass uprisings and the new 1989 constitution. Through its novel and fiery rhetoric, the FIS mobilized large segments of the populace and was the first contemporary organization to more substantially erode the state’s control of Islamic discourse and institutions. Compared to the FIS, Nahnah’s MSP and Djaballah’s Al-Nahda were more restrained in their deployment of antisystem frames, mostly refraining from calling for the subversion of the military-backed system. As a result, these movements mobilized only modest numbers of people at this time, but unlike the FIS, they also secured for themselves a safer relationship with the regime.
Of these Islamist parties, the FIS initially became the most important player, first in the 1990 local and regional elections where it won the mayoral offices and majorities in most local governments in the populous north, and then again in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991. Threatened by the FIS’s electoral successes, the military canceled the results as well as the second round of elections in 1992, dismissed the sitting president, and dissolved the FIS. The military cadres in favor justified its position as one that was “saving democracy.” This move unleashed radical elements within the FIS and pushed still other FIS activists into hitherto marginal radical organizations which then violently targeted the state, with later iterations targeting civilians.
The military violently cracked down on the FIS as well as these armed groups, sometimes indiscriminately, and armed Islamist groups retaliated, equally indiscriminately. From 1991-2002, the unremitting circle of violence between these insurgent factions and the army’s13 eradicateur (eradicator) program14 claimed hundred of thousands of civilian lives in what came to be known as the “Black Decade.” Ultimately, the military succeeded in crushing the FIS, and the main surviving Islamist parties—the MSP and Al-Nahda—found themselves in a wholly transformed environment in at least two respects.
First, the experience and memory of the conflict made the public at-large deeply averse to Islamism. The public, often not knowing qui tue qui, or “who was killing whom” during the conflict—the state or the insurgents—was further confused by the seeming multiplication of armed groups; it thus slowly came to conflate the FIS Islamist party with the insurgency. This trauma and confusion rendered a majority of citizens wary of radical politics; revolution, religious or otherwise, came to be widely seen as a false promise in the war’s aftermath. Though the conflict initially helped chip away at some of the state’s claims to religious authority, as the war wound down much of the Algerian populace came to prefer “state Islam” to challenger Islamist currents. Nowadays, it is rare (though not impossible) to hear someone say they oppose state control and provision of mosques, or that the 1992 cancellation of the election was unnecessary. Also, it is not always common to hear the period referred to as the Black Decade (or décennie noire in French). Instead, in everyday parlance the civil war is more commonly described as “waqt al-irhab”—the time of terrorism.
This is partly because the state appropriated and iconized individuals’ experiences of violence to support its framing and official history of the war, which cast Islamist insurgents as the sole aggressors. This discourse was cyclically-reproduced as civilians were enlisted in this process, and led much of the Algerian public to blame the insurgents, and by extension the FIS and its ideology,15 rather than the army’s use of violence against civilians, or the state’s cancellation of what were in fact free and fair elections.
Second, in addition to having to contend with a polity averse to Islamism, the MSP and Al-Nahda parties after 2002 also had to deal with a public that was growing weary of party politics itself. Parties were increasingly delegitimized for several reasons. First, following the 1989 political opening and through the 1990s, the sheer number of parties exceeded the number of social cleavages and political leanings,16 thereby saturating the partisan arena and confusing voters. Second, for much of the wider public, the idea of parties as vehicles for political representation was still new; Algerians were both inexperienced with multi-party politics and their political preferences were still evolving.
The public’s faith in parties was further eroded by the fact that the electoral process and parties themselves became tightly controlled by the state, especially during the Black Decade. The regime fragmented and coopted the opposition through political deals, trivial policy concessions, and financial rewards via its embedded patronage networks and rentier (chiefly oil) economy—while retaining a veneer of multi-party dynamism. Because of these factors, Algeria has emerged as a prototypical “liberalized autocracy,” where nominal competitiveness in political life has provided cover for entrenched authoritarianism.
This has become increasingly evident to the public, where the notion of ‘hizb’ (party) or ‘tahazub’ (literally partisanship, often used to reference the process of ‘party-fication’ of a movement) have become shorthand for political opportunism, or relinquishment of organizational and ideological integrity.
In the meantime, the state came to be seen as an all-powerful “man behind the curtain.”17 To be sure, the feared Department of Intelligence and Security, or DRS, (re-constituted in 2015 as the Department of Surveillance and Security, DSS18), was for decades the linchpin of state power, but gained even greater clout after the Black Decade. The powerful DRS infiltrated the armed Islamist groups, embedded itself throughout civilian life and, later, seized control of the narrative on the conflict. These methods renewed another sentiment: of an omnipotent regime backed by an invincible army and omnipresent intelligence apparatus.19 (The state also won back some political legitimacy as the broker of reconciliation and stability after the conflict.20) Since the end of the war, the regime has established itself as the sole protector of the citizenry, while harnessing fears over the threat of terror and the unknown. Political processes, including elections and the founding of new parties, are widely thought to be pre-determined and orchestrated by the DRS—as a result, the polity has generally retreated from its stakes in political and electoral outcomes. Whether real or perceived, this predominating belief in the regime’s pervasive power has nevertheless altered the electorate the Islamist parties have pursued.
For Islamists, the political environment after the Black Decade posed new challenges: What path, after all, could surviving Islamist parties like the MSP and Al-Nahda forge in a context where both political Islam and the partisan arena were increasingly distrusted?
A New Path Forward
The trauma and historical memory of civil war—compounded by the parties’ own inability to effectively dodge state efforts to coopt and divide them—produced shifts in the population’s political preferences unfavorable to Islamists. Meanwhile, an increasingly constrictive legal environment (explained more fully in the next section) dampened the parties’ core initiatives and political identity. Taken together, these factors left Islamist parties swimming upstream. Nevertheless, Algeria’s Islamist parties have come up with ways—suited specifically to the challenges of their context—to mobilize people, advance their agenda, and even contest the state.
In 1989, Abdallah Djaballah21 founded the Al-Nahda movement. Like the MSP, Al-Nahda was influenced in part by the Muslim Brotherhood. The party opted to participate in the 1997 parliamentary elections, and through this it helped to legitimize, along with the MSP, one of the first political processes since the Black Decade. Djaballah, however, was a more vociferous opponent of the regime and less of a loyalist than his counterparts in the MSP. As such, Al-Nahda under his guidance drew stricter terms and did not accept ministerial positions, in a stated bid to maintain credibility and retain nuisance power. However, the more cooperative MSP’s 1997 electoral performance—second place with 14 percent of the vote and winning 69 seats, more even than the FLN, which placed third with 62 seats—inspired debates within Al-Nahda. Various early party cadres deemed Djaballah’s approach too rigid, and he was ejected from Al-Nahda, after which he immediately formed a new party Islah.22 Years later, this scenario repeated itself, with Islah expelling Djaballah as its cadres again sought greater proximity to state interests and grew tired of Djaballah’s commitment to non-cooperation—which the state actively incentivized. In 2011, Djaballah founded his latest party, Adala.23
For the three smaller Islamist parties of Djaballah’s “eastern tendency”24, pursuit of ministries led to consecutive internal coups. For the MSP, in contrast, it would be the search for the ever-elusive “original vision” of late founder Nahnah—particularly as it related to the extent of cooperation with the regime—that led to breakaways and a proliferation of micro-parties. Of course, the state played a large role in incentivizing splinters here and in the wider Islamist landscape. Its rewarding of the MSP’s more obsequious stance, by boosting its numbers at the polls, however led its ranks to agonize over what they saw as their increasingly tokenized participation and its implications for their autonomy and claims to moral rectitude.25
The MSP’s relative success versus the Djaballah camp can be attributed in part to state meddling. But the Nahnah camp (for a time at least) also achieved a more optimal balance between opposition credibility and selective loyalism to the state, perhaps having better considered public opinion and the wary polity in two ways. First, MSP figures hedged against antipathy to political Islam by selectively downplaying their Islamist orientation and platforms, and positioning themselves as nationalists and “moderate” alternatives to the more militant Islamists of the Black Decade. Second, it hedged against disdain for parties by harnessing the associational sphere—informal networks, such as student unions—in order to feign distance from the trappings of partisan politics.
The MSP (then Hamas) was legalized in 1990 after the political opening of 1989. The movement aimed to compete directly with the FIS, and in this, it had the regime’s implicit support. The MSP founder Mahfoud Nahnah, supported by co-founders Mohamed Bouslimani and Mustapha Belmehdi,26 attempted a more gradual, loyalist, reform-oriented, bottom-up approach. Nahnah criticized what he considered the FIS’s coercion of disenfranchised groups, and the MSP recruited among a more educated demographic.
As the FIS won handily, the MSP’s mobilization efforts peaked much later, during the Black Decade when the violence, instability, and fear seemed to have no end in sight. The MSP portrayed itself as the moderate alternative to the FIS. Its cooperative relationship with the regime lent the party considerable latitude, which the MSP used to vigorously canvas and publicize. By creating its own newspaper and holding regular press conferences, its ideas on the role of women, the economy, and ijtihad on such issues, were promulgated and set discursively apart from those of the FIS. For example, the latter’s fiery, austere Ali Belhadj had announced (to the chagrin of other FIS leaders, it should be noted) that “there is no democracy in Islam,” whereas Nahnah emphasized the ideal of ‘Shuracracy,’ highlighting the democratic norms inherent in the Islamic principle of shura (consultation). He envisioned democratic processes as arbitrated by an Islamic council, with Shari’a as the basis for laws.
The MSP also set itself apart from the FIS (and from Djaballah) through an ostensibly more socially tolerant approach. It also used humor and charisma to win over youth. As one ex-member shared:
Nahnah and Bouslimani related to the common people. They didn’t wear and mandate beards. Their speeches were not high-level, if you listen to their Friday sermon or lessons in mosques, they use simple words and concepts. Nahnah even used [Algerian dialect] and told jokes. He did not have an air like other Islamists of “I am a sheikh, I speak only fus’ha.” People got attached to them, especially in such a hopeless period.
While the MSP sometimes downplayed its Islamist identity and ideas, it also moved to highlight its nationalism. “Ana mouch Islami, ana Jaza’iri,” (I’m not Islamist, I’m Algerian) remains a common refrain among MSP leaders. The experience of the Black Decade reinforced the independence-era notions of Algerian indigeneity and nationalism as cornerstones of political legitimacy, especially as the FIS and other extremist elements from the 1990s came to be retrospectively characterized as importations without basis in Algerian history or culture.27
Another MSP slogan, “maslahat al watan qabl maslahat al hizb,” (the interest of the nation before that of the party), illustrates Nahnah’s rationale, despite being an avowed opposition party, for legitimizing (by participating in) the 1997 parliamentary elections, widely seen as a completely regime-run process. The party also endorsed a referendum which would outlaw fellow Islamists of the FIS. The MSP claimed that this loyal participation in the first political process since the start of the Black Decade would help prevent state collapse.
The MSP also signaled its nationalism through the party’s adoption of state discourses on martyrdom. The status of moudjahid or chahid in the independence war still carries great symbolic weight. These individuals are celebrated widely and often, and their families receive a plethora of state benefits. For many today, these discourses on jihad and martyrdom surrounding the liberation struggle hold a continued connotation of political purity and nostalgia for a politically virtuous Algeria untouched by contemporary decay.
In 1993, Bouslimani was found murdered on the Blida mountainside. The accepted narrative was that armed militants slit his throat after he refused to grant a fatwa legitimizing their violent methods and to have the MSP boycott the national conference on the crisis.28 Bouslimani has since been rendered a martyr of the Black Decade, held up by the party as an Islamist nationalist who died defending his country against extreme Islamism—an example of the MSP’s commitment, at any cost, to moderation. Within the MSP national headquarters is a wall that commemorates members who lost their lives in the Black Decade. Nahnah’s speeches and sermons repeatedly invoked Bouslimani’s “patriotic sacrifice” (in a tradition that MSP leaders continue today), and the media widely publicized his murder. This appropriation of martyrdom allows the party to stake out a seemingly natural place among Algeria’s nationalist parties. It also helps it preempt accusations of having extra-national Islamist allegiances, and to discursively place the party on the side of the state in the state-versus-Islamist dichotomy, through which the conflict is still largely conceived.
The MSP tempered this strategy of loyalism and rhetorical support for the state with discriminating shows of opposition. Nahnah at times advocated for the implementation of a more Shari’a-compliant government and legal system, although he argued that reform needed to be incremental and gradual,29 free of conflict or subversion. While Nahnah criticized the de facto secularism of the Algerian regime, he and his contemporaries used scripture to highlight the merits of working within such a system, using as an example of prophets who cooperated with kafira (blasphemous, unfaithful) governments in order to introduce guiding changes.
In parliament, the MSP aimed to be a sort of watchdog. It focused on advancing “Islamic” agendas and sought to guide any legislation on education (especially related to Islam and the Arabic language), alcohol policy, conversion laws, and women’s policies.30 The MSP’s language policy partly resulted from a dogmatic opposition to what it held was a residual French influence in Algeria, the often-elevated status of French (at the expense of Arabic), and the attendant colonial—and secularist—baggage. Due to this balancing act over the late 1990s and early 2000s, the MSP became the biggest, most popular and pervasive Islamist party to emerge from the Black Decade. However, as we will explore below, the party’s clout in parliament has faded over the years.
Suspicion of party politics deepened in the 2000s. Despite some electoral success in its earlier period, the MSP became increasingly considered one of Algeria’s cosmetic, coopted parties whose participation in the country’s pseudo-democratic institutions served primarily to entrench state power. Structural limitations—such as laws curbing the prerogatives of local elected governments (enhancing those of the regime-appointed walis) and a 1996 law against religious rhetoric in campaigns and platforms31—further constrained parties’ campaigns, programs and platforms, as well as their ability to respond to their local constituents. (Indeed, it was the 1996 amendment that prohibited parties from making any reference to religion, ethnicity, language or other identity-markers, that prompted the name change from Hamas to MSP.)
Nahnah died in 2003 in the immediate aftermath of the Black Decade. The relevance of the party’s raison d’être, still discursively wound up with the conflict, began to wane rapidly. Stuck in a mantra of gradualism, moderation, and why it’s not the FIS, the party seemed to have little in the way of concrete proposals on economic, social, and other policies being debated in the post-conflict period, as well as on the party’s relationship to the public now that the armed Islamists no longer loomed in the same way. And while the party had successfully mobilized under Nahnah’s cult of personality, his dominance became a liability once existing intra-party divisions—sown during MSP’s participationist period after 1997—were no longer unified under his leadership. Then, its legislative priorities stalled due to the MSP’s subordinate position in the governing coalition. The party soon saw its political legitimacy erode. Meanwhile, corruption scandals—some of the most infamous in recent memory32—rocked MSP-held ministerial positions. For many, this damaged the party’s ideological credibility; onlookers as well as the party’s own base felt it had forsaken piety for political opportunism. Party unity suffered, rival splinters multiplied, and serial defections ensued. While the MSP (and the Djaballah camp) entered the political fray subject to rising antipathy to tahazub, their own trajectory ultimately contributed to it. The small Islamist-leaning electorate, with its few cleavages and tendencies was inundated with an overwhelming number of Islamist parties. The fissiparous Islamists overcrowded the already-congested party sphere, and became an archetype of the confusion and incoherence that had come to characterize Algerian party politics.
Because of this, the MSP began to ramp up “non-partisan” activity and created its own networks and civic institutions outside the partisan sphere. Examples include Irshad wal Islah, the MSP’s official religious outreach wing (which preceded the party); Kafil Yatim, its orphan-care NGO; Jil Tarjih, its youth leadership training program; CHEMS, its official youth wing; and various local-level organizations who also undertake its da’wa (religious education) work. Members of these groups that I met were (usually young) Islamists disillusioned with politics. They re-cast their associations and re-interpreted its mission, thus also re-negotiating their own identities and affiliations.
This new strategy allowed the MSP to do two things. First, using the associational sphere allowed the movement to feign being apolitical in these spaces, and thus distance the movement from discredited party politics. The divide between the haraka (movement) and hizb (party)—the former as an arena for more authentic spirituality, leaving the messiness of politicking to the latter—is characteristic of most Brotherhood-based groups and observable throughout North Africa and the Middle East. In the Algerian context, however, the distinction between the haraka and hizb seems to be more than just this functional division of labor—emphasizing the distinction helps the MSP and other similarly-structured Islamist parties adjust to popular aversion to tahazub. Where this distaste for party politics is present even within the member base, the MSP has expanded its influence through associations and social networks that often deny any formal relations with the party itself.
Importantly, the technical border established to distinguish the MSP’s social-mobilization activities from its formal political body is not always upheld on the ground, where there is often great deal of overlap33 between the haraka and hizb. Nevertheless, the disavowal of the latter preserves organizational legitimacy, while also propagating the party’s ideology and drawing even more politically-weary recruits into the MSP.
Second, in addition to forming its own associations, the MSP has also penetrated spaces traditionally dominated by the state.34 Through this, the MSP has been able to compete with, and contest, state presence and influence. Two paradigmatic examples are in the MSP’s gradual takeover in several regions of the Algerian Muslim Scouts (SMA), and the university union scene.
Founded in 1935 under the model of the International Boy Scouts, the SMA became a key mobilizing force in the Algerian independence struggle, preparing youth, seen as “soldiers of the future,”35 ideologically, pedagogically, and militarily for the war. After independence, the SMA became an important vessel through which the FLN spread political ideas, and consolidated its grip throughout various societal strata and localities. As early as the 1980s however, the scouts began to find their ideology and societal vision, as well as their religious and organizational structure, to be much more compatible with the Islamist parties than the socially-liberalizing FLN. After the dissolution of the FIS, the scouts were coopted chiefly by the Muslim Brotherhood-leaning MSP. The young scouts began incorporating many of the MSP’s educational activities into their existing scout training, with study sessions focused additionally on the teachings of Hassan al-Banna36 and Mahfoud Nahnah. The scouts’ resources were partly allocated to them by the state. Thus, in effect, MSP’s management of hundreds of troops throughout the country became a means by which the MSP began to funnel state funds into party activities. While the MSP’s control over the scouts has declined slightly in recent years, for decades the scouts were a venue linking members and non-members, enabling the transfer of party ideas and expanding the boys’ (and to a lesser degree, girls’) network for recruitment. This allowed the MSP to compete directly with the FLN’s well-established and well-resourced patronage and recruitment networks and ideological influence.
The General Union of Free Students (UGEL) represents another example of the MSP’s efforts to contest a traditionally state-held sphere. MSP figures founded this university student union in 1989 with the stated mission of acting as an intermediary between students and the administration. It mainly led strikes for improved on-campus living conditions, but also for a more austere and religious student environment, including but not limited to mandating gender-separated cafeterias37 and opposing activities which they considered “immoral,” including dance shows and certain types of song. Such unions were also important for political parties more generally, as they provided a selection of elite, educated, involved, and professionally-trained youth—who might comprise the future elite and political class—for recruitment. UGEL also became a mechanism to monitor (and even regulate) the religious character of the student population, rendering it a tool by which the MSP surveyed and gathered information about the student constituency. To be sure, conflicts over the religious nature of the student environment at times morphed into proxy wars between UGEL and the FLN-linked National Union of Algerian Students (UNEA).
Similarly, the residence halls have become battlegrounds for the MSP and state-supported quietist Salafists. The MSP’s ideological grip, according to sociologist Mohamed Merzouk, extends overwhelmingly to university towns, wherein associative life and group activity are virtually inescapable, and further where the structure of the dorm itself has been conducive to systematic congregation and MSP (and Salafist) recruitment. The MSP and the Salafists compete not only for spatial control (mosques, prayer rooms, and dorms), but also for brokering positions in dorms’ administrative proceedings and symbolic positions as prime religious influencers over the student population.38 As they gradually became de facto players in the management of the residences, the MSP members saw to programmatic changes (in conferences, library books, posters) toward devotion to religion and faith.
Here we see why a political contender might opt for cooptation. Knowing that the political environment was hostile to more profound antisystem opposition, the party wing had opted for a strategy of loyalism, moderation, and cooperation. This less perilous option eventually conferred it some latitude (from the state) in its associational activity. With subversion out of the question, the MSP circumvented the limitations of the formal political arena instead by working through less-controlled associational avenues like the Muslim Scouts and the university spaces. The MSP was ultimately able to: encroach on the very mechanisms the state used to monopolize cultural, religious, and political codes; expedite recruitment into the movement at a time when the party base was hemorrhaging; and meet the party’s ideological mandate of incremental, bottom-up Islamization.
Muslim Brotherhood Branch
In Nahnah’s years as an Arabic professor at the University of Algiers, many of his colleagues were from the east, chiefly Egypt—and many were members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Significantly influenced by their precepts, Nahnah made several long visits to Egypt, after which he returned to Algeria to lay the foundations for his movement. The party he later formed adopted the Brotherhood’s organizational model39 and some of its religious interpretation. It adopted to a less obvious extent, the Brotherhood’s stated commitment to a pan-Islamic state with Shari’a as the basis for political and social conduct, and the parameters in the interim, for engaging with “secular entities.”
But the struggle against French colonial forces and later against “imported” extremism together bolstered the requirement of indigeneity and hypernationalism, and made being viewed as a foreign current profoundly hazardous for movements, political groups and individuals alike. Algerians view the ayad kharijiya40—the notion of a meddling foreign hand—with a collective (and institutionalized) anguish. And allegations of influence under such a hand—whether Saudi Arabia and Egypt in decades past, or Qatar and Iran more contemporarily—have especially been weaponized against Islamists in Algeria. To avert suspicions of extra-nationalist loyalty, the MSP often oscillates between emphasizing and downplaying its ties to the transnational Muslim Brotherhood, as well as broader discourses on the “global umma.”
To be sure, in private, party leaders often allude to transnationalism with an air of “if only” or “in an ideal world,” where notions of Algerian religious indigeneity are expressly interrogated. As one former MSP spokesperson put it:
Nahnah could not subscribe to the Jazara41 ideology, we cannot Algerianize our faith. This is consistent with the thought of the Ikhawan. Islam is not Algerian, Tunisian or Egyptian. Islam is universal and Algeria cannot be a reference for Islam.42
The MSP’s young ranks, for their part, appear to truly wrestle with this paradox, and can be observed constantly balancing and negotiating their notions of Islam and the umma as in fact border-transcending, and the requirement of algérianité. Thus, the movement’s appeals to indigeneity—and occasional homages to foundational Islamic thinkers who emphasized Algerian religious particularity—are probably more than just acquiescence to the state’s core principles of sovereignty.
For some readers, the spokesperson’s statement validates the trope of Islamists seeking ascendancy only to abolish the nation-state and consolidate the umma. But while MSP leaders often abstractly praise transcending tribe,43 modern borders, and other man-made constructions, they have never moved to actualize these notions. Instead, pan-Islamic aspirations are dismissed as irrelevant to the context in which they operate day-to-day. The idea of abolishing borders is described as far too lofty to warrant serious discussion, and as something that distracts from more pressing domestic issues for the movement.
Likewise, while the MSP has a more abstract affinity for and solidarity with the broader Muslim Brotherhood, various factors inform the careful ways the MSP engages its foreign Brotherhood counterparts. For instance, inspired by the successes of Tunisia’s Ennahda party, the MSP advertises the positive relationship it has with Ennahda, and it has likewise explored shedding the “Islamist” label (as Ennahda has done) as unreflective of its evolving ethos.
With regards to Egypt, while the MSP has maintained that the 2013 coup was a miscarriage of democracy by the deep state, it has restrained its rhetoric about the Sisi regime, which enjoys a generally positive relationship with the Algerian government with shared interests in military hegemony and in curbing political Islam.
The MSP’s links to Palestine’s HAMAS have been important for its credibility among its supporters. With implicit support from the Algerian government, which is more staunchly and openly pro-Palestine than its neighbors, the MSP plays up its relations with HAMAS, including by providing aid and moral support. The MSP even built the Mahfoud Nahnah High School in Gaza, named after MSP’s founder. As the situation in Gaza is important to many Algerians, playing up links to HAMAS is also an essential recruitment tool for the MSP. Abdellah Yousfi was the “Official Responsible for the Issue of Palestine,” for the Blida commune branch—a titled position that existed in all province- and commune-level MSP branches. According to Yousfi, “Hamas and MSP are the same movement, we are Hamas Algeria, they are Hamas Palestine. And Palestine is ardna [our land].”44
The wider MSP still holds up Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as the ultimate model of modern Islamist governance, despite the AKP’s dramatic democratic regressions. MSP president Abderrazak Mokri is widely known to admire President Erdogan, and claims more ideological proximity to the AKP than to the flagship Brotherhood movement in Egypt. Indeed, Mokri in 2012 modeled the aforementioned youth leadership-training program, Jil Tarjih, off the same program he observed in the AKP. Several other MSP leaders have defended the results of the April 16, 2017 Turkish constitutional referendum, simply as the “will of the people” in interviews with the author.
The Rise of Salafism
The partisan MSP is not the only Islamic tendency affected by the antipathy to parties and political Islam in Algeria. Neither a state-created body nor a state-sanctioned party, quietist Salafism—also known as Salafiya ‘almia, or scholarly/scientific Salafism—has become an appealing alternative to youth in search of more “authentic” spiritual outlets. And unlike Brotherhood-based parties, young followers need not spend decades climbing party hierarchy. Salafism first rose in Algeria in the 1900s (indeed, Ben Badis45 was a Salafist), and then it returned again in the 1980s. Like the Islamist parties, the Salafist movement became suspect during and immediately after the Black Decade. Soon, however, quietist Salafists turned to media (i.e. internet and satellite channels) instead of the street to revamp their image, to differentiate themselves from both the political and/or jihadist Islamist elements then abounding in the country, and to recover pre-conflict levels of support.
Focusing almost entirely on da’wa, the quietist Salafists benefit from an implicit arrangement with the state that is premised on their disavowal of partisan aspiration. Their reasons for rejecting any form of political participation are not necessarily strategic, but based on a religious imperative that considers modern political systems to be bida’ (heretical innovation). ‘Quietist’ Salafists are therefore seen as unthreatening to the political status quo, and are tacitly encouraged by the state as a potential wedge against political Islam and religious parties. Their avoidance of partisanship is preferred to the more overtly political impetuses animating the latter.
This arrangement has allowed Salafists to, informally, assume control of a sizeable portion of the country’s mosques despite government funding, oversight, and the presence of state monitors. Some theories suggest that there was an unwritten deal between Salafist movement leaders and the military in the late 1990s to convince insurgents to lay down their arms and declare a ceasefire. This won the Salafis favor with the army, allowing them to expand.
Quietist Salafists have been able to generate their own commercial and patronage networks, and open their own schools. Not unlike the MSP’s associational wings, Salafists have played a growing role in Islamizing Algerian society. They dominate the hanut (small-shop) scene in the urban areas, where they are able, for example, to pressure fellow shopkeepers not to sell alcohol or tobacco. In 2010, Salafists demonstrated against a state plan to have veiled women remove headscarves in passport photographs.46 In exchange for their tacit support of the regime, they have more recently held increasing unseen sway over religious policy—one recent example, among many, being the crackdown47 on members of the Ahmadi sect that Salafists denounced as Shiite encroachment.48
Preachers like the popular Sheikh Ali Ferkous, who has a large following out of the Kouba neighborhood in Algiers, and ‘televangelists’ like now-celebrity Sheikh Chemseddine Al-Djazairi (nicknamed Chemsou),49 all belong to this quietist trend and are popular on television and radio. Chemsou’s well-known show ‘Nsahouni’ (Counsel Me) discusses a range of conservative topics, but what he, Ferkous, and other preachers often do not broach is politics, save for the occasionally implicit support given to the aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the security services.
Many domestic experts see this alliance of convenience between Salafis and the state as potentially hazardous to the religious and social balance, particularly if Salafis become too empowered or large in number. Because they broadly emphasize a strict and sometimes literalist adherence to the traditions of the Salaf, some observers worry members may be more easily susceptible to other known Salafi doctrines that do endorse subversion or violence. Others are concerned that Salafis are responsible for funneling Wahhabi ideology into the country. This is far from ideal for the Algerian government, although at the moment the state appears reticent to clamp down on the religious freedoms of such a pervasive tendency—opting for strategic management rather than an eradicateur approach.
Like the Salafis, Sufi brotherhoods have come to have a larger political function in Algeria despite their outwardly apolitical character. Many play important roles in how the state attempts to manage political Islam and to maintain a monopoly over religious symbolism and power. This has not always been the case. In the past, traditional Sufi brotherhoods have been besieged, seen, especially during the Boumediène era, as threats to state consolidation, state Islam, the societal fabric, and modernizing policies. The shift from their violent repression to their cooptation and utilization occurred under President Bouteflika for several reasons.
First, many contemporary approaches in Algeria and elsewhere to countering Islamist extremism have cast Sufi brotherhoods as home-grown bulwarks whose meditation and mysticism can provide a “moderate” counterbalance to “imported” extremist ideology. In Algeria, this strategy was originally driven chiefly by domestic interests. Now, as international counterterrorism cooperation has become the key axis for Algerian engagement with the U.S. and EU, Sufi mysticism has increasingly been promoted as the panacea against extremist ideologies. Through this, the Algerian government has tried to position itself vis-à-vis its western allies as uniquely suited to handle the ideological drivers of terror and as a voice of moderate Islam. Of course, these dynamics are not unique to Algeria; Morocco and Tunisia, among many others, have also pursued similar Sufi promotion policies in tandem.50
As a result, state authorities have increasingly taken on Sufis as a loyal ally against political Islam and ‘foreign’ Wahhabi ideology.51 Through this, Sufi networks have helped to expand state influence and reach. Especially in the rural areas where Sufi zaouïas52 still have some informal clout, they help legitimize state policies, mobilize voters, and in some cases even serve as channels for government services. As such, Sufi networks aid in boosting the legitimacy of the incumbent: ahead of elections, Bouteflika53 has embarked on nationwide zaouïa-tours, getting blessings from sheikhs, paying respects at mausoleums, and making monetary donations (state largesse) with the expectation of political support. This strategy has been useful for the state not only in the countryside, but also more broadly where the optics of piety are of growing importance.
Moreover, where the Algerian government has wished to expand its regional power and influence, it has used Sufi history and networks to highlight its historic religious links to the Sahel countries in its neighborhood. For example, the League of Sahel Ulemas, created in 2013, emphasizes its Sufi history, especially the role of the Tidjaniya Order,54 as a regionally binding force.
Therefore, while the Sufis are not “partisan,” they have come to play more overtly political roles than the Salafists and are more actively leveraged by the state toward political ends. State patronage has even incentivized inter-zaouïa competition and rent-seeking behavior. Unlike the Salafist arena however, many youth disapprove of the political nature of Sufi promotion, while many others see Sufism as bida’ and not within the parameters of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence).55
Insofar as the public sees Salafis and Sufis as “apolitical” avenues for collective Islamic engagement and activism, they could further siphon popular support from the Islamist parties, and perhaps even bolster the FLN if they grow more empowered. People may become reticent about quietist Salafism, however, if its state-encouragement becomes more obvious. Such perceptions of political expediency and being extensions of the state have already somewhat sullied some of the Sufi zaouïas. Should the quietists Salafist grow too much for regime comfort, the latter will likely find a way to defang them. Right now, their expansion to the point where they might threaten the regime’s equilibrium will take time. They are locked into their dogmatic refutation of political subversion, and their evolution is closely state-monitored.
In turn, Islamist parties like the MSP see the Salafi movement and Sufi brotherhoods as two distinct threats. Among other things, Salafists threaten the MSP’s political expansion. When pious youth gravitate toward the Salafists, these potential recruits are removed altogether from the Islamist party market. The Salafist movement moreover has the capacity to galvanize devotees around a cause, a policy (though their social causes sometimes align with the MSP’s, e.g. on the family/women’s code, alcohol policy, etc.), and even political candidates—often in favor of the FLN. Thus, the contest between Salafists and Islamist parties is on display both in the rhetoric of their respective leaderships as well as in more informal spaces such as the aforementioned dorm-wars and in other da’wa efforts.
The vast majority of MSP individuals see Sufism as anathema to acceptable Islamic jurisprudence, and can often be heard deriding Sufi beliefs as folklore (though a few MSP Islamists do see Sufism as legitimate spiritual expression.) Of late however, instead of competing with Sufi influence—important in mobilizing voters—some MSP figures seek their blessings. While rare, some MSP members have joined zaouïas to get closer to regime interests—like Bouteflika. Also rare, still other Islamists join Sufi brotherhoods for more personal reasons. This suggests that MSP members adhere to religious traditions that are more eclectic than is commonly believed or let on by MSP members themselves.
Nowadays, in considering their formal political endeavors, Islamist parties have entered a period of recalculation. Empowered by the Arab uprisings that began in 2010, Mokri led the MSP’s departure from the coalition government in 2012 and formed the Islamist Green Alliance (Alliance de l’Algérie Verte, AAV) with Al-Nahda and Islah, an electoral bloc that for a time saw improved electoral numbers even in the face of breakaways.
But after four years of banal disagreements, conflicts of interest and MSP domination, the AAV was dissolved in January 2017. Ahead of the May 4, 2017 parliamentary elections, the Islamist parties announced unlikely new sets of electoral coalitions. The MSP announced a new alliance with its first, 2009 breakaway, Front for Change (FC) formed by defector Abdelmadjid Menasra56—a plan in the works since both the MSP and FC suffered additional breakaway parties in 2012 and 2013. After again coming in third place in the parliamentary election and winning only 33 seats, the MSP-FC alliance refused to join the governing coalition, citing fraud, blank ballots, and discrepancies in the final tabulations. On July 22, 2017, in an extraordinary congress, Menasra became interim president. Meanwhile, another breakaway party from the MSP-FC57 allied with Djaballah’s Adala and MSP’s own former AAV partner, Al-Nahda.
Islamists have tried to present these electoral realignments as important strides toward reunification of the broader Islamist movement, but the rival electoral blocs have only reinforced the image of Islamist disunity, as they have actively competed with one another for the same electorate.
Back in 2014, under Mokri’s leadership, the MSP co-founded the multi-partisan committee, National Coordination for Liberties and Democratic Transition (CNLTD)—a miscellany of Islamist parties, secular Berberist-oriented parties, the Workers’ Party and personalities from former governments. The bloc’s stated aim was to consolidate the opposition toward a consensus-based democratic transition, in direct response to Bouteflika’s controversial fourth mandate. The coalition aimed to effect national dialogue toward the introduction of freer elections, a system of government with checks and balances, and a new constitution. However, several important member parties defected, constrained by inter-party conflicts of interest, loss of credibility among the population, and apparently strangled by the MSP’s hegemony within the bloc.
Meanwhile, the MSP’s focus on da’wa endeavors and the associational sphere has allowed it to deal with both structural and ideational closures in political opportunity, and to compete informally with state power and presence. MSP president Mokri has also since 2012 reclaimed lost bases by traveling the country, whipping up support, and launching new party satellites and programs. But the MSP should manage expectations that these efforts will have immediate formal, electoral returns, especially as they eye the fall 2017 municipal elections with hope. While the party cries election fraud—which evidence supports—the ongoing crisis within MSP leadership cadres doesn’t help, as the likes of Boujerra Soltani and Abderrahmane Saïdi, who oppose Mokri and Menasra’s methods, hardly conceal their wishes to bring the MSP closer to the regime. The ideationally disjointed state of the country’s Islamist actors, the explosion of and divisions among indistinguishable Islamist micro-parties, the public’s progressively worsening view of the partisan and election process, compounded by a potential ascendance of Salafism and Sufism, could together continue to erode numbers for the parties.
So, Who Are the “Islamists”?
Algerians’ “imagined community”58 and national identity continues to be one bound, in part, by entrenched narratives of a shared religious background and history. And, important shifts in religious attitudes, expression and behavior are underway. By many accounts, Algerian society is increasingly “Islamizing,” despite the (apparent) collective disdain for Islamism. This is not to say Algerians are any more religious-spiritual than a decade ago, rather that outward displays of piety are of growing significance. Public attitudes are growing more socially conservative, to the extent that even the wider political class and members of the (non-Islamist) nationalist centrist parties have been progressively more conspicuous in their displays.59 Whether this is the result of: the success of the aforementioned ‘extra-institutional’ undertakings of the Islamist parties; of permeation of quietist Salafists’ doctrine backed tacitly by the state; of ubiquitous foreign religious channels; residual influence from the state-sponsored project of Islamic identity promotion and Arabization in the 1970s and 80s; more simply an organic cultural shift arising from new articulations of individual and group identity; or a combination of the above, is being critically debated.
Surely however, the understudied Algerian case compels us to rethink a few concepts. The first is the “collective” nature of Islamism. To be sure, members of a group share various interests due to what Asef Bayat calls the “imagined solidarity”60 required to galvanize a movement. But the express soul-searching among Islamist party ranks—reflective of the broader national/collective/personal identity struggles among youth and their grievances regarding both Islamism and parties—alongside differing and often competing incentive structures and allegiances among various ranking members, suggest that highly-individualized and personal factors more often shape Islamist preferences. Instead, too much weight is given to the concept, particularly in policy circles, that Islamist movements are necessarily coherent or bound by a single, defined mission.
The second concept that needs rethinking is that of political cooptation. Where state cooptation is usually imagined as something that is passively received, it can in fact be agentive. The literature on cooptation tends to focus disproportionately on the political benefits accruing to the incumbent authoritarian, casting the process as purely zero-sum. However, by vacillating between submitting to the state in certain public and formal institutions, and contesting it in certain extra-institutional or associational realms, Islamist parties in Algeria have retained some agency—as we have seen, in some spaces even disrupting power asymmetries—over the course of their incorporation.
Finally, the case of Algeria (indeed it is not the only one) pushes us to reconsider what constitutes Islamism. It feels counterintuitive to characterize quietist Salafists and Sufi brotherhoods as “Islamist” per its conventional definitions, since for them politics (often, though not always) are a means to secure their religious and ideological ends, as opposed to the other way around. For the quietist Salafis, capturing the state truly seems not to be the end goal. But, as there is no “politics” without a polity, such groups are nevertheless effecting changes in the state even if they don’t actively confront it, or try to contest or seize it; their activities shape the electorate, its social and political preferences, and by extension, the political/policy milieu. Thus, when the Algerian case is cast as another example of the “failure of Islamism,” it elides the informal spaces where contestations of political-religious authority occur. Islamism is far from dead in Algeria; it may change shape yet in the years to come, but it will remain a fixture in Algerian social and political life.
About the author:
*Vish Sakthivel, Robert A. Fox Fellow, Foreign Policy Research Institute
This article was published by the Hudson Institute’s Current Trends in Islamist Ideology.
1 Vish Sakthivel, “Algeria’s Growing Security Problems,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, PolicyWatch 2791, (April 2017). ↝
54 There is disagreement between Morocco and Algeria—a result of the arms-race between the two countries for regional influence—as to the birthplace of this order; Morocco holds that it is in Fez, while Algeria argues it is in Ain Madhi. See Khemissi, Larémont, and Taj Eddine (2012) Sufism, Salafism and state policy towards religion in Algeria: a survey of Algerian youth. Journal of North African Studies (17:3), 547-558. ↝
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