Islam and Democratic Experiment: Remembering Algeria *
By Prof. Sulayman S. Nyang
The first round of balloting in Algeria on December 28, 1991 led to the unquestionable victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). By garnering almost half the national vote in spite of competition from 48 other political parties, the FIS demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that the people of Algeria were fed up with the tyranny of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had been in power since independence from France in 1962. Why has the electoral victory of FIS aroused so much concern in the world and why did the military junta seize power and deny the leaders of FIS the opportunity to govern Algeria and present their program in the form of public policy?
Algeria, a North African state with 26 million people, is unique in the Arab, Muslim and Third worlds. Conquered by France in 1830, and virtually ruled as its extension, this Muslim state became a land where the people experienced extensive French assimilation. The French colonists carried out a number of policies designed to undermine and weaken the Islamo-Arabic or Islamo- Berber identities of the Algerian people. So thorough was this strategy of cultural and political domination that many Algerians of the nationalist movement became strangers in their own land. They were deracinated and could not even speak the language of their people. Ferhat Abbas is the most widely cited example of this colonial syndrome. To regain their cultural autonomy and to assert their independence, the Algerians resorted to guerilla warfare, in which thousands of their compatriots died. In the end the Algerian people won.
Since the declaration of independence in 1962, the country has lived under the one-party rule of the socialist oriented FLN. This party was able to cultivate a strong image abroad, as a progressive socialist Third world leader of opinion, while at home it allowed its leaders and supporters to indulge in authoritarianism and political corruption of all kinds. As a result, economic depression, cultural alienation, and political anomie began to set in and Algerians concerned with the meaning of life and the need for guidance and leadership began to challenge the existing order. Added to this main problem of existence at home was the uncertain future of Algerians living in France. Attracted by job opportunities, and by the effects of earlier colonial conditioning, many of these Algerians began to rediscover their Islamic roots. It is indeed against this background that the FIS emerged as a political force.
The origins of the FIS must be traced back to the history and sociology of Algeria. After having come out of extensive and occasionally ruthless French assimilation during the colonial era, and having seen the lack of honest and responsible government under the FLN, the Algerian people decided as far back as June 1990, to put their eggs in the FIS basket. At that time they willingly trusted the FIS leaders with the administration of their local governments. The aborted elections scheduled for January 1992 were designed to determine the final results of the national balloting for new leadership of democratic Algeria. At the first round of balloting the FIS secured 188 out of 206 while the former ruling FLN got a meager 15 seats. The electoral victory of the FIS did not go well with four political interest groups in and out of Algeria. The first group of rejectionists were the sociologists and secularists who did not trust the FIS with power because they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the leaders of this Islamic movement would re-create their society in the image they have of Islam. These secularistic Algerians are not monolithic. Some are Marxists, some cultural or nominal Muslims and others are genuine Muslims but because of ethnicity they, rightly or wrongly, suspect the FIS as a Trojan horse of Arabism which masks itself as Islamic. The second vested group that is opposed to the FIS are the neighboring Arab governments in North Africa and the Middle East proper. This group is also a mixed bag of political interests. It includes fearful monarchists who fear the “Islamic Fundamentalists” more than they did the Nasserites of yesteryear. It also includes the authoritarian pan-Arab nationalists who see the Islamic parties as the most popular and credible opposition to their tyrannical rule. Largely military dictatorships, they ride tigers which they dare not dismount. The third group of rejectionists are the feminists of the West and their allies in the third World. Fed on a diet of anti-Islamism, and determined to bring to the Muslim world what they believe have been accomplished in the West, these groups of feminist activists see the FIS as another male chauvinist plot from Algeria. Last, but not the least, are the Western strategists who are less interested in the welfare and sensitivities of Muslim people and more in what can be done to our enemy, real or imagined. This last group has been exploited by the junta in Algeria. Democracy was never given a chance and the actions of the military dictatorship in Algeria make it categorically clear that no sanctions will be imposed by the UN. for the abortion of the slated elections in Algeria.
The reaction of the western governments and mainstream intellectuals did not give any hope to system challengers that democracy is the road to peaceful transfer of power. What happened in Algeria sent the message to the tyrannies of Haiti, Zaire, China and others that democracy is only supported with money, material and fine words when it relates to peoples of Europe. Simultaneously, because of the lack of global condemnation from peoples and places where traditionally you hear the loudest noise about democracy, more repressive actions will be forthcoming. As a result more blood will be shed in the name of keeping the peace and maintaining law and order.
Originally published in the Summer 1992 print edition ofThe American Muslim