The Political Challenge of Islamic Zeal in Algeria


January 09, 1992|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris.-- There are a good many people who think that the war between communism and the West is about to be replaced by a war between the West and the Muslims, at least the fundamentalist Muslims.

The politicized racism evident these days in Western Europe is directed much more intensely against Muslim North Africans and Turks than against Black Africans.

Islam is a distinct and coherent politico-cultural force, whereas Africa south of the Sahara possesses neither political or religious coherence.

Its immigrant workers in Europe are perceived as individuals; the Muslims are seen collectively, as a potentially formidable power, and as a threat.

Thus the electoral victory of Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria's first free parliamentary election at the end of December has produced much concern, above all in France. Algerians have privileged entree as a result of France's century-long colonial involvement with Algeria.

The two countries still are very close, despite the bitter war fought in the 1950s between France and Algeria's National Liberation Front, the party which governed Algeria since that war but which won only some 8 percent of the seats decided in the first-round parliamentary vote in December. (The run-off vote is Jan. 16.)

French is widely taught and spoken in Algeria, the elites have French-style educations, French books and magazines are widely distributed and French television is easily received in the coastal cities.

A fundamentalist-dominated Algerian parliament now seems certain, even though there has been a dramatic mobilization of moderate forces for the second-round vote. The first round saw 41.5 percent abstentions.

President Chadli Benjedid is expected to remain in office despite the fundamentalist victory. Implications of that victory are, however, much more complex than many think, and could even produce a decisive setback to the fundamentalist movement in its contemporary guise.

First of all, the Algerian fundamentalists are not the product of Iranian meddling (the Algerians are Sunnites, the Iranians Shiites) nor of conservative Saudi Arabian or Gulf Arab money. They have a long history in Algeria itself. Their party, the Islamic Salvation Front, developed as part of the surge of Algerian nationalism in the 1930s and 1940s.

It opposes the secular and socialist National Liberation Front because of the NLF's corruption and what the fundamentalists see as its betrayal of the national movement. They believe themselves the true inheritors of Algerian nationalism and not the representatives of some pan-Arab or pan-Islamic movement.

They oppose the statist economy the NLF installed during its years in power. The fundamentalists believe in the marketplace, the bazaar, and admit that re-creating the market economy will worsen Algeria's already severe unemployment.

They do not lack realism in this respect, and they say that they are fully prepared to cooperate with international companies in exploiting Algeria's oil, natural gas and other natural resources.

Their weakness, however, is that their basic appeal rests on their opposition to the NLF's mismanagement of Algeria's state and economy. Algeria's masses may want piety in reaction to the secularization and value crisis of recent years, but they expect it to bring employment and prosperity.

An Algerian academic now a visiting professor at Princeton, Lahouari Addi, writes that ''The masses did not vote for (the Islamic Front) to win paradise in the next world but rather to see Algeria's successful development and modernization, and the restoration of morality in its government. In that respect the purpose of the Islamic Salvation Front is secular: It is not really a religious movement, but a political one which has sought legitimacy in religion.''

With their victory, the fundamentalists make themselves responsible for Algeria's state and economy. This alters their position in a fundamental way.

Any opposition party which comes to power faces the problem of substituting action for the luxuries of opposition, but Islamic nationalists have even more of a challenge.

They are not simply one more party, like all the others. They claim to represent absolute morality and the truth revealed by God. They have said that their installation in power will produce a society freed from injustice.

And if it does not?

Their failure would then be judged with a severity far beyond that imposed on other political parties which have failed to keep their promises. The Islamic Front says it is the Party of God. That is a heavy responsibility.

If, after a year or two of fundamentalism in power, Algeria still is poor, an economic laggard, riddled with social injustice, corrupt, the fundamentalists would have to explain why.

The explanation would interest Moroccans, Tunisians, Egyptians and others in currently moderate Islamic countries challenged by fundamentalist movements.

Islamic fundamentalism is an example of a characteristic phenomenon of development in countries formerly under colonial rule.

Algeria was a medieval society when France conquered it. When the French were expelled at the start of the 1960s, independent Algeria tried to leap into the future under the FLN, with socialism, steel-mills, secularization. That has failed.

Now the fundamentalists offer the opposite solution: to go back to religion, Islamic law, the way of God -- the past.

But you can't go back. This is something the Algerians, like the Iranians, will have to discover.

It is essential knowledge.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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