A Brief Historical Introduction of the Demise of Islamism in Algeria: Part One

Algerian society has increasingly reorganized itself since the beginning of the 20th century to better fit the Western model, despite its consistent “anti colonial”, isolationist rhetoric. This phenomenon can be traced back to the emergence of the Young Algerians, a term used as early as 1911 which describes a small group of upper bourgeoise young Muslims of French upbringing and culture. It was the Young Algerians who made up the authority of Algerians who, instead of joining the armed resistance movement predominantly made up of rural, impoverished Algerians, sought to seek their rights as French citizens equal to their pieds noirs counterparts. As intellectuals and educated members of Algerian society, these upper class Muslims sought change within French Algeria’s framework by advocating for political rights and equality, and denounced the violent means their fellow Algerian guerrilla combatants adopted in the middle of the 20th century to uproot the French entirely from Algeria. Learned in strictly European disciplines and denied any religious instruction or cultural education, these Algerians became the first of many to come that represented the introduction of liberal secularism to the country which had existed for centuries under the authority of Islamic caliphates. Europeanized Algerians dominated fields of liberal professions such as medicine, law, teaching, and business. They achieved the highest status one was capable while still being an Algerian under the “Jim Crowism” of French occupation. Power in Algeria was entirely in the hands of the West, be it French settlers or the Europeanized Algerians themselves, it all meant the same destructive path for the founding of a truly Muslim Algeria. Slimane Cheikh stated that,

“Since they were a product of the secular schools of the French Republic, the ideals of the representatives of the assimilationist tendency were shaped by French culture and they hoped to diffuse it among their indigenous compatriots. They aspired to be members of French society and to have access to the status of French citizens.”

Amir Khalid, grandson of Abd el Kader who years earlier had led Muslims under the religious title of “Emir” in a war of resistance against French colonially occupation, was the leading figure of the Young Algerians. His grandfather’s failure along with the omnipresence of the French in every aspect of society (which is very characteristic of their colonially policy in general), convinced him to accept the French so long as they accept him. He and many of his followers took drastic means to achieve the successful integration of les indigènes in French Algerian society that was dominated by les colons, including the rejection and abandonment of Islam. This is the point in history in which Algerians begin to associate Islam with the uneducated masses, who to the Young Algerians, desperately needed the guidance of the educated, democratized, liberal elite. Orientalist attitude of French policy towards Algeria is likely the origin of this sentiment. European colonial occupation was justified with this patronizing attitude of their responsibility as global powers to spread their political and economic systems throughout the Global South to supposedly raise the standard of living for all citizens of the world. The reality of colonization was not quite as noble, and unsurprisingly was just a form of exploitive foreign policy that cost millions of lives and destroyed African and Asian countries’ ability to develop into the modern world. The Young Algerians were the first to accept their colonial occupiers and their legacy is like its own cultural occupation of Algerian society. With the exception of the short lived power of the Uluma, Algerian leaders from this point onwards are all characterized by their secular, European identity. Farhat Abbas famously says, “La France c’est moi” when describing his policy of spiritual assimilation. In the Young Algerian, he writes:

“Algeria is French territory. We are Frenchmen with Muslim personal status… From a colony towards a province”.

France had remained uncompromising in its colonial policy and attitude towards Algeria, and made it clear until the very end that Algerians, no matter how Europeanized, could never truly assimilate into French society and gain equal status. The very same claim can be applied today when discussing French citizens of Maghrebian origins. It was not until France losing to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi forces did both Algerians and the Arab allies of surrounding North African and Middle Eastern nations begin to voice their support for an independent Algeria.

“The defeat of France in 13 days stimulated the Algerians to look down on the French. On the other hand, the Algerians started to admire Hitler and the Germans. In this respect, Al Akhdar Ibn Tobal stated: ‘The indigenous Algerians started to speak their minds in front of the colons without fear.’ They used to declare in the presence of the pieds noirs that Hitler had taught the French a good lesson. In cinemas, the appearance of Hitler on the screen was greeted with a very long applause by the Algerians. The Algerian Muslims did this deliberately in order to enrage the colons and the French government. Ibn Tobal characterized this period as the era of the beginning of the conscience of the Algerian”.

Sentiments were drawn from all corners of the Muslim world. Newspapers were printed in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco voicing their support for the Algerian cause. Amir Shakib Arsalan was a consistent advocate of Algerian independence and used his influence and capabilities to draw Algeria closer to victory. Europeanized Algerians began to drawback from their views and loyalty to “Mother France” suspiciously as soon as the French fell from their commanding and powerful positions. It was not long after the Second World War, after experiencing devastating racism and mistreatment in the French army and still not progressing from his title as French Subject to French citizen, that Farhat Abbas, former Young Algerian, finally denounced French colonialism. In his letter to General Catroux, he writes,

“I have the honour to confirm to you that for many years now, I am totally opposed or in dis- agreement with the colonial institutions which were imposed on us and with the privileged political men who demanded their survival”.

It is at this point one can effectively cite as the end of the Young Algerian agenda. However, it is not even in the slightest the end of their political presence in Algeria. In fact it is precisely their position’s conversion regarding French-Algerian relationship that significantly altered the existing Muslim Algerian and Nationalist Algerian resistance movements. The introduction of former Young Algerians, with their undeniable bias towards secularism and Western thought, considerably altered the balance of power between the Ulama and Nationalist guerrillas. Being in significantly high positions within society, the a Young Algerians exercised a greater influence on the Algerian armed elite. What had already been a difficult confrontation of ideological strength that would lead Algerians to independence became an impossible victory for Islamist Algerians. The combined secularist sentiments of the a Young Algerians, who never succeeded in fully detaching themselves from what their “Mother France” had taught them, along with the disinterested groups that operated in favor of pan-Arabist socialism (read: authoritarianism), cast out the Ulama from any authority it may have had at the time and certainly had during the 1930s-40s. In his interview with Youcef Baghoul, Farhat Abbas refers to Mustafa Kamal Ataturk when describing his own inspirations, alluding to his own secularist plans for a Free Algeria instead of an Islamic state.

Islam was essential to the origins of the Algerian resistance and national consciousness. Emir Abd el Kader, known as the Father of the Algerian independence movement, was a religious figure to his followers as well as a political one. Under his leadership one can examine the successful politicalization of Islam in Algeria in the absence of a guiding Islamic Empire. His pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj influenced his understanding and enthusiasm for Islam as well as introduced him to regional Muslim politics. His travels exposed him to many scholars and political leaders of the time including anti-Russian resistance leader Imam Shamil of the Muslim Northern Caucus, and Muhammed Ali of Egypt. The Emir found his religious authority helpful in consolidating legitimate power and loyalty from his followers. The cause had become one in the name of Allah. His defeat had marked the end of Islamic political authority for the next century. The French were well prepared to take any measure to impose their authority in North Africa considering Algeria being the first country of its conquests in the region. Popular French discourse regarding its North African and later Middle Eastern colonies was framed around the spread of its own culture to the backwards, barbaric Muslims along the opposite coast of the Mediterranean. The suppression of Islam was vital to their success as it was the only unifying element with any meaningful potential for victory, and Europe was well aware of this fact after having been dealt military losses throughout pre-Modern history. It was not until the Islamic revivalism of the Association of Reformist Ulama (the term reformist is only used in the French name, and does not appear in the Arabic name for the Ulama) in the 1930’s, who’s political nature was coined “Jacobin Islam” for reintroducing Islamic revolutionary politics in the region. It was the Ulama that reawakened the nationalist spirit of Algeria which laid dormant for the last 100 years. Abdelhamid Ben Badis, Tayyib al- Uqbi, Muhammad al-Bashir al-Ibrahimi, and Larbi Tebessi are all prominent figures who significantly led Algeria into its revolution of decolonization (notice not a single secular leader of FLN-esque ideological standing, only Islamic scholars). It is important to recognize that the French were not successful in controlling the Ulama at any point, only at regulating it. The Ulama operated as an Islamic institution with a number of mosques and schools throughout Algeria, which appealed to many illiterate and spiritually disconnected Algerians who sought the alternative educational opportunities Islam had to offer.

“As a general principle, Algerian Muslims were given greater latitude to organize and express themselves at the local level, whether through participation in the municipal council or the formation of their own voluntary organizations… Within this context, the Reformist Ulama developed an original, rather ingenious solution to the problem of freedom of Islamic religious expression in colonial Algeria. Their association operated at the national level, but concentrated their activities in what could be considered part of the private domain, religious education. Moreover, while they were a national organization, much of their strength derived to a large extent from the support of local leaders, and the interplay of local religous rivalrie.”

The French surprisingly facilitated the rise of political Islam during this pivotal time period. In 1905, France passed a law completely separating the church from the state, thereby formally secularizing the French government. As a colony of France, this law was also applied in Algeria, but instead it was the separation of Islam and the French occupying government. This rendered the French Algerian administration incapable of controlling the spread of Islam, leaving the Ulama with significant autonomy and ability to mobilize.

“To separate completely, at it were, mosque and state, would be to deprive the state of an important patronage item, and worse, raised the spectre of a state within the state, of hostile parallel hierarchies taking control of the mosques. Thus the law had to be considerably bent to suit the Algerian situation. Religious affairs at the local level were to be run by an organ called the association cultuelle musulmane (ACM).”

Throughout the 1930s and 40s the Ulama faced internal fracturing over which particular goals to emphasize in their agenda. In theory, the Ulama sought to reintroduce Islam in every aspect of society, however its leading members found themselves prioritizing differently. Sheikh Tayyib was well known for his Wahhabi alignment and tended towards the orthodox interpretation of Islam. His rhetoric was characterized by the severe call for the eradication of Sufi bida’ and kharafa practices. Ben Badis was popular for his mediating approach to handling disputes of this nature to avoid divisions among Muslims. He was not as vocal with details of correct interpretation as much as he was in unifying the Muslims in as peaceful of a process as he could manage (there were tensions between Maliki and Hanafi mosques at the time, Tayyib learned in and preaching the Hanafi madhab). Tayyib eventually leaves the Ulama after a conflict with other leading Reformists who refused to voice their support for the French war effort against German Nazi forces, who he believed would be a greater detriment to the wellbeing of Algeria. Ibrahimi was the exact opposite of his former colleague Tayyib. His primary goal for Algerian Muslims was to build schools to educate them, and is even recorded to have chastised Muslims for raising funds to build a Masjid rather than desperately needed school. It was under his leadership after the death of Ben Badis that the Ulama had fallen under. Fatima Zuhra al-Naijar captures the general attitude spread by the Ulama during her speech at the Mawlid gathering of 1948:

“Now is not the time for slowness and sluggishness. Rather this is an era of great speed, and people should arouse themselves, and prepare all their sons and daughters for a life of competition and struggle”.

For years the Ulama operated with the priority of enhancing and spreading Islamic education under the guidance of Ibrahmi, but soon the organization grew bureaucratic and he took leave to Egypt (where his relationship with the Muslim brotherhood developed) after being accused of misusing the Ulama’s funds. His successor, Larbi Tebessi, took a rather different approach from both his predecessors and reorganized the Ulama, relocating them to the East of Algeria where Islam and the Arab identity were far more present. By the time he comes to power, other grass root political Islamic organizations began to emerge that challenged the Reformists for political and religious legitimacy, the two most dominant being the moderate Union Democratique Musulmane Algerienne (UDMA) of Farhat Abbas, and the radical Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertes Democratiques (MTLD) of Messali Hajj. The issue these parties presented compounded as the students that the Reformist schools had raised had at this point reached University age, and often were attracted to these alternative organizations. In addition to these groups, the Ulama struggled to maintain its authority with the existence of the French state recognized official clergy.

“The final climax of Reformist activity came in Ramadan of 1955, in Constantine, when once again they took over the Grand Mosque, this time for the purpose of Ramadan preaching, and again they struck a compromise, agreeing to preach on alternate nights with the official clergy. The tone of the preaching by Shaikh Khair al-Din and Abbas Ben Shaikh Husain was very militant, and a large amount of money was collected from the audience, some of which presumably would find its way to the FLN”.

The growing relevance of the Front Libération Nationale (FLN) dealt the final blow to the Ulama and its presence in Algerian politics in the period before the formal war of Independence. By Fall of 1957, all of the Reformist madrasas had been shut down and properties confiscated by the French during their crack down on the Algerian resistance movement in a desperate attempt to reconsolidate power. The FLN took advantage of the chaotic, disorganized state of the Ulama and recruited members to further prove the FLN’s own religious legitimacy to inspire more Algerians to join war cause. On April 5th, Tebessi had disappeared, allegedly having been killed by the FLN for the purpose of eliminating any remaining opposition, however the FLN contests that the French had kidnapped and murdered him to venge the death of the colon mayor of Boufarik (who been assassinated by an Islamist in 1956). Despite the Reformists having been brought to power by the French separation of church and state, they sought to establish an Islamic state in Algeria once independence had been achieved. Throughout the 1940s and 50s, they had been contested by all opposition groups on this matter, who sought a secular future of Algeria (especially Farhat Abbas and his party, and later the FLN). By 1957, with their compromised religious legitimacy, loss of wealth and property, and killed off/dispersed leadership, the Ulama were no longer in a position to assert their goals for an Islamic state, and were no longer relevant even after independence had been won. In addition, one might also suggest that the greatly increased role of the state in the economy (FLN imposed socialism, especially during Boumediene’s regime, although one can argue Boumediene had been the man of power all along, even during Ben Bella’s presidency) undermined the private sector, which had been the main base of support for the Reformist Ulama. The dream of an Islamic Algeria had been effectively crushed.

Post independence Algeria was no better for the Islamic development of the country than under French occupation. In fact, it can be argued that the Socialist regimes manufactured by Ben Bella and Boumediene in the formative years of the Algerian state proved more detrimental to the future of an Islamic state in North Africa than their former colonial aggressors. Much like most post-colonial, post-mandate nation states in the Middle East, the populist young officer that consolidated power using their anti-colonial and often pan-Arabist rhetoric tended towards autocracy once independence had been achieved. And with autocracy came the typical backlash against any former ally in the fight against independence in an effort to eliminate any opposition or alternative source of political legitimacy the people might choose to follow. Post colonial Algeria was no exception to this phenomenon, it was actually one of countries to first demonstrate this characteristic of the region. The Algerian revolution was exported throughout the Middle East and global South, inspiring young officers like Gamal Abd el Nasser, Yasser Arafat, and Muammar Gaddafi to revolt against their own colonial/monarchical rulers. These embellished revolutionary sentiments were the necessary distractions used by the revolutionary elite to mask their own dishonorable aspirations. The Algerian state upon its ascension to independence continued its former colonial power’s legacy in repressing Islam, but now going even further as to attack the Islamic court and its jurisprudence rather than allow a degree of autonomy as the French conceded for the majority of the occupation. Ben Bella and the FLN political elite sought to diminish the authority of Islam by reducing their control over fiqh except for matters of “family law”. However even this concession to Islamic power over the court system is proven to be an empty attempt of the State to appeal to Muslim Algerians; the contradictory “Family Code” of 1984 took the rest of Islamic law’s jurisprudence by introducing Western laws regarding women and family in Algeria. The Islamic revivalism of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was the legitimate source of Algeria’s national awakening and the FLN knew that in order to remain in power and in the good graces of the population they had new authority over, they would have to continue to assemble mass support by invoking Islamic symbols throughout their regime. Ijtihad (interpretation) is often invoked by the FLN to reiterate the compatibility of Islam and the post colonial Algerian state. Abdelaziz Bouteflika often defends clearly unIslamic state authorized law by referring the the peaceful and harmonious nature of Islam and how the introduction of Western interpreted gender equality will promote the same peace and harmony that apparently characterize Islam. The Islamic-Arab identity became the foundation of Algeria, and the creation of a “state Islam” for Algeria was effective in completely controlling who makes up the Ulama and the extent of the influence. The FLN needed a legitimate source of Islam to protect their consolidate power and institutionalizing the Ulama proved successful for the party. In a statement by Bouabdallah Ghoulamallah, Minister of Religious Affairs in 2009 regarding the new state television channel dedicated to Quranic recitation, the state clearly demonstrates their true anti Islamic intentions:

“to preserve the religious authority of the State, as represented in the Malikite school which is now threatened by the rise of Salafist thought”.

Despite having been the first president of the new Algerian state, Ben Bella was not the true source of power in the country. This responsibility feel upon commander of armed forces Houari Boumediene, who was a significant figure in winning both the war for independence and consolidating power for Ben Bella and the FLN in August of 1962. Ben Bella, during his 3 years in power, relied heavily upon the support of a Boumediene, and was not much more than a political puppetry Boumediene. Both their regimes are characterized by the ideology of socialist development and state controlled industrialization and economic reform. The new state sought to model itself after its new international Socialist alliances with Cuba and Yugoslavia. Titoist socialism became the main source of political and economic inspiration for the new dictators in Algeria, which saw no problem with the secular, anti-religious nature of the Socialist order. Both autocrats used Islamo-Arabist rhetoric as a mask to reject one form of foreign intervention only to bring back to Algeria an even more unfamiliar, and uncomfortable socio-political and economic system. Despite adopting this foreign, unIslamic ideology and enforcing it on the Muslim Algerian people, Ben Bella paradoxically uses colonialism and anti foreign intervention in his speeches to the people:

“Colonialism is an idea born in the West that drives Western countries – like France, Italy, Belgium, Great Britain – to occupy countries outside of Europe.”

Once Boumediene ousts Ben Bella in his 1965 military coup of the government, Algeria officially begins its long history under martial law and military rule. This coup allows Boumediene to successfully redirect all power to the military, which proves even more detrimental to the natural tendency of Islamization of Algeria later in the 1990s. The image of Boumediene however is never compromised with his anti Islamic political actions; his Arabization campaigns to reintroduce Arabic as Algeria’s national language in the place of the French oriented institutions of the public sector are wrongfully attributed to his dedication to Islam. His pan Arabist sentiments, especially with the regional power of Egypt and its new leader Gamal Abd el Nasser, are mistaken for Islamic solidarity, perhaps since both countries have in common a Muslim population and the nature of the connection the Arabic language has with Islam. To be very clear: no part of his regime ever showed friendliness to the Islamic development of the nation. He continued his predecessor’s legacy in manipulating the name of Islam to give his regime the face of good faith. However, it should be noted that of the autocrats that have assumed power in the Middle East since the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Boumediene takes the title of most genuinely motivated to help the people of Algeria. Historians unanimously agree that his intentions were never malicious, nor power hungry the way most contemporary leaders operate. His efforts were to create a self-sufficient, independent Algeria in the aftermath of a devastating 130 years of occupation and 8 year war. He died a poor man, with $25 (by today’s conversion rate) to his name. Although his legacy almost entirely attributes to the takeover of the military and consequently the ruin of Algerian society, he was “رئيس الشعب” or “the people’s president”. His charisma and genuine care for the Algerian people granted him the most legitimate power that an Algerian leader has acquired thus far (note: though it would be wrong to think it was only his good character that consolidated his power. To compliment this, he cracked down on opposition and eliminated political opponents in the name of his “just” cause.). His death represented the ultimate demise of the state; Boumediene himself became the institution of political validity, and only he was capable of successfully controlling the state’s new system. The government had become sustainable only by means of good intention and fairness, both qualities that characterized Boumediene as a Socialist leader, thus making the government vulnerable to corruption and a bloated bureaucracy. Algerian society’s unraveling begins after his death. By the 1980s, Algerians had become popularly disillusioned by the State’s inability to consistently provide the costly services it had devoted itself to under its socialist prerogative. More and more Muslims throughout the Middle East, upon realizing the ineffectuality of Arab socialism, turned back to what they knew could not fail them: Islam and its application in politics and society. Society generally reorganized itself; attendance of Friday prayers became a widespread practice, more women embraced the hijab, the teachings of the Quran, what is fardh (obligatory) and what is Sunnah (recommended) became commonly known. President Chadli Benjedid, Boumediene’s successor, sought to answer popular discontent not with their demands for Islamization, but with economic reform and opening of the market to consumer capitalism. This, like for many other post communist regimes, only meant radical privatization as the government granted much of its nationalized industry to the few existing political elite. The political elite had now become the economic elite, making up the 1% of the upper echelons of Algerian society. Their political power was enhanced and fully consolidated at this time now that they gained control of the country’s great oil, resource, and automobile and agricultural industry wealth. It was also at this time the Algerian population coined the term hoggra coming from hagger (bully), to express the population’s frustration with this exploitative development and the concentration of wealth in the hands of the new Oligarchs at the people’s expense. These same Oligarchs, Mohamed Mediene, responsible for the violent purges against Islamists of the 90s, Abdelkader Ait-Ouarabi known as General Hassan, Ali Haddad, the CEO of the construction company ETRHB, and the powerful head of the Algerian Business Leaders Forum (FCE), and few others were instrumental in defeating the apex of the Algerian Islamist cause during the “Black Years” from 1992-1999.

Towards the end of the 80s, sectors of the government sought to liberalize society along with the newly open economy. “Civil society”, or more accurately a perverted interpretation of civil society, began to emerge, led by notorious figures like Louisa Hanoune, Zohra Drif, and Khalida Toumi. Their mission was to eradicate the (minimal) Islamic influence in government and achieve total secularism with an emphasis on Feminine power. Similarly, Hocine ait Ahmed, former FLN leader, and Saïd Sadi introduced two new parties to Algerian politics: the Socialist Forces Front (FFS) and the Rally for Culture and Democracy, respectively, which both represented secularist, berberist, and “Algerianist” ideologies. Both Feminist and Kabylist movements share significant similarities in their organization; parallels can especially be drawn when analyzing their usefulness to the government when presented with the threat of growing Islamism. This liberalization, although originally seen as a threat to the sanctity of the FLN, smoothly adjusted itself along the FLN’s agenda against their common enemy, the evil and tyrannical barbarism of the growing Islamic movement.

Further reading:

The Islamic Movement in North Africa by François Burgat and William Dowell

Islam in History and Society by Malek Bennabi

Leadership and National Development in North Africa by Elbaki Hermassi

Modern Algeria: The Origins and Development of a Nation by John Ruedy

5 thoughts on “A Brief Historical Introduction of the Demise of Islamism in Algeria: Part One”

  1. Reblogged this on Muslim604's Blog and commented:
    Reblogging this… A very interesting and informative post about colonial and post-colonial Algeria. The author is a young Algerian-American Muslim woman and she’s worth following, Ma Sha Allah.

    Liked by 1 person

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