ALGERIA: The Islamic Movement, Moderates versus Hard-Liners











Banque Photos


Mzab, Algeria



Ibrahim Rugova

Ibrahim Rugova




Mosquée sauvage Although many Algerian Islamic militants are convinced that the Islamic movement will take off in North Africa from Algeria, and that Morocco and Tunisia will follow suit later, these same militants admit that there is no nationally organised “Algerian Islamic movement” with independent financial resources and publications. What does exist, they claim, is forceful “associative Islamic action” (amal islami al jemai). But it is still a far cry from constituting an alternative to the present regime, and it had nothing to do with the recent riots.

Led by such personalities as Sheikh Sahnoun, a former member of the Algerian association of ulemas (preachers), or Dr Abbasi Madani, who received a doctorate in sociology from Britain, or Sheikh Mahfoud, a charismatic young religious leader who lives in Blida, the mainstream Islamic trend is moderate and traditional and has so far opposed the use of violence. Called the Moslem Brothers by their Algerian opponents they share some of the ideology of the movement elsewhere in the Arab World, although they reject their methods and their name.

“What’s the use of having a big organisation like a Moslem United Nations with our brothers in the Middle East for very few practical results”, says one of the Algerian militants. As a whole the Algerian fundamentalists despise the Cairo-based organisation of the Moslem Brothers, which they consider as “reactionary, linked to the CIA and too much involved in internecine quarrels”.

The principles of the Muslim Brothers

marché GhardaiaBut as one leading militant told us, “We do accept the principles of the Moslem Brothers. They were the first in modern times to say that Islamic Law could be enforced. But we do not think that we should organise ourselves like a political party to take over the power”.

All these militants underline the peculiar character of Algeria. Unlike Syria it has no Alawi minority. Unlike Egypt it has no Coptic minority. But after more than one hundred years of colonial French rule it has been to a great extent de-Islamised. Fifteen years of Ben Bella and Boumediene’s socialist regime did not improve the situation. “We think that if free democratic elections were organised to ask the people if they want an Islamic regime, there would not be a majority of “yes” votes”, a leading member of the group frankly admits. “If we were to prohibit alcohol, people would simply flock to neighbouring Tunisia”.

priere du vendrediQuite open about the weakness of the Islamic movement in Algeria, these militants admit that their struggle will be a long one. Many Algerians are “white-washed Moslems”, adhering only nominally to the faith, and the Islamic movement is waging an unequal struggle against a government which controls all the media.

“The masses are ignorant”, says an Islamic militant living in France, “and if we criticise the government they believe that we are merely trying to get top positions. As far as the middle class is concerned, they are against the government, but they don’t know how to respond to us. They want to know if we are going to execute them and what we shall do with their daughters”!

“We must be realistic”, a leading Islamic militant told us in Algiers. “We cannot foresee an Islamic state tomorrow. We must first train people who can build the framework for action and create a nation of true believers”. Most militants agree that the Islamic movement is badly in need of leaders and of guidelines.

Since Chadli Bendjedid took over in 1979, the Islamic movement has been divided over its attitude towards the government. For years most members of the “moderate” group were against the use of violence to change the regime. “In Algeria we have not got the right to proclaim the jihad”, one moderate says, “because our opponents are no more than misled Moslems. The winner cannot build on the blood of the looser”. They have argued that Chadli Bendjedid is a “fair and pious man” who has not been free to act; that the government was “misled from within by Marxist agents” and that “honest ministers were prevented from doing anything by middle rank civil servants who were implementing their own policy”.

The use of violence

While objecting to the use of violence for ideological reasons, militants of the moderate wing have other tactical arguments. “We are against the use of violence because we cannot afford it. What is the use of killing a chief of state who is against Islam it it is not one of us who takes over? That is the most crucial moment, when we would have to be entirely united. If we are not, and if we lack popular support, to act in such a way would be pure adventurism”.

While some young militants have repeatedly claimed that “it is easier to blow a truck loeaded with TNT in Algiers than in Baalbek”, the moderate leadership has more or less succeeded so far in convincing these “exalted young people” not to engage in such violent action. A notable exception was Bouyali, a former captain in the Algerian FLN during the war of independence. Objecting to the moderates’ eternal wait-and-see attitude, he launched a small guerrilla operation with a handful of partisans, harassing and killing gendarmes. Bouyali was finally caught and subsequently killed in January 1987.

During the recent riots (October 1988) the army opened fire on several thousand demonstrators parading in Algiers with Islamic slogans. Moderate Islamic militants in Paris dismissed this demonstration as an “irresponsible” act by Ali BelHadj, a “young and vain imam who aspires to national leadership”. They claim that after his call some 100.000 people were getting ready to demonstrate, but that Sheikh Sahnoun pleaded with the people not to demonstrate and managed to avoid an even bloodier massacre. Only a few thousand people followed Ali BelHadj’s call, and twenty of them were killed.

“We did not climb on the bandwagon of the riots”, declares a leading Algerian islamic militant in Paris, known for his moderate attitude. “On one hand, we cannot agree with a secular movement  which is trying to bring pressure to bear on the government to get more democracy: we are not for democracy, we are for the government of God. The second reason is that we are not organised: one cannot stop a tank with a pilgrim’s woodstick. But at least these people did not die for nothing. Now it will be difficult for anybody to say “the gocvernment are our brothers”. Nothing will ever be the same. “The traditional moderation of the Algerian islamic movement may now start to harden with the spilling of blood.

(The Middle East magazine, January 1989)

























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Harry Wu

Harry Wu


French NCO

French Woman NCO










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