Islamism and the Recolonization of Algeria
Lazreg, Marnia, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
In November 1988, during a visit to Sidi Abderrahmane's shrine, a popular sufi and guardian of the old city of Algiers, I noticed two apparently "mad" people (or as they are called in colloquial Arabic madroubin, meaning "stricken," a young woman dressed in a hijab and a man in his late thirties, dressed in Western clothes. They were unrelated but their presence in the small terrace overlooking the Mediterranean, and their delirium brought them close to each other. She spoke to herself about God and His wrath, he spoke to the few visitors about injustices perpetrated by an unspecified "them," of history that will be remade. Addressing me, he also asked a rhetorical question about the meaning of women's "oppression" (or hogra) without seeming to see the young woman walking to and fro, absorbed in her soliloquy. In many ways he was a throwback to the North African tradition of the illuminated man who speaks his mind about the powers that be in a more or less metaphorical fashion. She was brought to the saint's mausoleum to regain her sanity and stop mumbling about the divine. In June 1991, as I was waiting for the bus at a stop on the heights of Algiers, in Hydra square, a middle-aged woman wearing a hijab stood next to me. She appeared to speak to herself, in a low voice, unintelligible words interspersed with a recitation of the shahada. I had noticed in the cab that had taken me to Hydra that the driver played a cassette of an imam who broke into loud sobs in the middle of his khutba, moved by his own words.
I began to ponder the meaning of these unrelated episodes in the context of the emergence of the Islamist opposition and the rise of a new religiosity. Radio and television were replete with religious news and messages. The loudspeakers in every neighborhood that, as is customary, announced the time for the regular five prayers seemed to blast warnings of an impending doom rather than reminders of one's duty toward God. I wrote in my diary, "Algeria has become saturated with religious symbols." I meant to remind myself of the official as well as the individual references to God, the sudden concern among friends and acquaintances for the validity of their daily activities measured against this or that Tradition. Algerians have been Muslims since the seventh century - whence comes, then, this ostentatious display of religiosity and the delirium it seemed to provoke? Algerians have traditionally considered their attitude toward religion a private matter that could not be legislated by any group or man. Now it is not only a public matter, but judging by the violence that has erupted since 1992, it is coercive. The political discourse has turned into a religious discourse, and personal expression can only occur in the delirium mode.
I would like to take the case of the nameless young woman at Sidi Abderrhamane as a metaphor for the Algerian crisis since 1992. Algeria can only be apprehended as a society in a state of delirium politically and culturally. The nature of the violence whereby children, women and men have been hacked by power saws, swords, axes, and double-edged knives has a haunting, nightmarish, delirious quality to it. Social delirium or the loss of control over the ability to reason accompanied by discursive excesses marked by an obsession with selective historical experiences such as colonialism, results in actions that are meant to redress mythical rather than real grievances. For example, civilians are massacred today for not conforming to the myth of the ideal Muslim or for being part of a society that is deemed un-Islamic, thrown into a state of jahiliya (or ignorance), an equally mythical concept, by a government deemed heretic.
Colonialism looms large in the Islamist discourse of deconstruction of Algeria's culture and politics. It too has acquired mythical proportions referring to all that does not conform to a religion-based model of behavior. It is a constructed standard against which to measure happiness, justice and change. Colonialism has become an ideological concept that helps to remake Algeria's historical map. On the one hand, the Front of Islamic Salvation (or FIS) intended to present itself as endowed with the mission of relinking the society with its pre-colonial past, thus forging an historical continuity that somehow bypasses the colonial era. This meant cleansing society of the colonial legacy as exemplified by the continued use of the French language, a constitution defined as "secular," unveiled women, co-education etc. On the other hand, the FIS attempted to reshape people's lives by insisting, just as the French did, on the superiority of its vision of culture, society and politics. The "civilizing mission" advocated by the colonists in the Nineteenth Century has been succeeded by what might be termed the "re-civilizing" mission of the FIS. The Islamists' aim is not to "re-Islamize" people as is often said.(1) Rather, it recolonizes private and public spaces by infusing them with new meanings and norms derived from ideational and behavioral sources that sound familiar to individuals because they are expressed in the Arabic language and refer to a monolithic "Islam," but in effect are alien to the historical and daily experiences of individual Algerians. In the end, Islam as understood by Algerians, prior to the emergence of the Islamist movement, is transformed. This is a complex and often ambiguous task that plays itself out on several registers, emotional, cultural, social, and political. It capitalizes on Algerians' attachment to their religion, their thirst for dignity, and their desire for equality. I am referring to this process as one of recolonization because of its targeting of Algerians' cultural space in a manner similar to the French who, in the Nineteenth Century, attempted to displace local norms and values to suit their political purposes. Just as the French hoped to make a tabula rasa of Algerians' culture, Islamists intend to impose new models of behavior and attitudinal changes to replace existing ones deemed un-Islamic because they do not conform to Islamists' political conception of religiosity. This article examines the process through which Islamism in Algeria has "recolonized" individuals' "life world."(2) The social changes that have taken place in Algeria since its independence as represented by the spread of education, a slow but real transformation of the structure of the family, an evolution of women's consciousness of their rights, and social pressure for political democratic reform have been perceived by the Islamist movement as challenges that needed to be controlled. I will argue that the Islamist movement means to redirect the sociopolitical evolution of Algeria through cultural recolonization. In so doing, Islamism has in effect imposed on Algerians a new belief system and created a new counter-culture that thrives on nihilism, a blatant disregard for human life that cannot advance any political cause as is expressed in the Armed Islamic Groups's attacks on defenseless and innocent civilians, admittedly to emphasize the government's inability to protect its citizens.
The use of colonial methods of social control is not the monopoly of the Islamist movement. The state too has adopted colonial strategies especially in its dealings with religion which it attempted to place under political control. However, the Islamist movement has provided a total ideology using colonial strategies of acculturation for political purposes, just as the French did throughout the colonial era. This essay does not delve into …
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Publication information: Article title: Islamism and the Recolonization of Algeria. Contributors: Lazreg, Marnia - Author. Journal title: Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ). Volume: 20. Issue: 2 Publication date: Spring 1998. Page number: 43+. © 1998 Association of Arab-American University Graduates and Institute of Arab Studies. COPYRIGHT 1998 Gale Group.
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