Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Are Islamists or the Army the Greatest Threat to Algerian Democracy? Three Views: Both Sides Lose without Quick Reconciliation

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Are Islamists or the Army the Greatest Threat to Algerian Democracy? Three Views: Both Sides Lose without Quick Reconciliation

Article excerpt

Are Islamists or the Army the Greatest Threat to Algerian Democracy? Three Views: Both Sides Lose Without Quick Reconciliation

The landslide election victory of the fundamentalist FIS, and the subsequent cancellation of free elections by the military, present Algerian democrats with a classic avoid-avoid conflict situation. Neither outcome is desirable. How this conflict is resolved will have a far-reaching impact on the entire Islamic world, including the newly independent former Soviet republics, as well as on Muslim relations with the West.

Militant Islamic parties have little tolerance for views that differ from their own.

FIS is part of the international phenomenon popularly known as Islamic fundamentalism. To understand FIS, it is important to understand this phenomenon. It is fundamentalist in the sense that it resorts to a literal interpretation of the Qur'an, and emphasizes adherence to a strict behavioral code rather than to the social and moral essence of Islamic teachings. More significant, however, is the fact that this movement taps the baser instincts and authoritarian tendencies in Muslim society which, in a Western context, would be identified with fascism. It is not surprising, therefore, that the militant Islamic parties all over the Muslim world stress the punitive aspects of the Islamic code and have little tolerance for views that differ from their own.

The popularity of this movement in some countries can be seen as a Muslim response to a multitude of frustrations common to the Third World. These include the loss of identity due to centuries of Western domination, corruption of the ruling elites, gross social inequities, deepening economic crisis and spiraling unemployment rates. In the era of the decline of communism and anti-imperialist nationalism, the Islamic militant movement presents "the Islamic system" as an answer to these problems and to Western unfairness and callousness toward the Arab and Muslim worlds, as evidenced by pro-Israeli policies and the needless decimation of Iraq.

It should not be forgotten that resort to militant Islamic appeals also serves as a convenient route to power. Slogans of Islamic revolution often have little to do with belief in Islamic principles. In a sense, the militant Islamic movement represents a struggle by some marginalized groups to grab power from the established--often Westernized--ruling groups by exploiting religion. That is why even the fundamentalist and conservative Saudi Arabian government is threatened by the militants.

Judging from the practice of the "Islamic" regimes in Iran and Sudan, the theoretical underpinnings of the militant "Islamic" movement in general, and the pronouncements of the FIS itself, an FIS government in Algeria could have been expected to attempt to impose a totalitarian system, kill all future prospects for democracy, suppress all expressions of modern rationality and secular thought, and make the life of women a living hell.

Commentators in the American press, like Youssef Ibrahim of The New York Times or Jonathan Randal of The Washington Post, simply delude themselves by believing that Algerian fundamentalism will somehow be different from the Iranian version. There is no difference between Tweedledee and Tweedledum; and the leopard cannot change its spots. …

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