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. …