Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History
Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Egypt and Gaza: Cairo Talks, Sinai Fears
Egypt and Gaza: Cairo Talks, Sinai Fears
Briefing / Middle East & North Africa 13 minutes

Islamism in North Africa I: The Legacies of History

Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the centre of political debate in and about North Africa today.

I. Overview

This general backgrounder is the first of a series of ICG briefings addressing the range and diversity of Islamic activism in the North African states where this phenomenon has been able to develop most fully – Egypt, Algeria and Morocco. Each subsequent paper examines with respect to one of these three countries the outlook and strategies of the main Islamist[fn]In the usage adopted by ICG, 'Islamism' is Islam in political rather than religious mode: 'Islamist movements' are those with Islamic ideological references pursuing primarily political objectives, and 'Islamist' and 'Islamic political' are essentially synonymous. 'Islamic' is a more general expression: usually referring to Islam in religious rather than political mode but capable, depending on the context, of embracing both (e.g., references in the text to 'Islamic activism').Hide Footnote movements and organisations, their relations with the state and with each other, and especially the ways in which they have evolved in recent years. The analysis focuses on the relationship between Islamist activism and violence, especially but not only terrorism, and the problem of political reform in general and democratisation in particular.

Islamism, terrorism, reform: the triangle formed by these three concepts and the complex and changeable realities to which they refer is at the centre of political debate in and about North Africa today. The role of Egyptian elements in the leadership of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organisation is well-known, if not necessarily well understood. The involvement of Maghrebis in terrorist networks in Europe -- whether linked to al-Qaeda or not -- has recently been underlined by the suspected involvement of Moroccans in the 11 March 2004 attack in Madrid. Egypt itself has endured years of terrorist violence; few if any countries have suffered as much from terrorism as Algeria has over the last twelve years; and the bombings in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 suggest that Morocco is not immune.

At the same time, Egypt, Algeria and Morocco have all been sites of important attempts at pluralist political reform. Morocco's political system has exhibited a measure of party-political pluralism since the early years of independence. Egypt experienced political pluralism before 1952, and under both Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak a degree of pluralism has been allowed at some periods only to be stifled at others. In Algeria, formal party pluralism was introduced in 1989 and has survived although it has fallen far short of substantive democracy.

Yet, debate over these issues has become bogged down in a welter of fixed but erroneous ideas. One is the notion that posits a simple chain of cause and effect: absence of political reform generates Islamism which in turn generates terrorism. This simplistic analysis ignores the considerable diversity within contemporary Islamic activism, the greater part of which has been consistently non-violent. It also overlooks the fact that the rise of Islamist movements in North Africa has not been predicated on the absence of reform, but has generally occurred in conjunction with ambitious government reform projects. The expansion of Islamic political activism in Egypt occurred in the context of President Sadat's audacious economic and political opening -- infitah -- in the 1970s; the spectacular rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) in Algeria in 1989-1991 occurred in the context of the government's liberalisation of the political system and its pursuit of radical economic reform.

The problem of reform, therefore, has not been its absence so much as the particular character of the reform projects that have been adopted by North African governments, the political alliances and manoeuvres in which they have engaged in the process, and their complex, unforeseen and sometimes disastrous consequences.

The problem of Islamism has not been its doctrinal outlook -- this has been varied and variable -- so much as the difficulty the Egyptian, Algerian and Moroccan states have had in accommodating the more dynamic forms of non-violent activism and, in particular, their inability to integrate a major Islamic movement into the formal political system. Egypt has refused to legalise the Muslim Brothers. Algeria, having legalised the FIS and allowed it to contest and win two elections, then decided it could not cope with the consequences and took the fateful decision to dissolve the party. Morocco has consistently refused to legalise the "Justice and Charity" movement led by Sheikh Abdesselam Yacine. Whatever justifications have been advanced for these decisions, it is likely that a major element of the rationale has been the essentially pragmatic concern that their special resonance and dynamism rendered these movements so indigestible that their legalisation threatened to destabilise the political system.

This consideration should not be dismissed. While arguments about stability can be overstated and abused, how democratic reform in North Africa can be achieved without destabilising the region's political systems is a fundamental and entirely valid question which has received far too little attention. A striking feature of the debates in the West and the region alike has been the prevalence of ideological as opposed to political arguments. The various actors have been preoccupied with questions of legitimacy -- who are the real democrats? who has the right to participate in the political game? -- rather than policy -- how should the form of government be changed? what specific reforms are desirable and feasible?

A new approach is required in both Western and North African discussions of political reform and the place and potential role of Islamist movements, not least because of the following changes in the outlook and behaviour of Islamic political activists in the region over the last decade.

Clarification of the distinction between religious and political activism. Where in the past many Islamic movements tended to combine and confuse religious and political objectives, some now explicitly limit their objectives and activities to the religious sphere, while others define themselves as political movements or parties with political, not religious, objectives. Accommodating Islamic political movements within the formal political systems of North African states is still controversial but these movements are not the source of the terrorism problem. One corollary is that the distinction between moderate and radical Islamic activism is of limited analytical value, and the tendency to identify religious activism with moderation and political activism with radicalism is misconceived. The violent forms of Islamic activism are the product of a radicalisation of the most conservative trend in religious activism. Though their objectives may be 'political' in the broadest sense to the extent that that they aim at overthrowing, installing or disrupting governments, they do not seek to win elections or argue for government policy change: their motivations remain essentially religious. Tendencies that dismiss, ignore or simply have no faith in political action are, when stirred up, most likely to resort to violence because they have no other option.

Adaptation of Islamic political movements to democratic principles and the national idea. Islamic political movements in North Africa no longer condemn democracy as un-Islamic or counterpose the idea of an Islamic state to the states which actually exist. In fact, they explicitly reject theocratic ideas and proclaim acceptance of democratic and pluralist principles and respect for the rules of the game as defined by existing constitutions. Their opposition to regimes has accordingly changed, focussing on the demand for justice and the need to apply the constitution properly (or, at most, to revise it), rather than replace it wholesale. At the same time, they no longer counterpose the supra-national Islamic community (umma) to the nation-state, but accept the latter both as legitimate and the main framework of their activity. These changes are reflected in their attitude to law. While continuing to demand the application of Islamic law (Shari'a), they acknowledge the need for it to take account of contemporary social realities and, consequently, for interpretative reasoning (ijtihad) and deliberative processes to play their part in its elaboration. It is becoming inappropriate to characterise these movements as fundamentalist or even as wholly conservative. They defend conservative positions on certain questions but a striking feature is their revival, after a long eclipse, of the ideas of the Islamic modernism movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This is important because the central features of the original Islamic modernist current were precisely its predominantly positive orientation to elements of Western scientific and political thought, its concern to adapt Islamic legal traditions to contemporary social and political conditions and its close relationship to the nationalist movements. The weakening of modernist nationalism in North Africa was a major factor in the eclipse of Islamic modernism and the rise of conservative and anti-Western Islamic activism. For the recent recovery of modernist ideas within Islamic political movements to bear fruit requires a broader recovery of the national idea in North African political life.

Differentiation within Islamic religious movements between violent and non-violent tendencies. Most Islamic religious activism is non-violent and no threat to the state, public order or individual human rights. But the problem of violence is nonetheless rooted in the outlook and impulses of certain, quite specific, Islamic religious movements. The two tendencies which matter in this context are the Salafiyya movement, which has become broadly (although not wholly) identified with the Wahhabi tradition in Saudi Arabia, and the distinct current of activism inspired by the Egyptian Islamic thinker, Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966).

The Salafiyya movement today is fundamentalist and very conservative. It is also disinclined to acknowledge or attach value to national identities and emphasises instead the supra-national Islamic identity and community. For the mainstream of the movement, dominated by religious scholars --'ulama -- and so sometimes called the Salafiyya 'ilmiyya (the "scholarly" or "scientific" Salafiyya), the impulse to violence is rooted in its ambition to dictate, control and correct individual behaviour, and takes the form of occasional punitive actions against individuals or groups regarded as "bad Muslims". This form of violence is notably found in Algeria and Morocco, especially in the shanty-towns and run-down housing estates on the edges of big cities; however deplorable, it poses little threat to North African governments or Western interests.

Recourse to violence as a primary strategy is the defining characteristic of a particular wing of the Salafiyya movement known as the Salafiyya jihadiyya (the "fighting" or "warrior" Salafiyya).[fn]Jihadi (or in its feminine form, jihadiyya) is the adjective derived from jihad, which literally means effort or struggle. Many Islamic thinkers distinguish "the greater jihad", the spiritual effort of the believer seeking salvation, from "the lesser jihad", which refers to the armed defence of the umma (the community of believers) against outside threats. It can, according to some thinkers but not all, include offensive military action to expand dar al-Islam (the Islamic world). The adjective jihadi(yya) is used in this report to refer exclusively to groups and individuals who resort to armed actions.Hide Footnote  It originated in the war against the Soviet-backed regime in Afghanistan and took root across North Africa as Arab veterans of that conflict returned home. Extremely conservative if not reactionary, the Salafiyya jihadiyya typically attacks Western targets in a campaign rationalised in traditional doctrinal terms as a conventional jihad in defence of the Islamic world against Western aggression. In contrast, violent movements that have targeted North African states have mostly been oriented by the not at all traditional doctrines of Sayyid Qutb. The main violent movements in Egypt have all been Qutbist; while some in Algeria have described themselves as Salafi, they, too, have been heavily influenced by Qutb's ideas.

Defeat of Qutbist movements in Egypt and the reorientation of jihadi energies to the international plane. The main violent movements in Egypt, Tanzim al-Jihad (the Jihad Organisation) and Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya (the Islamic Group) have been defeated but they have reacted in different ways. The Jama'a has engaged in ideological revision and its leaders have effectively repudiated their earlier outlook. The Jihad Organisation, on the other hand, has invested its energies in the international jihad spearheaded by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda, in which it is now fully incorporated. This reorientation of Egyptian jihadi energies to the international plane, which began in the 1980s and was consummated in 1998, means that the activists involved have abandoned the earlier Qutbist perspective of overthrowing the Egyptian state, but not totally and perhaps only temporarily.[fn]A fifth trend, which falls outside the scope of this series of briefings, is linked to other changes taking place. This is the increasing importance of elements drawn from the North African diaspora in international jihadi activism. A large number of Muslims arrested across Europe and in North America on terrorism charges since 11 September 2001 have been of North African, and especially Maghrebi, origin. In many if not most cases, they have been first or even second generation immigrants, and thus products of the North African diaspora rather than firmly rooted in their (or their parents') countries of origin. Detached from their original national backgrounds, they have generally been influenced by the trans-national forms of Islamic activism, especially the Salafiyya movement, which give them a stable, if rather abstract, Islamic identity, as members of the international umma, wherever they find themselves. As such, their outlook is a direct product of the processes of globalisation, and includes a strong disposition to identify with embattled Muslims elsewhere. With the proliferation of theatres of conflict involving Muslim populations (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Iraq and, of course, Palestine), the militantly activist minority within the North African diaspora is increasingly inclined to be drawn into the form of international Islamic activism developed by al-Qaeda, irrespective of developments in their countries of origin.Hide Footnote

These developments have important policy implications:

  • The adaptation of Islamic political movements to democratic principles and the national idea means that North African governments can no longer seriously invoke previous anti-democratic or anti-national ideologies as sufficient justification for continuing to refuse these movements democratic rights, let alone for not implementing broader democratic reforms. While opponents will naturally continue to harbour suspicion of their motives and sincerity, Islamic political movements should be judged by their behaviour, not by the intentions their adversaries attribute to them.
  • Secular or other self-consciously modernist forces and organisations which have traditionally been extremely hostile to Islamist movements can no longer invoke the allegedly obscurantist, medieval or intolerant outlook of those movements as grounds for their own intolerant refusal to engage in serious political argument with them. The fact that Islamic political movements are displaying a new flexibility and open-mindedness in their approach to the question of law means that it should be possible for all tendencies in North African politics to begin to engage in much-needed debate on the steps required for the development of law-bound government.
  • More generally, the debate over democratic reform in North Africa can and must now get over the stumbling block of political Islam and focus instead on the structural obstacles to democratic development within North African political systems, such as the absence of checks on executive power, the role of the military, the weakness of representative assemblies and the dependent nature of the judiciary.
  • This discussion should also focus critically on the extent to which the external parameters of policy making in North African states constrain democracy. The ways in which globalisation has eroded national sovereignty, so that crucial policy areas are no longer the subject of domestic political decisions, has been a much greater constraint on democratic reform than is generally recognised. The economic policy prescriptions of Western governments and international financial institutions have tended to pre-empt and preclude domestic political debate over economic and social policy. This has encouraged domestic political controversy to focus on the far more septic issues of identity and legitimacy, and it is in part the politicisation of these issues that explains the rise of radical Islamism in the region and the degree to which exclusive, intolerant and illiberal attitudes have poisoned North African political life.
  • Western policy makers also need to recognise that other policy choices towards the Middle East and North Africa have contributed to the rise of anti-Western and terrorist trends of Islamist activism. They must face the fact that the Palestinian question has been a major stimulus for the emergence of violent tendencies, especially within Egyptian Islamism,[fn]The Palestinian question heads the list of issues invoked by the Egyptian Islamist Ayman Al-Zawahiri in his 1996 treatise Shifa' Sudur al-Mu'minin (The Cure for Believers' Hearts). Al-Zawahiri's thinking has arguably determined the outlook of al-Qaeda to a large degree; see Maha Azzam, "Al-Qa'eda: The Misunderstood Wahhabi Connection and the Ideology of Violence", London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Middle East Program Briefing No. 1, February 2003.Hide Footnote  and acknowledge a major share of responsibility for the rise of a jihadi wing to the Salafiyya movement, which they actively sponsored in Afghanistan from 1979 onwards.
  • Western policy makers also need to reconsider their attitude toward nationalism in North Africa. The conventional attitude has been hostile, for two main reasons: first, because nationalism has been identified with authoritarian rule and thus seen as an obstacle to democratisation and, secondly, because it has been identified with economic policies and practices considered inimical to free trade. While there is some truth to both perceptions, Western views have overlooked other fundamental points: first, the historical role of nationalism in generally moderating Islamist ideas and activism; secondly, the need of North African regimes for nationalist legitimacy if they are to withstand, let alone domesticate, Islamist oppositions; thirdly, the need to sustain the national idea and national identities as the common ground on which religious and political pluralism can develop in a climate of tolerance.

Cairo/Brussels, 20 April 2004

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