The Manifestations of Islam in a Post-Bouteflika Algeria is an Opportunity to Present the Best Manifestations of Christianity
By Rabih Hasbany
By April 2, the political scene had changed in Algeria. After seven rounds of mass demonstrations, Algeria’s President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has officially resigned. As Algeria’s post-Bouteflika era unfolds, the country’s military-backed leaders are likely to continue to shape the direction of the nation’s politics. However, the country’s various Islamist communities continue to be an important component of the Algerian social fabric and have the opportunity to play an important role in the political life of the country. The three main Islamist actors in Algeria consist of radical Islamism, moderate Islamist parties, and the Islamic Dawa party.
In the 1990s, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) abused the country’s 1989 democratic opening to call for the establishment of an Islamic state; jihadi violence broke out after the interruption of the electoral process in 1991 by the army, and the country entered into a decade of civil war. During the civil conflict, the heavy-handed repression of the security forces contributed greatly to the radicalization of thousands, especially among the youth.
However, the authorities sought to fight jihadism not only by arms but also by adopting more conciliatory methods, including cease-fire treaties, reconciliation processes as well as demobilization and rehabilitation programs. Today, Algeria, with its combination of various approaches, provides a successful example of how to neutralize jihadism and, now, radical Islamism no longer represents a desirable pathway for most Algerians. As one protester puts it, “we are vaccinated against the FIS and its excesses.”
Moderate Islamist parties will likely continue to play a role in the transitional period, but the public will perceive them as tools of the undesired regime. During the recent protests, for instance, Abdallah Djaballah, the leader of the Movement for National Reform and now also head of the Justice and Development Front (FJD), was driven away by demonstrators. Similarly, Abderrezak Makri, the leader of Algeria’s major Islamist party, the Movement for Society and Peace (MSP), was marginalized by the public. The rejection of these two prominent figures of moderate Islam reflects the lack of popularity of these Islamist parties.
Algerian authorities have succeeded in including moderate Islam in politics. The MSP succeeded in making its way to the parliament and even to the government. While it remains part of the opposition, the MSP is neither hard-line nor confrontational. In fact, its officials have become so indulged in the privileges of power that it might be difficult for them to give up their interests. Indeed, the MSP has become so tied to the regime that if it is to have any considerable role in Algeria’s political life after Bouteflika it must somehow quickly regain its credibility.
While moderate Islamist politicians have been complicit in the ill practices of the regime, other more grassroots manifestations of political Islam such as Dawa Salafiya are making their way in the society. Dawa Salafiya is sometimes identified as a form of “quietist Salafism,” as the movement does not engage in explicit political action. But many Dawa members have strong political views and comment prolifically on political events. In his paper, The Politics of “Quietist” Salafism, scholar Jacob Olidort says, “The silence of the quietists is the space in which one hears the political voice of Salafi activists. . . . Their political actions are quiet, but their political voice is loud.”
The Dawa is now is now the mainstream Islamist social movement in Algeria, and its impact is growing. While this Islamist group recognizes that founding an Islamic caliphate in Algeria is going too far, they are still willing to pursue an Islamization agenda that seeks to reshape socio-religious practice at the foundation of everyday life that has highly political implications.
Theological Reflections and Missiological Implications
In summary, the heart of political Islam is still beating in Algeria and will remain a significant element of the country’s public life. Islam will appear in different manifestation just like any other religion. The problem is not with religion but in its manifestations that reflect human greed and the vying for power and control. And, rather than being a catalyst for positive transformation in societies and communities, religion can become a tool to achieve political and economic privileges. As my colleague, Martin Accad, says in the IMES Regional Brief from May 2019 about the current transformations in Iraq’s religious demographics:
“Rather than allowing faith values to inspire better socio-economic practice and to promote diversity and pluralistic coexistence, religious actors are prone to use their religious clout to increase their control and influence over other religious groups.”
Followers of Christ in Algeria, as elsewhere, need to be a catalyst for positive transformation in their communities and represent the best manifestation of Christianity. They have the opportunity to be an example of love and unity in the midst of a religio-cultural diversity that can easily lead to divisions in society. By doing so, the followers of Christ would reflect the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor, displaying the essence of Christ and Christ-like communities. They can work to manifest kingdom ethics and values that transcend personal interests to achieve the common good of societies. Rather than seeking the benefit of their own communities as a minority, to the neglect of others or the wider society, they can and should partner with Islamist groups in their communities for pursuit of the common good.