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The Islamisation of modernity.

THE ISLAMIC OPPOSITION in the Maghreb has been put on the defensive. Robbed of its election victory in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front has been banned and suppressed. In Tunisia, Enahdha (Renaissance) has been weakened by the arrest, trial and imprisonment of hundreds of its members. In Libya and Morocco the harrassment of political Islamic groups continues unabated.

But in spite of recent setbacks, political Islam remains by far the most potent opposition force in the region. Buoyed by tremendous faith, the fundamentalists themselves show little sign of despondency. The religious dimension of their political discourse provides inbuilt defenses. They argue that the Prophet Mohammed too experienced setbacks in his struggle to establish an Islamic state and that the Koran promises inevitable victory to the believers over the faithless and the hyprocrites.

In the crowded mosques of the Maghreb, the faithful are told that Islam is the future promise for the world: atheist Communism has fallen (thanks partly to the mujahedin of Afghanistan) in ignominious defeat; capitalism, corrupted by greed and egoism, is on the verge of auto-destruction; Islam is waiting in the wings as the coming power.

At home, the militants now know that they can win power at the polling booths. By stepping in with the army and snatching election victory from the FIS, the Algerian regime underlined what believers throughout the Maghreb already suspected: that only force and repression stand between them and the creation of a "true" Islamic state.

Ever since the first arrival of Muslim armies in the Maghreb, Islam has been the motor of political renewal, the dynamic behind the rise and fall of governments. One after another Muslim dynasties came to power by rallying the strongest tribes around the idea of a return to the purity of the original message of the Koran. Each new aspirant to, power overthrew its predecessor on the promise of religious renewal and the claim that the existing order, corrupted by the luxury which power bestows, had deviated from the true path of God.

By the middle of the 20th century, it was thought that colonialism and modernisation had profoundly changed the religious dynamics of Maghrebi politics. It was argued that political and economic success now depended on adopting Western political values and on sharing the world view of the conquerer as well as his technology. The religious spirit, opposed to the scientific, would gradually be discarded as the colonies progressed towards independence and technological proficiency.

This has not happened. Indeed, we are now witnessing what some describe as the Islamisation of modernity in the Maghreb. Over their loudspeakers, the muezzin call worshippers to prayer in ever greater numbers. Bookshops and street vendors hawk the latest Islamic tracts and Islamic fashion magazine. Outside mosques and in street markets bearded men in Islamic dress sell the latest Islamic paraphenalia from incense to prayer stickers and Islamic sex manuals. Tape recordings of Koran readings and sermons by popular Islamic leaders sing out from Taiwanese tape decks behind market stalls.

Koranic soap operas made in Saudi Arabia are the TV vogue. Strangers discuss faith and the details of Islamic ritual in taxis and cares. Religion and God colour the most mundane of conversations. On the political level, the principle contest is, increasingly, the age-old struggle between regime and opposition for the mantle of religious legitimacy.

So far from leading to a secularisation of society, it appears that modernisation has actually encouraged religious revival. Political Islam has been most pronounced in Algeria, the Maghreb country most profoundly colonised and modernised. The leaders of the new Islamic movement are graduates of the modern technical colleges rather than of traditional religious schools. In rural areas where modernisation has not upset the old social relationships and practices, political Islam has made little progress among the faithful. It is above all a movement associated with the big modern cities, with unemployment and alienation products of urbanisation and industrialisation.

There is some truth in the argument that modernity has thrown the Maghreb's traditional system of values, its social fabric and its very identity into a sea of chaos and that Islam has provided people with an anchor in the turmoil.

The growth of political Islam in the Maghreb has been aided and influenced by developments and movements in other parts of the Muslim world - such as Egyptian and Pakistani political theories, the Iranian revolution and the Afghan civil war.

But the traffic of ideas and influence has been two-way, as it always was between the East and the West. For believers, the Maghreb is a part of the umma, the Muslim nation, which in theory cuts across modern nationalisms, as well as traditional linguistic and ethnic boundaries, and requires brotherhood of all Muslims. Though the practice has always fallen short of the ideal, the concept of the umma has been a great source of resilience and support for political Islam - all the more so in a world of telephones, computer publishing, fax machines and jet travel.

By the 1980s, political Islam was firmly entrenched in the Maghreb and had spawned numerous opposition groups. But it was allowed no formal political outlet by regimes claiming religious legitimacy for their monopolies of power.

Then in Algeria came the riots of October 1988 - a rebellion of a disenchanted and disenfranchised population against the social misery and ideological straightjacket which almost three decades of dictatorship has created. The old guard leadership reacted in the only way it knew how. Scores of protesters were killed and thousands were arrested. But the outcry at home and abroad persuaded President Chadli Benjedid to back down, forge an alliance with the younger liberals in the ruling party (the FLN), and introduce sweeping political and economic reforms.

Political parties were formed and three main trends entered the democratic process: the FLN which found it hard to shake off its old dictatorial image; the secular opposition promising Western style social democracy; and the FIS, a front grouping various hitherto illegal Islamic organisations, promising an Islamic rebirth. The real arbiters of power, a clique of army generals fearful of losing their privileges waited in the background.

After an important victory for the FIS in local elections in 1990, the general elections a year later were fought against a background of deepening economic crisis, political manipulation, and a profound distrust of the West aggravated by the Gulf War. All these factors favoured the FIS.

Years of socialist economic policies combined with rampant corruption had devastated a potentially rich economy. Between 1970 and 1980 Algeria's oil revenues had increased from $272m to $10.5bn a year.

There was little to show for it. Unemployment has reached 75% among under 30-year olds. There was a desperate housing shortage. The economy was growing, but not as fast as the population. Interest payments on a debt to the West of $25bn ate up 70% of oil export earnings. The government was struggling with market economic reforms, impossible to implement without further shocks to a socialist welfare system which had led Algerians to believe that jobs and housing were part of their birthright.

While the FLN showed that it was not up to solving such problems and the democratic secularists acknowledged the problems and proposed complex long-term solutions which few could understand, the FIS promised an instant panacea for everything in the form of an Islamic state. Benefitting from their control of most of the country's mosques, at which the faithful met daily for prayers and political enlightenment, the FIS accused the FLN of corruption and the secular opposition of trying to import an alien, Western ideology - namely, democracy.

When it came to the vote in December 1991 - after violent confrontations in which the FIS' leaders were arrested and its campaign headquarters closed - the FIS won a significant victory. The generals acted quickly. In a barely concealed coup d'etat they cancelled the election result, suspended the democractic process indefinitely, outlawed the FIS, ditched the president and formed an emergency ruling council, bringing home from exile a former hero of the war of independence, Mohammed Boudiaf, to head it.

Many Algerians considered that the FIS had brought repression upon itself by its repeated promises to abolish democracy once it won power. The democrats were put in a difficult position, at once relieved to have avoided an Islamic government and alarmed by the regime's high-handed subversion of the democratic process.

But in the following months the ruling council lost what little credibility it had when Boudiaf was assassinated in June 1992 under dubious circumstances just as he was beginning to initiate a dialogue with the FIS. Few in Algeria believe that the regime itself was not behind the killing.

Since the botched election, Algeria has been in a state of low intensity civil war between the FIS, now underground and armed, and the security forces. Scores have been killed on both sides. But in spite of strict emergency measures, the authorities have been unable to wipe out the Islamic opposition.

The strength of the fundamentalist appeal in Algeria owes much to the fact that between them French authoritarian Arabo-Islamic socialism undermined the traditional Islamic structures of the country - in particular the sufi orders - and distorted the threads of continuity linking Islam today with its past. Not only can the FIS claim to be both modern, forward looking and revolutionary, but it can also promise a return to a lost Islamic utopia.

In Morocco, where the colonial impact was less profound, continuity with the past is not merely a fact of life, but a tool of the monarchy. King Hassan II, who is described in the constitution as descendant of the Prophet, prince of the faithful and guarantor of the perpetuity and continuity of the state, is the heir to a three-century old dynasty which claims legitimacy on the basis of mystical authority.

The king appoints all the religious officials. Prayers are said for him and his family every Friday in the mosques (which are strictly controlled by the kings minister of the interior). The sufi brotherhoods, which are a conduit for much popular religious fervour, pay tacit allegiance to the monarch.

In much of the country the king's role as prince of the faithful is accepted without cynicism. He possesses a genuine mystical hold over his kingdom, commanding both respect and awe. He also possesses the ideological and physical means to eliminate those who challenge him on the religious terrain. To raise the banner of modern fundamentalism is tantamount not only to political treason, but to religious schism.

Thus, while a token secular opposition is permitted, all attempts to create an Islamic party have been ruthlessly suppressed. When Abdel Salam Yacine (the founder of the group Al Adl wal Ihasan) first attracted attention with a challenging open letter to the king in an Islamic newspaper in 1974, the affront earned him three years in a psychiatric hospital and a further three years in prison.

Over the years members of other Islamic opposition movements have met with arrest, exile or execution. As the king himself put it on one occasion: "I will not allow fundamentalism to disfigure the face of Islam."

So far the king has contained the challenge. But over the past few years, a new generation of renegade imams, excluded from the mosques, has emerged offering what has been called a "parallel market of religious values". In December 1990 there was an Islamist flavour to the bread riots which took place in Fez and Tangier. Three months later many were surprised by the large turnout of Islamic militants at an officially sanctioned rally against the bombardment of Iraq.

Underground, or through nominally political missionary groups such as Jamaat al Tabligh wal Dawa, the Islamist message is spreading. And though it may be meeting with some popular resistance in rural communities, where saint worship and the sufi orders are strong, in modern towns, schools, universities, factories and public offices, political Islam is winning many converts.

Unlike King Hassan, President Zein al Abidin Ben Ali of Tunisia, a former policeman trained in the United States, has few grounds on which to claim Islamic legitimacy for his regime and is therefore under pressure to seek a popular mandate. He has attempted to do this through both economic and political reforms.

Since coming to power in 1987, Ben Ali's economic policies have made Tunis the capitalist showpiece of the Maghreb, a magnet for business and capital from Europe and the Middle East. But the success of this almost Asian-style free market economy depends on offering investors reduced overheads in the form of cheap labour, tax concessions, and relaxed environmental and social legislation.

So far only foreigners and a small class of nouveaux riches close to the government have benefitted. For the majority, real wages are declining, unemployment is rising and subsidies and social services have been cut at the bidding of Tunis' Western creditors.

In order to maintain the reputation for political stability which underlies Tunisia's appeal to investors, Ben Ali has had to go back on his initial promises of political liberalisation. He has cracked down hard (and particularly hard since the Algerian crisis) on the Islamic opposition which is led in Tunisia by Ennahdha, a moderate movement which has found support in all levels of society, including ominously the army.

Last July, a month after the suspension of Tunisia's League of Human Rights, 265 alleged members of Ennahdha and another group called Sacrificial Commandos were tried and sentenced to imprisonment in two mass trials in which - according to a damning report by Amnesty International - fair standards were repeatedly breached.

In the absence of any real economic improvement, the harsh treatment of a popular movement like Ennahdha is only undermining Tunisians' already fragile tolerance of the regime, leaving Ben Ali precariously dependent on his police and Western financial support for political survival.

Despite his claim to be the champion of Islam and Arabism against the plots of the neo-imperialist West, Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is no less excoriated by Islamic opposition movements than other Maghreb leaders both for his lack of orthodoxy and for his brutal repression of fundamentalists whom he likened in one notorious speech to AIDS victims.

Gaddafi has sought to annex Islam to his own revolutionary ends by means of his Green Book propaganda and the Revolutionary Committees which were designed to create a new kind of Arab: "religious, duty-bound to Arab nationalism, ambassadors of the new culture, and heralds of the people's era." But in a deeply traditional tribal society which had been ruled by a monarchy steeped in the Islamic mystical tradition - the Sanusis, whom Gaddafi overthrew in 1969 - Gaddafi's efforts have earned him the scorn and mockery of Muslims, starting with the ulema who rebelled in 1978.

The regime's response has been harsh, but Islamic opposition has fomented underground, coming to the world's attention with a series of executions in 1987 and a series of rebellions in /989. In 1990, in one of many recent anti-Islamist speeches, Gaddafi fumed: "Cut their heads off and throw them on the streets ... The people are heretics, they are ruining Islam. They believe that only members of Takfir and Dawa and Al Ikhwan Al Muslimin are true Muslims."

Throughout the Maghreb, political Islam has provided hope of fulfilment and change for a generation blighted by social decline and political degradation. It has channelled frustration, disillusion and exclusion into a political cause and a new morality.

But at the same time the Islamic movement has signally failed to provide the public with a realistic and authentically Islamic programme to remove the causes of the frustrations it has so effectively channelled. No Islamic party in the Maghreb has published a convincing and electable political manifesto detailing what Islamic law might mean in a modern society and how it could solve problems.

In Algeria the FIS won the elections without publishing a political manifesto at all, relying instead on simplistic and often deceitful pseudo-Islamic slogans. Significantly, Tunisia's Ennahdha, the one Islamic party which has set out a fairly detailed and intelligent political programme, recommends the implementation not of Islamic Law but of democracy.

By failing to adopt consistent attitudes to such issues as political freedom, unemployment, private enterprise, women's rights, the national debt, and the Gulf War, the Islamic groups have created uncertainty and suspicion as to their real intentions. They have also invited accusations that their leaders are divided, corrupt, opportunistic, authoritarian and manipulated by agents of local and foreign powers.

True or false, such accusations have won credence among the middle classes, giving the regimes of the Maghreb a pretext to stall on democratic reform and to crack down on dissent. Until it backs up its emotional appeal with substantive proposals and sound methods, political Islam will remain a symptom of the deepening crisis in the Maghreb, not its solution.
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Author:Porteous, Tom
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Feb 1, 1993
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