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  • The Islamist ChallengeReligion and Modernity in Algeria
  • Lahouari Addi (bio)

Massive street riots in October 1988 dealt a fatal blow to the one-party system established by Algeria's Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) immediately following independence in 1962. President Chadli Benjedid responded by launching a process of democratization that quickly resulted in a flowering of political parties and freedom of the press. By the beginning of the 1990s, however, the political landscape was dominated by Islamist parties, the most important of which, the Front Islamique du Salut (FIS), won first the June 1990 municipal elections and then the December 1991 opening round of balloting in the national legislative elections.1

The FIS, which draws its support from both the poor and the middle class, has always vociferously denounced the existing regime as corrupt. The group's spokesmen rarely mention democracy, except to warn that it is a foreign ideology which does not conform to Islam. The imams of the FIS sometimes even devote sermons to attacks on democracy, which they explicitly charge with amounting to impious secularism. Invoking such rejections of democracy by the FIS, the military stepped in before the scheduled second round of legislative balloting to stop the electoral process and force President Benjedid to resign. The military feared that the Islamists, were they to win a two-thirds majority of the National Assembly, would be tempted to change the Constitution and institute their own brand of one-party rule.

The military overriding the wishes of a majority of voters in order to save democracy from a winning party that the soldiers say is [End Page 75] antidemocratic-here is a situation that scrambles the accustomed reference points of Western political culture. The situation is paradoxical, not least because of the respective positions of the various players. It is necessary, however, to go beyond instant analysis in order to comprehend the underlying logic and dynamics that are at work in the Algerian situation.

It may seem as if Islam is an obstacle to democratization, but we should distrust surface appearances and hasty conclusions. It is well to reflect that political Islam, as it is perceived by the average voter, is what semioticians call a "language"; that is to say, it is a signifier and not a signified. Having no political or economic program to propose, it is more a vehicle for certain aspirations than a specific set of contents. Political Islam is a cry of revolt against living conditions that are experienced as intolerable; it is a quest for social justice, but it has not produced any ideological means of transforming the surrounding social reality.

It would be too facile to consider political Islam only as a unique, momentary impediment to the process of democratization. To be sure, it is an impediment insofar as it expresses a millenarian utopianism that is widely at variance with the conceptual categories of modernity. Yet at the same time, the version of Islam that is presented in the speeches and deeds of the FIS evinces an attachment to a form of socioeconomic organization-that is to say, to a conception of social relations and the economy that would be compatible with any form of religious humanism. The leaders of the FIS (who are the principal force on the political landscape) speak a religious language, but this language is not theological-it is political, social, and economic.

Certainly, as the democratization process runs its course in the Muslim countries, the religious question must be settled through the differentiation and "autonomization" of the political and economic spheres. At the same time, however, the religious question is linked to other crucial social questions. By dissociating the social question from the religious question, one falls into the same mistake as the militant Islamist for whom religion is an end in itself. In this essay, I will seek to show how the religious question in Algeria is bound up with the economic question, in the sense that the economy is not ideologically neutral, but can be said rather to express a given conception of social relations in the sphere of production and exchange. I shall also attempt to show that democratization in Muslim countries...