A History of Islamist Movements in Algeria

Algeria’s history and identity is rooted in Islam. Cultural practices, even under French rule, were strongly Islamic. In fact, though Algeria established a secular state following its independence, much of its resistance was couched in Islamic rhetoric and ideals. Revolutionaries would often refer to their struggle against the French as a “jihad,” and those fallen as “martyrs.” Many Algerian Islamists received a shock when the state that emerged from under France’s rule was secular in nature.

After Algeria achieved independence, there was still a strong French influence in Algerian society. University subjects in the sciences were taught exclusively in French and received a disproportionate share of funding and job opportunities relative to Arab dominated fields like law and literature. In conjunction with the remaining French colonists, this French-speaking elite came to dominate the Algerian economy, much to the resentment of the majority Arab population in Algeria. It was against this backdrop that Islamist ideals successfully took root in the highly educated but marginalized Arab populations.

The Algerian ruling elite recognized the mounting dissatisfaction of its Arab population along with the growing Islamic orientation, and accordingly attempted to integrate Islamic ideals into its own ideology. This helped shape Algerian socialist ideals, blending it with Islamic principles. Social policy also reflected growing conservatism in society, notably with the passage of the “Algerian Family code” in 1984, which put into place serious obstacles to women’s ability to divorce in addition to codifying the husband’s position as the legal head of the family and woman’s required obedience to him. This type of political Islam only grew stronger with the regime’s continued toleration of radical imams and preachers.

The frustrations of the marginalized Arab population finally came to the surface in 1988. Algeria, like the rest of the Arab world, had endured a decade of lower oil revenues and subsequent economic woes. The decision to cut social programs enraged the population, leading to widespread riots and protests. After an initial government crackdown, reforms were made to placate the population, which led to guaranteed civil rights and a competitive multi-party election. This was the perfect opportunity for the empowerment of political Islamists.

With a broad base of support and cohesive hierarchical organization, Islamic parties were well poised to win the election. The most popular Islamic party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), received the most votes out of any party. Alarmed, the ruling elite nullified the election results and cracked down on the FIS itself. This was the spark for the decade-long civil war that raged from 1991-2002, leaving 150,000 dead.

FIS’s makeup was diverse, ranging from urban youth to small merchants and civil servants. Though linked by a common dissatisfaction with the corrupt status quo and poor economic conditions, their vision for governance differed. The urban youth was more radical and questioned the role of democracy in Algeria’s future, leaning towards a minority-led theocracy. By contrast, the merchants and civil servants espoused a more moderate ideology, insisting that an electoral victory for Islamic principles would be a culturally authentic way to solve contemporary problems. It was this moderate rhetoric that mainly carried the FIS to victory. However, the subsequent nullification of election results allowed the radical wing of FIS to gain power and dominate its future path.

A notable example of an Islamist group that emerged out of the civil war was the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) who famously said, “Power is within range of our Kalashnikovs,” referring to the AK-47, a weapon popular to guerilla forces the world over. The GIA waged a bloody war against the regime and anyone who did not pledge their support to the organization, labeling it a jihad.

Though the civil war was officially declared over in 2002, violent Islamist opposition persisted after its cessation. The Bouteflika regime has been fairly successful in both negotiating with moderate Islamists and utilizing its security forces to contain and mitigate the Islamic resistance to the state. The two Islamist entities that pose the biggest challenge to the regime today are Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIAM) and various splinter groups. AQIAM is largely made up of former members of the GIA, and unlike Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is not under unified leadership but rather split into many competing factions.

Today, Algerian Islamists are divided into into two camps: regime insiders, or terrorists. Regime insiders are Islamists who have been incorporated into the ruling elite and are widely seen by the population as one-and-the-same as other leaders, regardless of their Islamic affiliation. Terrorists do not enjoy widespread support by the Algerian population. Thus, even though there is still widespread discontent with the Boutefilka and FLN regime in general, Algerians seem dissatisfied with political Islam as a solution to their problems.

Additional Resources

Al Jazeera

Uncovering Algeria’s Civil War: A French investigation into the deaths of seven monks is challenging the war’s historical narrative by Yasmine Ryan
Published: November 18, 2010

Council on Foreign Relations

CFR Backgrounder: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb by Zachary Laub and Jonathan Masters
Updated: March 27, 2015

The Guardian

Algiers: A City Where France Is the Promised Land – and Still the Enemy by Andrew Hussey
Published: January 26, 2013

Middle East Policy

Islamism in Algeria: A Struggle Between Hope and Agony by Ray Takeyh
Published: Summer 2003

New York Times

98 Die in One of Algerian Civil War’s Worst Massacres by Craig R. Whitney
Published: August 30, 1997

As Algerian Civil War Drags On, Atrocities Grow by Youssef M. Ibrahim
Published: December 28, 1997

Politically Adrift, Algeria Clings to Its Old Ways by Carlotta Gall
Published: November 8, 2013

Time Magazine

The History of French-Muslim Violence Began in the Streets of Algeria: When the Algerian War ended with a ceasefire in March 1962, LIFE was there to capture both the celebration and the violence by Eliza Berman
Published: January 13, 2015
Features previously unpublished images from Life Magazine

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