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In the following interview, conducted in the end of February, 2002, Azzedine Layachi, Associate Professor of Political Science at St. John's University, New York, discusses the recent history of the Arab World, including the ideology of Arab Nationalism and its decline, the rise of "Political Islam" Western representations of the Arab World and the status of democratization and liberalization movements in the region. Layachi, who has written extensively on the nations of the Maghreb, then discusses the recent history of Algeria, including the democratization process and the civil conflict.
In the following interview, conducted in the end of February, 2002, Azzedine Layachi, Associate Professor of Political Science at St. John's University, New York, discusses the unity of the Arab World and the notion of "Arab Nationalism". His comments begin with a discussion of the diversity within the Arab world in relation to economic factors and the degree of political liberalization, and then proceed to some of the factors that unite: culture, history, etc. Layachi focuses on challenges from the outside that unite the Arab World: interaction with European economies, issues of security, etc. Layachi then discusses the ideology of Arab Nationalism, arguing that the dominant view that Arab Nationalism is dead, with some arguing it died with Nasser, others arguing as recently as the Gulf War. He maintains that it has been replaced by the idea of "territorial nationalism". Some argue that Arab Nationalism is being replaced by and ideology of Pan-Islamism in which the concept of the modern territorial state gives way to the concept of the "Ummah". Layachi, however, argues that is not accurate because Islamist movements tended to develop as the result of domestic concerns. Salafi groups tried to be international but that overall these movements seem to have failed in articulating their concerns and in confronting opposition. He also argues that there has been a degree of integration within the political processes in some countries, such Algeria, Egypt, Morocco, and Jordan.
In the second portion of the interview Layachi discusses the concept of Islamic Fundamentalism, as it is often described in American media today. He explains his reasons for rejecting this term, preferring, instead, terms such as "Islamism", "Religious movements" or "Islamists" to refer to the militant movement getting so much attention in the media. These movements are described, with Layachi arguing that most Islamists struggle within their own home and community, trying to change their own society through peaceful means. Radicals, however, want change immediately and by any means possible. It is the radicals that make headlines, not only internationally but at home: Egypt, Algeria, etc. He also explains that such reformist movements are not new, but that they have existed throughout the centuries. There have always been militants, as well. In 70s and 80s however, there has been an explosion of movements due to both internal factors and external facilitating factors that include the management of their countries, social injustice, etc. Reformist movements are also reacting to increasing Western influence on their society and a fear of Western domination. Layachi lists and explains the following facilitating factors: 1) The inspiration of Iranian revolution 2) The victory of Mujahidin in Afghanistan who then returned to their home countries with combat skills. 3) The collapse of authoritarian rule in Eastern Europe 4) International economic factors. 5) The failure of secular ideologies-appeal of ideology that addressed people’s concerns in a language they could understand. 6) Economic restructuring that makes the state unable to face challenges of social welfare and the ability of Islamic groups to step in. Layachi explains that Islamism is a social movement, supported largely out of a desire to change the quality of life and the quality o government.
In this section of the interview, Layachi briefly discusses Western representations of the Arab world, maintaining that they too a long time to build and will take a long time to dismantle. In the United States, these stereotypes stem largely from a lack of information. Until very recently, the US has had relatively little interaction with the Arab and Islamic World. The history of these encounters is briefly sketched, beginning with the piracy of the "Barbary States" that led to the most longstanding treaty the US has with another county one of the earliest recognitions of the newly independent American States as a nation. The interview also touches on the manner in which Hollywood constructs negative images, and the impact of historical events such as the 1956 bombardment of Egypt by French and British, invasion by Israel as a response to the nationalization of the Suez, the birth of Israel and the Zionist movement, the 1973 oil embargo, etc. Layachi argues that Arabs and Muslims need to work on their own image as well. Comparing the actions of Muslim radicals to other radical groups, he shows that in regard to Islam there is a tendency to blame the faith that does not occur in other situations. This can actually lead to the self-fulfilling prophecy of clash.
This section of the interview reviews the status of democratization and liberalization in the Arab World, focusing on Morocco and beginning with the notion of “transition" as used to describe the development of post-communist Eastern Europe, and how it applies to Morocco. In considering institutional change, legal reforms and political culture, Layachi maintains that there has been a documentable change in people’s views. Yet this doesn’t necessarily mean that Morocco is on the verge of immediately becoming a truly liberal constitutional democracy. He describes entrenched interests and political currents that make this difficult. Yet he remains optimistic. There is a struggle going on, but it is happening peacefully, as opposed to Algeria or Tunisia. The biggest challenges, he argues are economic. Morocco remains week economically, and standards of living have not improved. He then compares these developments to the cases of Jordan and Syria, which have also experienced a recent change in regime, but which face very different internal and regional issues.
This portion of the interview starts with a brief history of situation in Algeria. 1989-1991 saw full fledged political opening with Algeria going from a single party state to a country with 62 parties. There was also a massive explosion in terms of public debate on policy, freedom of the press, etc. New political parties began to mobilize, but the Islamist mobilized most effectively. They were able to reach people directly. He then outlines the process that led from these conditions to the bloody civil war that has seen approximately 200,00 killed, including the rise of Islamist movements, the repression of the government in the face of their impending victory in the polls, and the spiral into violence. Fortunately, that violence has significantly diminished, today, after a degree of integration of Islamist into power. Layachi outlines the signs that Algeria is emerging from the crisis, arguing that the greatest challenges are economic. He ends the interview by arguing that the best strategy for all the countries in the Maghreb to improve living conditions within their borders is greater integration, sketching both the factors that make this possible, as well as those which are impediments.