Algeria’s experience over the past three years has shown that in a Muslim land the process of democratization gives rise to currents that seek to destroy it. But neutralizing these currents by force entails halting the democratization process and encloses society in repression. Society can escape that enclosure only if Islam is depoliticized — that is, if it no longer serves as a political resource in the struggle for power.
This involves the whole problematic of the construction of political modernity. The principle of human rights which underpins political modernity is premised on the “private” character of religion, conceived as a matter of individual conscience. Historically, no religion is inherently “private.” This cannot be decreed or imposed; it can only be the result of a desire on the part of broad layers of the population who resent the constraints of “public” religion, which hinder economic and social development and undermine the prospects of future generations.
Just as economic development cannot be reduced to the importation of turnkey factories, so democracy is not just about elections. The electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) brought home for many the constraints of “public” religion. But Algeria’s social elite, fearing the political dynamics that FIS accession to power might set in motion, pressed the military to intervene, putting Algeria to a test that will certainly be difficult in the short term but probably productive in the long run.
Islamism: The Highest Stage of Arab Nationalism
The eventual accession of a religious regime in Algeria would represent a logical extension of the nationalism of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which was itself fundamentally religious. Messali Hadj, the founding father of Algerian nationalism, liked to repeat hubb al-watan min al-iman — “patriotism is part of religion,” i.e., a matter of faith. The Western left — and ultimately Moscow — lent Algerian nationalism the veneer of post-capitalist revolutionary virtue. The nationalist leaders permitted this ideological ambiguity to persist in order to attach to the regime the trappings of modernity. 
Beneath the surface, the radical nationalism of the FLN borrowed only the exterior forms of modernity while reproducing traditional society’s political categories. Neo-patrimonialism is a substitute for traditional chiefly rule, and socialist rhetoric a subterfuge to control society. The political ideology of the FLN was not supported by a movement of ideas to rethink modernity in accordance with Islamic culture. There were never great journals debating the fundamental problems of Arab-Muslim society. These problems include the profound difference between the spoken language and the written language in all Arab countries, as well as questions of political citizenship, gender equality, the emergence of a critical consciousness, the depoliticization of the economy, and the place of the sacred in social space. Radical Arab nationalism, of which the FLN is a prototype, substituted for these debates empty slogans whose generality bothered no one.
With independence, Arab nationalism lost its revolutionary virtue and placed itself in the service of brutal neo-patrimonial regimes. It evolved toward a religious nationalism in reaction against the corruption and the degradation of people’s living conditions. The Nasserist-type regimes expressed a conception of politics well suited to religious legitimation. The downward leveling they carried out, the egalitarianism they promised, the aspirations and individual liberties they suppressed, the critical sensibility they fought, the cult of the leader-for-life, the confiscation of public space — these were so many elements which perpetuated the colonial social model and reactivated traditional social structures. The Islamic opposition does not reject this model; it rather accuses the leadership of being incapable of realizing it. That is why it is hardly an exaggeration to say that political Islam is the highest stage of radical Arab nationalism. Social scientists used to think that the authoritarianism of radical Arab nationalism represented a phase in the modernization of traditional societies, the expression of a political will to promote, by force, a civil society open to progress and transcending the level of subsistence. Such, they thought, was the legacy of Bonapartism in the West. In the end, though, authoritarianism effected no rupture. It concluded a tacit pact with society: Society would not challenge it and in return the regime would not transform society.
A wave of panic engulfed the social elite after the results of the December 26 poll became known. This reveals a fractured society: an elite without a people, a people without an elite. The fear of some folks is exaggerated. The FIS in power would have to come to terms with this elite — civil servants; officials of state enterprises; technical cadres; doctors, university teachers and journalists; army officers; private entrepreneurs. Electorally, this group does not carry much weight, but in the operation of state institutions and various sectors of social life, it is indispensable.
Some would object: Iranian cemeteries are filled with indispensable people. But the fact that you can compare two cases does not mean that they are the same. There are two main differences. First, in Iran the mullahs seized power violently from a monarchy which had suppressed them severely, at times with the consent of part of the elite. Second, the Algerian elite is of recent popular extraction. Which Algerian family with an FIS activist or sympathizer in its midst does not also have a brother or cousin who is a high official or an engineer? The historical and subjective conditions for a systematic physical repression of the elite are not here.
This is not to say that the FIS would put itself forward as the champion of human rights, or that it would coddle the civil servants and captains of industry. It would settle accounts and carry out reprisals. The point is only that an unjustified fear has prompted questions about the wisdom of adhering to the democratic process.
Why this fear after the elections? What were people expecting? The choice is not between the FIS and the so-called democratic parties, but between seizing control by force or by the ballot box. Political life is obviously going to develop differently in the two cases. Algeria needs a democratic covenant in which all political currents undertake to renounce violence, in the street or in the exercise of power, in return for respect for the multi-party system. The most important thing is to civilize politics, to humanize the hysterical crowds, and to de-alienate the individual in order to snuff out the passions of hatred and avoid a bloodbath.
The assumption of power by the FIS would at least have the merit of clarifying the ideological and political debate. The FIS, which formally rejects the autonomy of the political arena, would have been acting despite itself as a catalyst for the emancipation of politics from religion, for at least three reasons.
First, the FIS’ path to power would have been shorter than the FLN&rsquos. The FLN has ruled on the basis of a historical legitimacy that no one could challenge, whereas the FIS had to resort to an electoral legitimacy which it otherwise rejects as “godless.” This means implicitly accepting the rotation of power, yet it contradicts the ideology of the FIS.
This is what Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj realized last June. When they launched a general strike a la Sorel, it was supposed to be the starting point for a new regime and a legitimacy sheltered from rotation and the ballot. It was not that they were afraid that they might not carry the election: They did not wish to tie their authority to a legitimacy obtained at the polls. The Muslim crowds did not vote for the FIS so that it would secure them a place in paradise, but so that it would develop and modernize the country, and above all endow the political leadership with moral behavior. The FIS proposes to transform Algerian society by creating jobs, building apartments, reviving development. If the FIS had taken no interest in daily concerns and people’s living conditions, it would not have obtained the electoral results that it did.
Second, the FIS is secular. In its attempt to liberate itself from electoral legitimacy, it invokes religious legitimacy. But in Islam there is no church — that is, no consecrated institution acting as a depository of religious legitimacy. There are sufficient theological resources in the Qur’an and the Sunna to justify modern politics, with the Hobbesian and Weberian premise that violence is the exclusive monopoly of the state. But being itself the political expression of a medieval interpretation of Islam, the FIS repeatedly mobilizes religious forces of protest, and this creates chronic political instability. The FIS would have to suppress these religious currents in order to ensure social peace and political stability. To this end, it would have to develop a political line of argument in which reference to Islam would be purely formalistic, because it would no longer have a monopoly over religious discourse. There will always be an opposition to injustice that will draw its references from religious morality. That is why the modern state denies anyone the right to decide what is just and what is unjust outside of positivist law. The FIS would not escape this contradiction.
Lastly, a contradiction lies at the heart of the political ideology of all Islamist movements. They assert that there is only one source of law (the Qur’an), and that sovereignty belongs to God. But once in power, sovereignty has to be exercised, one way or another. From the moment that it constituted itself as a political party, the Islamist movement put itself forward as a candidate for the exercise of sovereignty. By winning the legislative elections of December 26, the FIS put itself in the position where it had to form a government and rely on the apparatus of state to direct the country.
Islamic law is not only canon law, but also positive law. Islamist incantations in the mosques about the shari‘a are no more than an attempt to shirk the colossal work of interpretation and adaptation that is incumbent on us. It is easier to repeat what our ancestors said five or six centuries ago. What does the shari‘a say about land speculation? About low productivity? About the highest population growth rate in the world? Or about the student who receives a degree without knowing a single foreign language or having read a single book? Or about rubbish thrown from the balconies? The imam who dares to pose such questions risks confronting the immediate interests of those who are piously listening.
After the Coup
The reality test would have been decisive for the FIS. Either it would have changed the present as it said it would, and would rule in an implicitly autonomous political arena, or it would have remained attached to the past, prompting a more vigorous opposition based in the social aspirations that the FIS would have been incapable of satisfying. Its historic mission was to relieve Algeria of the political cadres of the FLN and to prepare for the separation of religion and politics in the imagination of Algerians.
What of tomorrow? If the goal of the FIS was to put the brakes on democratization, then it is the big winner. Fear of repression does not entirely explain the general lack of reaction from the FIS crowds. In dumping Chadli, in disassociating itself from the FLN, and finally in creating a new institutional apparatus to supplant the multi-party system, the military is acting in accord with the majority of Algerians, who saw the parties as divisive within the national community.
There is a risk that the political landscape may be so altered that political power will no longer be at stake in free elections. The army will entrust Western-trained technocrats with the task of running the economy and trying to slow the country’s crazy demographic growth. Social space — the street, the neighborhood, the schools, the media — will serve as sites for “public Islam,” which will look after the collective soul of the community.
The FIS had provided the impetus for overcoming lethargy, but the fear of the elite for its own meager immediate interests prevailed instead. The same fundamental problems will persist, though, and the authority necessary to resolve them does not exist within the framework of the old order. The regime will be able to take care of the day-to-day matters, but it is incapable of effecting any radical breaks. The economy will remain social, Islam will remain “public” and the regime will continue to be privatized. That is what the FIS wanted.
—Translated from the French by Zachary Lockman and Joost Hiltermann