Rabia Bekkar, an urban sociologist who has spent more than 12 years doing research in Tlemcen, Algeria, works at the Institut Parisien de Recherche: Architecture Urbanistique et Societe. She first came into contact with the Islamist movement in the form of neighborhood charitable associations. When the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) became a legal entity in 1989, these associations became the support network of the new party. Bekkar was in Tlemcen during the 1990 municipal election campaign that led to the victory of the FIS, and when she returned in 1991 she met with newly elected FIS officials. Although the FIS is now banned and its leaders imprisoned, Algerian Islamist activism remains a significant phenomenon. Rabia Bekkar’s observations provide a rare local perspective on the Islamist movement. Hannah Davis, who recently completed a Ph.D. in anthropology at New York University, interviewed Bekkar in Paris in April 1992.
Can you describe Tlemcen?
Tlemcen is a city of 170,000 in northern Algeria, not far from the border with Morocco. It lies against a mountain, part of it on the mountainside and part of it on the plain. Looking down on the city from above, you can see that it’s fragmented, with ensembles of urban fabric that are completely different.
Tlemcen has a medina, an old city. Around it is the colonial city with wide avenues, beautiful villas. On the periphery of the city is an expanse of housing projects. One of these, Sidi Said, is where I’m doing my research. Then there’s a part of the city that is self-constructed, juridically “illicit,” which clings to the slope of the mountain. The people squatted on the land and built their own houses in this enormous quarter. I did my doctoral research in Boudghène, the largest of the self-constructed neighborhoods, with over 30,000 inhabitants.
Does each of these quarters have a particular population?
The only place in which there is a mixing of social strata is in the medina, which mainly consists of working-class people but includes some who are more well-to-do. The villas are occupied by the traditional bourgeoisie, which is rather strong in Tlemcen, and also by the new bourgeoisie, including high state functionaries. The housing projects are mainly inhabited by the middle strata, including technicians, engineers, doctors and so on.
What about the self-constructed neighborhoods like Boudghène?
Boudghène is inhabited by three kinds of people. There are old immigrants from the Sahara, nomads who lost their land. There are people who left the medina when it became crowded due to the rural exodus. And there are the rejects of the city, people with no place to live, no way to get into the circle of housing allocation. It is not entirely true to say that this quarter is inhabited by the most disadvantaged. The first generation is largely made up of laborers, construction workers, the unemployed, but these families had children who sometimes succeeded. They became teachers, functionaries.
What are the problems facing the people of Tlemcen?
Before or less the same as in the rest of Algeria. There is an enormous backlog in housing construction. At the same time, the rate of population growth is among the highest in the world. In the villas, you might find only two people living in an enormous home. But in the medina, you find 12, 15, 20 people in one room.
The other problem is unemployment, in spite of a very strong industrial sector in Tlemcen — several large electronics and textiles factories, and other, smaller industries. Tlemcen is in what used to be an agricultural region, and since the beginning of the rural exodus people have been arriving from the countryside, trying to find work. Unemployment essentially affects youth. The factories gave jobs to the first generation after independence. But these people will not retire tomorrow. So there is saturation, without the creation of new jobs.
The crowding at home — 15 people in a room — must put pressure on public space.
This depends on whether you’re talking about boys or girls. The girl is educated to be turned toward the interior. But the boy, from the earliest age, is pushed outside. By the time they reach adolescence, young men think of their life as taking place entirely outside. Public space, it’s theirs.
What is there for them to do?
There are youth centers and cultural centers built as part of the FLN [National Liberation Front] programs. But these places are so institutionalized. The young people feel suffocated; they can’t relax. There have been a few attempts to create mixed tea salons. You find places with signs reading “second floor for families.” Around the university there are a few cafes that will admit young women as well as men, but in the center of the city there is no mixed cafe. It’s unthinkable.
There is no space where men and women can meet in a relaxed way?
Women can circulate in the city, on the same sidewalk as the men. But meeting, exchange — this does not exist in public space. Tlemcen is a superb city with a magnificent pine forest, but a woman cannot go walking there with a man without being stopped and having her papers checked — by virtue of no law, because there is none. Working women go out in the street, but it’s really a passage. You have to be very courageous to go places and do things and at the same time tolerate the comments, insults, obscenities, shoving, sometimes even abuse. Where’s the relaxation?
And women who don’t work?
They can go out. There’s just an entire framework of control of access to the outside — the veil; the accompaniment (your little brother, big brother, sister, mother); the “authorizations” and pretexts such as “I’m going to my aunt’s” or “I’m going to the bath house.”
There are certain places where women can go that are legitimate — the bath house, family visits, the doctor, the saint’s tomb, the cemetery. And there are places that are legitimated by economic or social necessity — school, work. But one day a husband might say: “All right, now you stop working. We’re married, you stay at home now.”
Are public spaces the domain of men?
Young men call themselves hittiste — those who hold up the walls. When you walk through the city, there are entire quarters full of them: settled in, leaning back against the wall. The impression is of some kind of event, as though something is happening or is about to happen. Once I asked my brother what he does when he spends the day outside. He told me he goes to his regular cafe, meets his friends, drinks a cup of coffee. He leaves the cafe and takes a stroll in the city. He returns to the cafe, drinks a cup of coffee with other friends, then he walks until noon.
So you can see the vacuum, the emptiness, the readiness for any force at all that could attract them.
The Islamist movement apparently managed to harness some of this energy. How?
The first thing that happened was the emergence of many so-called charitable neighborhood associations in vulnerable quarters like Boudghène — places where there are chronic problems.
Before the Islamists emerged, the mosque served as a kind of community headquarters, rather like the village council. The mosque was active, but in a social rather than a political sense. Neighborhood conflicts and disputes were resolved; a family with economic problems could get help.
In the self-constructed quarters there is an enormous amount of mutual aid. It starts with the construction of a house — the whole neighborhood helps. This network of mutual aid laid the groundwork for these associations. In Boudghène, the first thing the association did was work on building and embellishing the mosque. They financed this by collecting funds door to door.
What kind of people were active in the associations?
University students, unemployed people and ex-delinquents. These were the three groups in Sidi Said and in Boudghène. The members were entirely from the quarter, the office was in the quarter, the leader was from the quarter. The central organization came afterward. There was a progression: from the mosque playing the role of regulating social conflicts, to a semi-organized system of neighborhood committees, to a national organization after the legal incorporation of the FIS in 1989. The local groups were easy to pull in. All the FIS had to do was to incorporate them politically, ideologically. They were already doing the work. Before 1989 there was already this base.
So after they fixed up the mosque, what next?
Their work expanded after the FIS won the municipal elections of 1990. In Sidi Said, for example, the associations began to clean up the housing project. You have to imagine what it’s like in these neighborhoods. It’s desolate. You go out, you come back with 15 kilos of mud on your shoes. Public space is abandoned. The Islamist groups started planting trees and rose bushes, creating a green space. They painted stores, facades of buildings. They marked out a soccer field, put up the goal posts and cleaned the field every day. In these housing projects household garbage is just thrown outside where children play. Through the municipality, they brought in big garbage bins with lids. A truck comes, empties the bin and takes away the garbage.
In Sidi Said there was a university student on the neighborhood committee. Whenever he saw a child about to destroy a plant, or whatever, he went over and said to him, “No, that’s a plant. It lives like a human being. God doesn’t want you to hurt it.” They sensitized children to the plants, but in relationship to religion.
How did things change at the mosque itself?
Before the elections the Islamists occupied only the mosques in the peripheral quarters of the city. These were really just prayer rooms turned into mosques. The main mosques are under the state. The imam is named by the state, and the weekly sermon is sent in by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The Islamists didn’t try to occupy the large mosques. But in the peripheral quarters, the mosque, its upkeep and embellishment, was financed by contribution. There, people made the mosque, with contributions and shared work. It was their space. And the Islamists quickly put in one of their own imams.
The imam in the peripheral quarters wasn’t named by the state?
Well, like any other shortage — food shortage, housing shortage — there was an “imam shortage.” The state couldn’t keep up with urban growth and with the proliferation of mosques. They couldn’t find enough people to appoint as imams. So the Islamists occupied that space. After the municipal elections, they spread out into all the mosques.
In June 1990, I happened to go to the city hall to see the FIS mayor. In came the technical director: The mayor had asked him for a map with all the mosques marked on it in red. The technical director said, “Why point out the mosques, we have other urban problems!” And the mayor said, “I want first to know which quarters have mosques, how many mosques there are, and where they’re situated.” It was the key for them!
As for children, there were more and more young people, preschool kids of 5 or 6 years old, going to Qur’an school in the mosque.
Was this new?
The state couldn’t put a Qur’an teacher everywhere. The Islamists found volunteer teachers who gave free courses. So more and more parents, while they prayed, had their children in Qur’an school. You can’t imagine how happy the mothers were to find a place they could leave their children instead of having them play in the mud. There are no kindergartens, no child care centers. Parents also liked the idea that their children were learning something before they started school. Of course, in the minds of the Islamists, it was good that children start to learn the Qur’an rather than watch Mickey Mouse on TV.
What about adolescents?
At certain hours, the Qur’an school becomes a kind of tutoring center for junior and high-school students. The Islamists asked university students and high-school teachers from the neighborhood to give courses in math, physics, languages — any subject — for pupils with problems. In these quarters, one of the major problems is failure in school. Free tutoring was great.
Did the teachers and university students do this out of religious conviction?
Most of them were Islamists, but not all. In Sidi Said, I met young people who had practically nothing to do with the Islamist movement but were either giving courses or taking courses, not out of ideological conviction. Others found themselves swept up in the movement.
The Islamists had an implicit project of trying to find activities for unemployed young people and delinquents. This included not only volunteer activities but projects that allowed them to make a little money. They set up a system of small shops, like newspaper kiosks, where they could sell newspapers, fruits and vegetables, groceries, perfume.
How did they do this?
In Sidi Said, there had been a site under construction for a “farmer’s market.” It was part of an FLN state project for neighborhood renovation. Then the FIS took over the municipality and they took over this space. The platform had been built, the foundations already laid. But the Islamists built little shops, and gave them to unemployed people. Of course, on the list were young people judged potentially favorable to the Islamist movement.
Symbolically, the Islamists occupied an empty space. These foundations had been built years ago but the supermarket never appeared. Then, in a very short period of time, they created shops, and commerce started: a concrete fact in public space, seen by the whole housing project.
Did they try to give a religious resonance to this project?
The opening ceremonies were held at the mosque, even though the municipality was running the project. They took great care that the ceremony was religious even if the project was secular. This took place in 1990 — three months after the municipal election. When I left in 1991, people were still talking about it.
How did the FIS manage to finance these projects? Did FIS municipalities get state money like other city governments?
It seemed that the FLN had a strategy of reducing municipal budgets: “We’ll cut the budget, things’ll get even worse and the people who elected the FIS at the municipal level will see that they’ve done nothing.” But the charitable associations stepped in and bailed out the FIS. At the municipal level, the FIS couldn’t yet run things. They didn’t have the means and they were inexperienced. But the charitable associations were in place; they had already done consciousness raising in their neighborhoods. They made sure everyone knew that the FIS hadn’t been given the budget to run a city.
The charitable associations and the FIS were separate groups?
In a given neighborhood you would find what was known as a “family” of FIS militants, which was the base organization of the FIS. These groups operated alongside the charitable associations, which were larger, more open, and included FIS militants as well as other local people. It was the FIS militants who ran for municipal office. The associations supported the FIS candidates.
How did the municipality get money to function?
As a municipal government the FIS couldn’t receive any money officially from a private source or a foreign government. But the charitable associations could. There were several levels of funding. Locally, the associations continued door-to-door fund raising. The commercial bourgeoisie was a very important contributor. In Tlemcen there are mosques and charitable sites (shelters) that are entirely maintained by the local bourgeoisie. There were the affairistes — entrepreneurs who wanted to get rich quick. The FLN had blocked them with various laws controlling import-export, resale and speculation. There were the big industrialists who also felt suffocated by the regulation of commerce and investment. All these groups supported the FIS because the FIS had promised to suppress taxes and deregulate production. There was also external financing, from Saudi Arabia in particular. The FIS wasn’t worried about money.
They always seemed to have money to carry out their projects. For example, in Tlemcen there used to be a colonial square in the middle of town. A part of the medina had been destroyed and a rectangular plaza installed, with the great mosque on one side, the city hall on the other, the medina to one side, and across from it the colonial city. This square was cut in two by a roadway. The FLN municipality destroyed the road to create one big square with the traffic going around the outside. In the middle they built a monument: a rock with fountains. Outside of Tlemcen there used to be waterfalls that are now dried up because of a dam. Maybe the rock was supposed to ease the nostalgia of the Tlemcenians for these waterfalls.
The FIS came and said, “What’s this? It’s no good! The space was better before!” In two days, they took out the rock and the fountains, rebuilt the road, put it all back the way it was before, but fixed up. How could a municipality with budget problems do this so quickly? They called on people to volunteer. But also there were two big private companies with modern equipment that did the work. One can deduce that the companies supported the FIS, since they did it for free.
I’m struck by your description of the efficacy of the FIS.
In meeting these young people, one is struck by their great discipline and by the organization of their local cells. At the same time, as a woman, as a democrat, I find it terrifying what an institution this well-organized can do. In the electoral campaign we saw this same efficiency and mobilization. They were everywhere.
How do you explain that enthusiasm?
Islamists came onto a completely empty field. You had a society that was morose, mired in a kind of lassitude, where people were completely burnt out, in despair — and they suggested something.
In the electoral campaign, the FIS brought up questions of honesty, of justice. The FLN had a program: housing, work, education. But the FIS said: “We won’t promise you anything. We’ll have a state where we apply Islam, where honesty and justice will reign. And if there’s no corruption, there’ll be money. If there’s justice, there’ll be an equitable distribution of housing, and so on.” It’s a moral contract, not an electoral program.
There was an other important element. The FIS touched on the issues which are the most sensitive: concerns about women, about the degeneration of moral values. On their side were upright women, as guardians of moral order. They were cleaning up public space. On the other side were bars, alcohol, urban degradation.
Did the moral hegemony of the FIS work for women as well as for men?
What is paradoxical, among many other paradoxes, is that the party narrowed enormously the space of liberty for women — restricting speech, returning to a strict system of surveillance of women. Yet, at the same time, you saw militant women, including university women, who worked extremely hard for the charitable associations and for the electoral campaign. How to explain this? Most women didn’t have that much liberty to lose. When they left the house they were subjected not only to family and social pressure but also to the obscenity of the street.
Then the Islamists asked them — or, in some cases, imposed on them — the wearing of the hijab. There was some imposition, say from a father or husband who says, “You can’t work if you don’t wear this.” But there was also consent by women. A woman putting on the hijab puts on virtue, respect and freedom of movement. Wearing the hijab, she can go out and not have to submit to insults. From the point of view of relaxed access to public space, it’s important.
What has happened in Tlemcen since the rupture in the electoral process in December 1991?
I was in Tlemcen the day after the forced resignation of President Chadli Benjadid. We had the impression that political life had stopped for a moment. The next day, I went out to Sidi Said to see what people were saying, how people experienced the end of the electoral process. There was consternation. Many people had forgotten about the army, about the possibility of intervention. There had been the feeling that a breath of liberty was coming, and then it collapsed.
There was incredible restraint on the part of the Islamists, which was much more important than what happened afterward: the coup d’etat, military takeover, and then the punishing of the FIS.
Police and soldiers kept a close watch on the associations and the mosques. They tried to push them to extremism. Then there was violence, imprisonment. This is all classic.
Now the FIS is legally out of commission. There is a new party called the Islamic Solidarity Front — the acronym is still FIS. But its activity is under close surveillance.
The FIS discourse made it clear that they weren’t going to be democratic. But to stop the process by non-democratic methods gave the FIS the ideological and moral claim to say, “The FLN just doesn’t want to let go of its power, its privilege.”
Before the multi-party system was instituted and the FIS became a party in 1989, all their activities took place clandestinely. In 1989, an Islamist party emerged from underground. Now they’re being pushed again into clandestinity, but their activities have not stopped.