Courtesy Reuters

IS ISLAM EVER THE SOLUTION?

Algeria's civil war showed signs in early summer of sputtering to an end. After nearly six years of conflict and some 60,000 deaths, Algerians were fed up, exhausted, in despair. Most appeared prepared to accept President Liamine Zeroual's political manipulations, which had seemingly squeezed his Islamist foes out of the system; in a 1995-97 series of elections that international observers called reasonably free, Zeroual had won a mandate that bolstered his claim to legitimacy. He also claimed a decisive military victory over the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the fiercest of the rebel factions, after his security forces asserted that they had killed Antar Zouabri, the group's chief, and his entourage. Indeed, a confident Zeroual went so far as to release Abassi Madani, the leader of the Islamic political opposition, who had been incarcerated since 1991.

But contrary to expectations, the summer was the bloodiest in six years of war, and by fall, with the government floundering, the prospects for peace had never looked dimmer. Madani, having declared that his Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had no intention of submitting to Zeroual's political engineering, was again under arrest. Reports leaked by the government of secret talks with the Islamists seemed an act of desperation; so was the fanfare accompanying a unilateral cease-fire declared by the Islamic Salvation Army, a marginal rebel force linked to Madani's political party. Meanwhile, GIA bands, acting independently of the Islamist political leadership, had struck panic throughout the country with their bold and brutal attacks. The new attacks, moreover, led many to speculate that government forces were not helpless but were actively contributing to the rising death toll.

For six years, observers had assumed that intermittent massacres in Algeria, mostly in rural areas, were the work of the GIA. In most cases they were. But repeatedly this summer, bands of killers slipped into villages, some on the edge of Algiers, the capital, and spent the night hours slashing the throats of women, children, and old men. Security units stationed nearby failed to respond to calls for help.

Many began to ask whether the security forces were the perpetrators. On-the-scene reporting of the violence has always been spotty, as journalists in Algeria have been the victims of both state intimidation and Islamist assassins. It has never been easy to identify the killers in this civil war. Yet the government, at the least, shares culpability in the massacres, in failing to control not just the GIA but renegade military units and local militias that it itself had armed. The pattern of violence was reminiscent of Algeria's 1954-62 war of independence against France, when much of the peasantry asked only to be left alone. Punishing that indifference, both parties to the conflict brutalized innocents. In Algeria today, it matters less who did the killing than that the state is powerless to stop it, so that peace remains hostage to chaos.

Not only has the government been unable to restore order, but it has failed to address the weaknesses that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. The economy is fragile, unable to ameliorate hunger and widespread unemployment. A soaring population demands ever greater services, delivery of which is tainted by corruption and incompetence. Social inequity eats at public morale. And in politics, the government has chosen to ignore the Islamic movement, whose overwhelming electoral victory led in January 1992 to the military coup d'‚tat that triggered the civil war.

Though the circumstances of the war are uniquely Algerian, the problem is not. Secular governments, pursuing modernization, have failed throughout the Arab world. In Algeria as elsewhere, an Islamic movement with strong fundamentalist leanings was the only organized opposition to a self-serving, sclerotic regime. Many Arabs fear the war in Algeria may be an index of a future doomed to Islamist-inspired rejection of modernization, along with permanent instability.

Is Algeria's bloodletting, they wonder, the fate that awaits Egypt and Tunisia, where the contest between mosque and secular state is already violent? Could it also be that of, say, Syria, where a deep rancor toward the government lies beneath the calm surface? In Turkey, though not Arab, the Islamic movement continues to surge, in spite of 75 years of stable secular rule. Even in countries as peaceful as Jordan and Morocco, where benevolent monarchs rule, Islamists wait for the next social trauma -- war, famine, what have you -- to make their move.

The evidence is not convincing that most Arabs believe Islam is the solution, that piety and prayer are the answer to their societies' problems. Islamic movements may vary in character, but the revolutions in Iran and Sudan suggest that political Islam solves one problem -- the overthrow of corrupt secular regimes -- only by creating many others. In Algeria, the Islamic movement's administration of nearly a thousand municipalities after its victory in the 1990 local elections prefigured limits on personal freedom without enhancing economic opportunity. Yet Arabs, frustrated by their authoritarian governments, turn to Islamists for lack of alternatives within their political systems.

The United States once argued for ending Algeria's civil war through negotiations between the state and the Islamists. But recently it seems to have joined France, the former colonial power, in opting for Zeroual's strong-arm strategy. After meeting with Zeroual in September, U.S. Ambassador Ronald E. Neumann declared, "My government and I personally wish him every success as he seeks to move forward on the path he has publicly chosen." Apparently Washington is betting that Algeria's military regime, not militant Islam, will prevail.

LIBERATION VS. SALVATION

Few ex-colonies had such promising beginnings as Algeria. Unlike the Arabs who had been handed independence in the preceding era of decolonization, Algerians won theirs in 1962 in ferocious combat with France. The victory imbued them with a sense of achievement that was largely absent elsewhere in the Arab world. Algeria also emerged from the war with an educated elite, Arabic-speaking but fluent in French and at ease in the West. The country's fertile fields yielded substantial wealth, as did its oil and gas reserves. Algeria inherited from the French a useful infrastructure, and it was near its natural markets.

Islamic militants argue that the government's Western-style secularism neutralized Algeria's advantages. But the government was not just secular; it was despotic, corrupt, and rigidly socialist. When bad times came, the regime found that, while it had an army to enforce its will, its reservoir of popular support was practically dry.

Algeria's problems date from the dawn of independence. The army seized power from the civilian authority that had directed the underground effort against the French and set up a regime modeled on Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser's popular dictatorship in Egypt. A single party, the National Liberation Front (FLN), ran the state, while real power resided in the military high command. In the quarter-century that followed, Algeria's population nearly tripled, which would have been challenge enough for any regime. But the blundering FLN government financed its operations with foreign loans, using oil and gas resources as collateral. When oil prices collapsed in the mid-1980s, it was suddenly without funds. In October 1988, riots with a distinctly Islamic flavor broke out.

Algeria had never thought of itself as particularly Islamic. But the regime, while quick to put down political dissidence, had tolerated educational and community organizations run by mosques, convinced this would promote social stability by channeling the energies of young people -- 50 percent of whom had no jobs -- into religion. Instead, it helped create a generation of Islamic militants. The 1988 riots swiftly escalated into bloody confrontations between the army and crowds of such militants, hundreds of whom were killed. The events also produced a leader, Ali Benhadj, the austere and mystical young cleric of a working-class mosque in an industrial quarter of Algiers. Benhadj demanded jobs, an end to corruption, and, more grandly, the "cleansing" of Algerian law of all principles contrary to Islam. He acquired a ready following among Algerians, Islamically inclined or not, who were persuaded by the massacre of rioters, if they had not been before, that the FLN state had to go.

The riots also undermined the confidence of Chadli Bendjedid, an ex-officer whom the army had named president in 1979. Bendjedid promised radical democratization, which in retrospect even democrats acknowledge was a mistake. Although the French had introduced Algeria to democracy, they invariably cooked elections to favor their own interests, giving the process a bad name. Algeria, moreover, lacked the experience and the institutions -- political parties, a free press, trade unions, human rights guarantees -- considered essential to a democratic society.

In a constitution hastily drawn up in February 1989, Bendjedid revoked the FLN's monopoly on power, authorizing free political parties, free speech, and a free press. Apparently persuaded by polls that the FLN would retain power via the ballot, he promised elections, first municipal and then parliamentary. Undeterred by the polls, Algeria's Islamic movement mobilized for the voting.

The founding of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was announced in March 1989 following an agreement among Algeria's chief clerics. The name conveyed a party with not only a political but a spiritual mission. Yet the founders, while unanimously supporting the idea of an Islamic state, seriously disagreed about its nature. Their platform left the hard issues of ideology and institutions unresolved.

Abassi Madani, a psychology professor with a British doctorate as well as a practicing imam, was named the party's leader. Benhadj was second in command and quickly became the FIS's most recognizable voice. In brilliant sermons -- a few of which landed him in detention -- he advocated not only an Islamic state but armed jihad to attain it. Convinced by the Iranian Revolution that victory was near, Benhadj proclaimed more extreme positions for the FIS than the leadership was prepared to endorse. The much older and more pragmatic Madani acted as a restraint on his ideological and impetuous colleague.

The FIS joined some 60 other parties, most of them one-man operations, in registering to participate in the impending elections. Among the secular parties, the FLN, its wealth and organization intact, was by far the most formidable. The FIS, the most energetic of the religious parties, was its only real rival. Looking back, the confrontation represented a clear choice between secular and religious rule. But Algeria's voters, newcomers to democracy, saw the FIS essentially as a challenger to the status quo. They considered its taking on of the detested FLN more significant than its vaguely formulated Islamic program.

In June 1990, eight million Algerians, some 65 percent of potential voters, cast their ballots in the first free, honest, multiparty election in the nation's history. The results were stunning. The FIS won control of 853 of Algeria's 1,541 municipalities, including Algiers. It received 54 percent of the total vote, including a huge majority among voters under 30. The FLN came in a distant second with 34 percent.

But the FIS victory did not quell public demonstrations. When, two months after the election, Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait, Bendjedid's regime supported the American-led coalition that landed troops in Saudi Arabia. Benhadj, defying the government, led his followers into the streets again, demanding that volunteers be recruited to fight against the Western forces on sacred Islamic soil.

The turmoil, which lasted for months, gave Bendjedid an excuse for indefinitely postponing parliamentary elections. The FIS then called a general strike, and for the second time in three years soldiers fired into crowds of protesters, killing several hundred. In June 1991 the government arrested Madani and Benhadj, along with some 700 militants, claiming to have discovered stores of FIS arms. But by then, Bendjedid had agreed to schedule parliamentary elections for December 26, 1991, with a runoff three weeks later.

Over Benhadj's objections, Madani issued instructions from his cell for the party to continue within the legal competition for power. The fall campaign proved unexpectedly calm, with candidates holding peaceful rallies and debating before orderly crowds. When the results were in, the FIS, disproving all the polls, stood ready to swallow up the government. Of 430 seats in parliament, the FIS won 188 outright and led in 140 of 199 outstanding contests. Moreover, it appeared likely to win two-thirds of the seats, enough to fulfill its campaign promise of replacing Bendjedid's constitution with the framework of an Islamic state.

THE REPLY TO DEMOCRACY

Algeria's military regime went into shock. Bendjedid entertained the notion of giving the FIS a free hand in its social program in return for his retaining control of the defense and interior ministries. Such a deal, however, sat poorly with both the army and the FIS, which the street massacres had made into implacable enemies. On January 11, 1992, Bendjedid resigned, his departure ending the equivocation about who was in charge. For 30 years the army had let the FLN govern on condition that the party maintain order. Now its usefulness was at an end.

Three days later the army named a five-member High Council of State to assume the presidential functions. A moderate Islamist and a human rights activist provided a democratic facade, but the council was dominated by an army general. Its first decree dismissed the election results and canceled the runoff. The army's action has since entered the national lexicon as the January coup d'‚tat.

In the wake of the coup, the FIS promised -- at least until the government clarified its intentions -- "to remain within the legal framework without renouncing its plan for an Islamic state." But the army conducted a new mass arrest of FIS leaders, while sweeping Algiers and detaining anyone wearing the loose-fitting white tunics that identified FIS members. It also moved to regain control of the mosques, replacing fundamentalist imams by the dozens, cutting off loudspeakers, banning street gatherings. Over the next few weeks the government closed FIS offices, heavily curbed party press outlets, and removed the municipal officials elected in the landslide of 1990.

The FIS launched a campaign of demonstrations, to which the army replied by killing 40 protesters in Algiers outside a fundamentalist mosque. The party leadership then proclaimed a march to bring down the state; the army countered by bringing in forces from the provinces and positioning them along the parade route. Facing massacre, the FIS called off the march, backing down from the high-water mark of its power.

In March 1992 the FIS, after 29 months of legality, was declared formally dissolved. By then the killing by militants had begun -- shootings, bombings, and stabbings directed first at police officers but soon at civilians, both in the cities and the countryside. The security forces retaliated with equal brutality, setting the current pattern of bloodletting.

The morality of the January coup has been much debated, inside and outside Algeria. No one disputes its illegality, but its defenders argue that the army, in heading off a reversion to medievalism, saved Algerian society. They cite the words of Islamist leaders as evidence that the movement, once victorious, would never agree to an election in which it might lose power. They contend that the violence of civil war is not of the army's making but was imposed by the intrinsic fanaticism of Islamic movements. These arguments may contain some truth. Yet whoever examines the FIS recognizes that, from its beginnings, the front has not expounded a unified ideology, much less a single political strategy.

TERMS OF OPPOSITION

Before the war of independence, Islam in Algeria was dominated by doctrines that were religiously moderate and politically mainstream -- that is to say, anticolonial. Islamists actually found a place in the wartime leadership. After the war, however, when the regime became a Nasser-style dictatorship, Islam distanced itself from the state, drifting toward the model of Nasser's Islamist enemies. Emulating Egypt's Muslim Brothers, its ideology became increasingly fundamentalist and its strategy increasingly violent.

By the 1970s Algeria's mosques were largely in the hands of militant imams. The movement's majority called themselves salafi, a term that conveys dedication to a strict reading of the scriptures. The Islamic state they espoused would be governed by the sharia, traditional Islamic law. Followers of the salafi tended to be lower middle class and, even more often, rootless, jobless youths. When Khomeini's forces won in Iran in 1979, the salafi found a prototype not only for revolution but for clerical government. That was the vision they brought to the FIS.

Yet the legacy of Islamic moderation from the pre-independence era was not dead. Inside the movement were its heirs, known as the jazara, the Arabic word for Algeria, in recognition of their link with Algerian nationalism. The jazara faction, university-based and a bit elitist, favored the establishment of a modern Islamic state based on an updated interpretation of the scriptures. Between the jazara minority and the dominant salafi there emerged the tension between modernism and fundamentalism that prevails in our time throughout Islam.

The FIS also had a third faction, designated mujahideen ("makers of jihad"), a term used for Muslim warriors. The mujahideen were at best a stepchild. Benhadj, though not a member, was a consistent sympathizer, but Madani was afraid of them, and many of the FIS’s most esteemed clerics had no use for the aggressive conduct that they promoted. The mujahideen were drawn more to action than to ideology. Heir to the brutality of the war against France, they believed the Islamic state could be achieved only through armed struggle.

Their roots went back to 1982, when Moustafa Bouyali, a guerrilla fighter against the French, launched an insurrection against the FLN’s "impious state." Though never a threat to the regime, Bouyali, with a few dozen companions, captured the hearts of the politically alienated, who saw him as an Islamic Robin Hood. Finally, in February 1987, the army ambushed and killed Bouyali on the outskirts of Algiers, and in the ensuing months killed or imprisoned most of his band. Bouyali imparted a legacy of violence to political Islam. After the January coup his followers, reinforced by comrades released from prison, re-formed their units. They picked up additional recruits among the "Afghans," Algerians who had fought the Russians in Afghanistan. These "Afghans" are credited with shaping the mujahideen's vicious tactics.

On Madani's instructions, the FIS did what it could to bring the mujahideen under its command, but it encountered only contempt for preferring elections to jihad. There is no evidence that Bouyali's followers, loosely organized as the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), ever took orders from the FIS. For a time, the FIS commanded a few armed units under the rubric of the Islamic Salvation Army, but they were never a factor in the war. The GIA were always the chief fighters, and as violence became more commonplace, they superseded the FIS in the public mind. With the help of television and the press, they co-opted the image of the Islamic movement.

The regime's security forces have used the mass arrest and torture of young Islamists to penetrate the mujahideen. The tactic has weakened mujahideen units, but it has also led to a huge exodus of young men from civilian society; ironically, the mujahideen became their only source of shelter.

Most mujahideen, insofar as they are ideological at all, clearly tend toward a narrow extremism. Their dispatches proclaim doctrines that are anti-women, anti-intellectual, and anti-foreigner, along with opposition to the secular state. Some of the mujahideen are common criminals, using Islam as a cover for banditry, kidnapping, and rape. The government contends that the criminals are the majority, but the claim is no doubt overblown.

PEACE PARTIES

Six years of civil war in Algeria have shown that neither side has the strength to destroy the other. The FIS is in shambles, its dream -- that its message would cause the state to collapse under its own weight, like the monarchy in Iran -- having proved an illusion. Meanwhile, the security forces have been unable to quell the mujahideen. For now, Zeroual's government seems to be controlled by the eradicateurs, the faction of the military leadership that refuses political compromise and insists -- apparently with significant civilian support -- on maintaining its efforts to crush the rebellion. But so far the eradicateurs have failed in that.

Zeroual, president since 1994, is a general in his mid-fifties who came up through the army ranks. When the military chose him to replace the governing High Council of State, he was regarded as a cut above the rest of the officer corps in honesty and competence. Reports had it that he would pursue a settlement with the FIS, and he himself spoke of a dialogue "that excludes nobody." In August 1994 Madani notified Zeroual of the possibility of an armed truce, and a month later, both Madani and Benhadj were transferred from prison to house arrest. But no dialogue ever took place. The collapse of preliminary haggling seemed to mean that both sides were subject to the veto of their hard-liners. The bloodshed rose to a new level.

Meanwhile, other talks opened in Rome. In November 1994 the Sant'Egidio Community, a peace group affiliated with the Vatican, convened a meeting of delegates from the FIS, the FLN, and the other opposition parties to draft a plan to end the war; the government had been invited but declined to attend. The delegates in Rome represented parties that had received more than 80 percent of the vote in the 1991 parliamentary election.

From custody, Madani and Benhadj endorsed the meeting. If Sant'Egidio led to a dialogue with the government, Benhadj declared, he would "go himself into the mountains" to get the mujahideen to accept the terms. It was the first time that the FIS had agreed to sit down with Algeria's secular parties. Never before had the Islamic movement sent such a clear signal of its readiness to compromise.

The Sant'Egidio platform was signed by all the parties in January 1995. The secular parties joined the FIS in affirming the "enlightened Islamic principles" set forth in the 1954 declaration that had launched Algeria's war of liberation. But the FIS also made significant concessions, agreeing to waive reinstatement of the results of the 1991 election, along with its claim to be Algeria's legitimate government. It did not insist on recognition of what it called its right to armed struggle. Finally, it committed to alternance -- going into peaceful opposition, like other parties, if voted out of office.

The Sant'Egidio proposals, unquestionably conciliatory, were offered not as an ultimatum but as an agenda to begin talks between the government and the parties on ending the civil war. Many Algerians placed great hope in the plan. Yet Zeroual turned it down flat. Noting its Vatican sponsorship, he called it a resumption of the Crusades; television reports invariably discussed it against a background of a church and cross. But the explanation for Zeroual's hostility falls most logically on a clause of the plan calling for the nonintervention of the army in political affairs. Zeroual, the army's surrogate, could not tolerate such a radical shift in power. Two weeks after the Sant'Egidio signing, Zeroual returned Madani and Benhadj to prison. Benhadj, believed to be jailed somewhere in the Sahara, has not been heard from since. President Zeroual was planning to legitimize the state in his own way.

HIS WAY

In June 1995 Zeroual announced that "transparent, free, democratic, and sovereign" elections for the presidency would be held the first week of November. The FIS, which was still banned, along with the legal parties represented at Sant'Egidio, boycotted the election. In addition to Zeroual, the candidates included a moderate cleric and two political unknowns, both secular. None urged a political settlement of the war. The campaign, which the mujahideen made no major effort to disrupt, proceeded without incident. The balloting, most observers agreed, was conducted fairly.

The results were even more favorable to the status quo than had been anticipated: Zeroual won 61 percent of the vote. Equally significant, 75 percent of the electorate ignored the boycott and went to the polls, making the abstention rate lower than in 1991, the year of the great FIS victory. The figures suggested that Algerians had repudiated the overwhelming endorsement they had given the FIS four years earlier. The vote could be interpreted as a renunciation of their revolutionary aspirations. But another reading might be that a war-weary populace was now asking only for an end to the violence, which Zeroual seemed to be in the strongest position to provide.

After his victory, Zeroual, conspicuously passing over the FIS, invited the country's other political forces to a conference to discuss Algeria's future. All but one of the parties to the Sant'Egidio plan stood with the FIS in declining. The FLN broke ranks, after an internal coup. The party of Algeria's liberation wanted back into the political game, if only as a secondary player.

Midway through 1996 Zeroual proposed a set of constitutional amendments to reshape the legislative assembly. While not explicitly banning Islamic parties, the amendments barred the exploitation of religion -- an ill-defined concept -- for political purposes. They also established a new upper chamber, which the president would appoint, and gave him broad powers to rule by decree. Effectively, the amendments authorized Zeroual to govern without popular restraint. Their obvious intent was to keep any Islamic party from acquiring the power the FIS almost did in 1991-92.

Algerians voted on the amendments in November 1996, and according to the government, more than 85 percent gave their assent. The official tally was 12.7 million ballots cast, more than in the presidential election the year before. No outside observers were permitted to monitor the voting, however, and many Algerians, noting that polling stations had been virtually empty, dismissed the figures cynically.

DEAD OR DORMANT?

Still, the amendments went into effect, apparently closing all doors to power for the Islamic movement. Was the FIS dead? Many felt it had taken its last shot at remaining a political player in going to Sant'Egidio. The GIA, meanwhile, had hijacked its identity, undermining the popular loyalty the Islamic movement had once enjoyed. Zeroual had offered the people no more than a facade of democracy. His constitution now assured the presidency, acting for the army, of legal possession of the last word in running the Algerian state.

But where had the sentiment gone that produced a vote for an Islamic state in 1990 and again in 1991? Had the huge FIS victory been an illusion? Had Algerians been, as secularists claimed, intent on voting the FLN out rather than the FIS in? Had they never really been interested in an Islamic state at all?

Certainly the Islamic movement does not think Algerians are prepared to abandon its cause. It continues to assert that the injustice of January 1992 will not prevail and that Algerians will, in the end, affirm its right to rule. Yet for the moment the president and the army are securely in charge. This past summer Zeroual conducted another election in which Algerians voted for their new, largely impotent parliament. To no one's surprise, the president's party and its allies captured a substantial majority of seats. Zeroual, in releasing Madani from prison soon after, seemed to say that the civil war was over. But he could hardly have been more mistaken. The carnage, after a brief remission, resumed with a vengeance.

Yet Zeroual in the 1997 election had completed the reassembly of the parts -- presidency, constitution, parliament -- of the Algerian state. The damage to legality done in the January coup had ostensibly been repaired. Zeroual could make a plausible claim of legitimacy, which foreign governments, including the United States, were willing to accept.

Many Algerians, however, say that the Islamic movement is in hibernation, waiting for spring. When the movement awakens, they say, its political arm may no longer carry the FIS’s name, but it will profess the same commitment to a state based on Islam and the sharia. None of Zeroual's changes, they insist, have compensated Algerians for the regime's repression of support for an Islamic government.

But the army is unlikely ever again to gamble with democracy, as it did in 1990 and 1991. Nor is it likely to grant the opportunities for growth that the Islamic movement enjoyed in the decades after independence. It has learned the price of loosening its hold on Algerian society, and it possesses the power to keep the bonds tight.

Zeroual has erected the scaffolding of a state while shackling the society that fills the space within. The space now seethes with discontent. Algerians of all political beliefs hope the spilling of blood will abate. But they agree that the struggle for the nation's soul is far from over.

  • Milton Viorst's foreign reporting has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. This article is excerpted from his book In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, to be published by Doubleday early next year.
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