7 March 2014

North Africa: Maghreb Islamist Movements Go Mainstream


Casablanca — French-Algerian Amel Boubekeur is an internationally-recognised expert on political Islam. Her books include "Whatever Happened to the Islamists?: Salafis, Heavy Metal Muslims, and the Lure of Consumerist Islam".

Magharebia met with Boubekeur in Casablanca to learn more about what she calls the "transformation" of salafist and Islamist movements in the Maghreb.

Magharebia: What is the first thing people need to know about Islamists in the Maghreb region?

Amel Boubekeur: These movements can be viewed in terms of how much access they have to political power. It is more meaningful to talk about whether parties have been legalised or not than to distinguish between "moderate" or "radical" Islam.

In Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, we find legalised parties that have accepted the rules of the game... Then there are parties, which are more or less tolerated in public places but are not at all permitted to participate in elections.

Magharebia: What changes have the Islamists undergone since the Arab Spring?

Boubekeur: Acquiring a new revolutionary legitimacy or portraying their victory as the result of a democratic transition gave them an opportunity to re-launch their presence in politics, and they have done so with varying degrees of success.

They are discussing the theoretical aspects of their ideology less and have had to adapt to the demands for social justice made on the streets. For example, Al Adl Wal Ihsane is now talking much more about the price of fuel as a danger that could cause a social explosion than about the "roaya" (vision) of the late Sheikh Yassine in order to announce a probable "kaouma" (revolution). They have also had to agree to govern in coalition with non-Islamist parties in order to consolidate their presence.

Now, however, there arises the question of the Islamist relevance of their use of institutions, which rarely goes beyond the anecdotal. The fact that they do not yet have the creation of a common front with the newer Islamist parties or the salafist movements as an election strategy is quite telling, and reveals that as parties, they have been quite disoriented by the way that the revolutions or transitions have turned out. They are probably still at a stage where they are "digesting" their integration into the mainstream.

Magharebia: Who do these movements aim to serve?

Boubekeur: I think that when Islamist parties are in power, their role is to keep radical tendencies in check. We have seen the impact of the dissolution of the FIS in Algeria on the violent scattering of its most hard-line fringe. At the same time, it seems to me that these parties have not solved the dilemma of deciding what their social support base is.

Can they keep everyone happy? There is a large gap between the salafists, who want to enforce a purely transposed programme of Sharia, and the coalition parties, who do not want to base their joint governance on Islam...

Magharebia: Is it correct to say that salafism is not the same for all North African countries?

Boubekeur: I will answer that question mainly in terms of salafiyya ilmiyya, even though the differences between countries are great.

In the case of Morocco, it is not salafist figures who are being tolerated. A new opportunity has been brought by the policy of reconciliation with former political prisoners, which was adopted by Mohammed VI in order to distance himself from his father's reign. The salafists then jumped onto this bandwagon...

In Algeria's case, the salafist parties are tolerated in economic circles, including informal ones, but they absolutely cannot have a public political presence.

In Tunisia, salafist figures have acquired a competitive revolutionary legitimacy, which has enabled them to portray themselves as the true defenders of the ideals of the revolution. It seems that the involvement of salafists in negotiations with the central government is becoming routine.

That said, it remains to be seen how this involvement will change salafist doctrine, which is itself fairly resistant to any form of political institutionalisation that is not Islamic in origin.

Magharebia: Salafist movements are looking to create their own political parties. Does this mean they are abandoning their takfirist ideas?

Boubekeur: A distinction must be made between the minority of jihadist salafists and other salafists. And not all jihadists are takfirists. If they create parties, they will use them mainly as mouthpieces and lobbying tools, rather than to compete in elections...

Magharebia: There is much talk about the lack of a political plan or manifesto among the Islamist parties. Is this view confirmed by what they have done since they got into government?

Boubekeur: The impact of the post-authoritarian context for Tunisia and the post-transitional context for Morocco and Algeria in which we now find ourselves must be taken into account.

The political application of Islam is being increasingly expanded from the old oppositionist stances of the Islamist parties or excommunication for the salafists. We are in a fairly unprecedented situation where it is now necessary not just to criticise politics, but also to engage in it.

The Islamist parties now face the challenge of coming up with methods of mobilisation and governance that go beyond the mere stance of pious resistance to illegitimate leaders. For now, they have instead adapted the practices of those who were in power before them to suit themselves, without really displaying any great political daring.

The unequal relationships with the army, security forces and economic power, and the criminalisation of street demonstrations, are still topical issues.

Finally, the political maturing of the way in which Islamist parties govern will not depend on them alone. It will also be linked, and perhaps primarily so, to the ability of the other components of the political arenas in the Maghreb to contribute to the creation of a plural governance framework where the Islamists have their place, without it being diminished or hegemonic.

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