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Islamic Salvation Front

By:
Peter von Sivers
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Islamic Salvation Front

The first post-Independence generation in Algeria came of age in the late 1970s. Nearly 70 percent of this generation had received at least a primary education in Arabic, which included instruction in Reform Islam, Algeria's state religion. Reform Islam was based on the sacred texts of the Qurʿān and sunnah (tradition), reformulating the legal code and opposing the centuries-old religious traditions of mysticism and sainthood that were still practiced in the countryside. Unlike their predecessors who were raised under French rule, young Algerian Muslims, now able to read the Scriptures for themselves, constructed a counter-model to the official socialist state. In their view, the early Muslims, living under the prophet Muḥammad and his first four successors, formed a perfect community in which God's revealed law, the sharīʿah, ordered all aspects of life, from personal morality to penal law and the government. Most believing young Algerians espoused Reform Islam in their personal lives, seeking to conform to its moral precepts. A small minority turned this Islam into a political ideology, called Islamism, and tried to transform Algeria into a sharīʿah state, either gradually through the political process or violently through an Islamist revolution.

In the late 1970s, violent Islamists began harassing “immodestly” dressed women, smashing bottles in liquor stores, and driving state-appointed prayer leaders from mosques in Algerian cities. More disturbing were riots in 1981–1982 in a number of cities, during which Islamists demanded the establishment of an Islamic government. The government responded by repressing Islamist groups but offered them some concessions, such as the establishment of an Islamic university in Constantine and Islamization of the previously more liberal family law. The turmoil created by the Islamists coincided with increasing problems in state socialism, the official government-led industrialization program, which some army generals exploited for their own benefit. In 1986, the world price of oil fell dramatically, and the government was unable to pay its external debt, had to lay off many of its workers, and could no longer finance food subsidies for the poor. Under pressure from both foreign lenders and massive street protests in 1988, the government introduced far-reaching reforms, including a new constitution.

In the Constitution of 1989, the National Liberation Front (FLN) lost its status as both the sole state party and the political front for the army. A multiparty system emerged, dominated by the newly founded Islamic Salvation Front (FIS, Front Islamique du Salut; Arabic, Jabhat al-Inqādh al-Islāmī). The party was a coalition of gradualists and revolutionaries that demanded a sharīʿah state but agreed on little else. Its president was the gradualist ʿAbbāsī al-Madanī, a 58-year-old professor of education at Algiers University who was active during the country's struggle for independence. One of the vice presidents was ʿAlī Bel Ḥajj (Ibn al-Ḥajj), a popular 33-year-old preacher at a mosque in a lower-class Algiers neighborhood who vacillated between populist electioneering and outbursts against “un-Islamic” democracy. Well-financed through membership dues, contributions from the small business sector, and Saudi subsidies, the party won a majority of municipalities in the communal elections of June 1990.

After winning the first stage of the national elections in December 1991, the FIS was poised to gain an absolute majority in the second stage in January 1992. This stage, however, never arrived: a group of army leaders unhappy with the economic and political reforms initiated in 1989 by their colleagues in the government, intervened, and the elections were aborted by a coup d’état. Al-Madanī and Bel Ḥajj were arrested, and when massive street demonstrations broke out, 10,000 FIS militants and members were ordered deported to desert camps. The military believed that the FIS was about to extinguish Algeria's barely extant democracy.

Islamists who had escaped the army dragnet went underground, receiving training from Algerian guerillas who had returned from Afghanistan after the defeat of al-Qaʿida. Several small groups attacked isolated police and army outposts in the countryside. But with the bombing of Algiers airport in August 1992, which claimed nine lives, the Islamist terrorists decided to expand their activities to include urban and civilians targets. In 1993, heated debates erupted among the 27,000 Islamist guerillas over whether to follow a politically oriented strategy of forcing new elections or an all-out war against the “unbelieving” (takfīrī) ruling and middle classes and the creation of a new Islamic state on their ruins.

The majority of the Islamist guerillas were politically minded. Initially, they operated as small units against the police and army, mainly in the eastern and western hinterlands. In 1994, they came together as the Islamic Salvation Army (Armée Islamique du Salut, AIS; Arabic, Jaysh al-Inqādh al-Islāmī), cooperating with the detained FIS leaders who began to express qualified support for a negotiated solution with the military. The smaller Armed Islamic Group (Groupe Islamique Armé, GIA; Arabic, al-Jamāʿat al-Islāmīyah al-Musallaḥ), operating in and around Algiers, engaged in unrestrained terrorism against soldiers, policemen, professionals, musicians, sports figures, and unveiled women. Its guerillas murdered Christian monks, hijacked an Air France plane, and detonated bombs in France. In 1995 they even turned their fury against the guerillas of the AIS, whom they denounced as traitors. When the AIS found itself squeezed between two ruthless fronts, it decided, in 1997, to suspend all terrorist acts. The GIA, however, refused to quit, and even though the government succeeded in decimating its ranks, it has continued its relentless struggle into the twenty-first century.

The Algerian generals conducted their counterinsurgency without restraint. With the help of local militias and village guards, numbering nearly 200,000, the army gained the upper hand in 1997. Although still unwilling to engage in economic liberalization and political pluralism, they did cede direct rule to an elected civilian, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in 1999. Bouteflika granted amnesty to the Islamist guerillas in 1999 and 2005 and released the last FIS members (including Madanī in 2003 and Bel Ḥajj in 2006). Two FIS successor parties joined the political process but together failed to poll more than 26 and 21 percent in the national elections of 1997 and 2001. After untold suffering and deaths, amnesia appeared to have replaced the Islamist passions of 1989–1991.

See also ALGERIA and MADANī, ʿABBāSī.

Bibliography

  • Derradji, Abder Rahmane. A Concise History of Political Violence in Algeria, 1954–2000: Brothers in Faith, Enemies in Arms. Lewiston, N.Y., 2002.
  • Haddam, Anwar N. “An Islamist Vision for Algeria,” Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 1996. An interview with a leading member of the FIS.
  • Martinez, Luis. The Algerian Civil War, 1990–1998. New York, 2000.
  • Roberts, Hugh. The Battlefield Algeria: 1988–2002: Studies in a Broken Polity. London and New York, 2003.
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