Compromise with political Islam is impossible

Open Democracy

On the 20th anniversary of the fundamentalist assassination of Algerian educator Salah Chouaki, Karima Bennoune, WLUML board member, translates his warning - so relevant today - about the need to be uncompromising in the battle against the very ideology that motivated his murder.

Salah Chouaki, noted education expert and dedicated leftwing activist, murdered on September 14, 1994.

Algerian educator Salah Chouaki published this article in the newspaper El Watan on 15 March 1993 as Algeria headed into its “dark decade” of fundamentalist violence and state counter terror abuses. He was amazingly prescient about the rising threat of political Islam. The day after this article appeared a campaign of fundamentalist assassinations of Algerian intellectuals escalated with the killing of former Minister of Education Djilali Liabes. Just eighteen months later, on 14 September 1994, after receiving threats which failed to silence him, Chouaki himself was gunned down by the Armed Islamic Group. During the subsequent decade, as many as 200,000 Algerians were killed.

The feminist activist Ourida Chouaki said that one of the most important ways to remember is by combatting the fundamentalist ideology which motivated his killing, and by discrediting jihadist terrorism. His article is translated into English for publication today in that spirit, and to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the killing of this progressive North African thinker and activist. Salah Chouaki wrote, that “the most dangerous and deadly illusion… is to underestimate fundamentalism… the mortal enemy of our people.” His brave words and warnings – that like so many other Algerian intellectuals he gave his life to articulate - remain tragically relevant today around the world.

Compromise with political Islam is impossible

There is an unresolvable contradiction between support for the idea of a modern society and the belief, sincere or feigned, that it is possible to ‘domesticate’ the totalitarian monster of fundamentalism.

The expression “we are a Muslim state” was used recently by the head of the government, as if to tell the fundamentalists that he had no lessons to learn from them.  Meanwhile, he labelled the most important modernist forces “secular-assimilationists”- as if they represented a totally outmoded politics. Taken together, all of this reveals a tendency to accept being drawn onto the playing-field of political Islamism. This is a choice which leads inexorably toward fundamentalism itself.

Thus, the state embarks on a course of one-upmanship, beginning a competition with parties that exploit religion and use it for reactionary political ends. In so doing, the state itself and modernist forces have lost the battle before it has even begun.

Even if the fundamentalist forces were to be soundly beaten on the terrorism front thanks to the mantra, “we are a Muslim state”, and because of the attack launched on the partisans of modernization, they would keep their ideological trump cards. Hence, the fundamentalists can try yet again to take power– not merely a piece of power which they already have, but total power - as soon as they have caught their breath.

What religious restoration?

If the state uses religion, under whatever pretext and in whatever form – from then on there is no reason to think that others would not surface alongside it, to dispute its monopoly!

From the moment that we plant in the minds of the general public the seed of the idea that the question of power is intimately related to some sort of “religious restoration,” we are in fact accepting that political discourse may be dismantled and reduced to religious discourse. We are no longer speaking to citizens, but to believers. We are no longer speaking to civil society but to an abstract ‘umma’. We are no longer running a state under the rule of law but a de facto state. From that moment onward, the Constitution and the laws lose all meaning, as we continue to experience in a tragic fashion. Is it not in the name of God and of sacred religion that terrorists continue to savagely assassinate Algerians?

If one calls on religion and the clergy, and if one goes to the extent of training them as the sole judges of whether or not actions conform to sacred texts, how can one avoid at some point giving in to the pressure exerted by those who choose the societal project most in agreement with the basic convictions of a mass of believers, and of the clergy they trust to implement this project?

Thus, the believers and the umma would have no need for modern republican institutions, nor for a state under the rule of law with all its powers, nor for an army or a police force, nor for rules regulating the functioning of the economy, nor for scientific or cultural development….  Thus, we give way to wild neoliberalism, to obscurantist dogmas, to the most ferocious repression and even to stoning, to the negation of the basic rights of citizens…

Egyptian philosopher Fouad Zakariya has clearly demonstrated how, in the sphere of state-society relations, political Islamism functions as a path. It inexorably changes the state into a surging wave of fundamentalism as it embarks on the quest for power by all possible means so as to become a theocratic society.

Zakariya identified and analyzed the following pattern:  the Islamists occupy the socio-cultural terrain, then the politico-ideological terrain. They exert a multiform pressure on the society and the state. The latter makes concessions to them, and even ends up trying to outdo them so as not to allow itself to appear less Islamist than the Islamists. Thus, the state introduces Islamism in school, in the cultural realm, in institutions, in different spheres – including the economic one – thinking or pretending to think that it is promoting Islam as a religion. The Islamists profit from all of this, re-investing their gains in all manner of renewed pressures which win them yet more ground, and then they repeat this pattern again, at ever higher levels.

In each and every case, it is fundamentalism that succeeds in re-orienting the positions that take hold in these spheres in its favor. This is because of the enormous scientific and cultural lag that affects these countries. It is also because the balance of power within religion, as shaped by our history, has erased the brightest pages of our Arabo-Islamic cultural patrimony – those which carry the seeds of rationality and of modernity. This historical dynamic has promoted the domination of the most conservative and obscurantist interpretations.

As the experience of our country, and that of Egypt, in the 70s and 80s,  concretely demonstrates, the legitimization of political Islamism… comes about principally because of state Islamism, whatever the original intention of those who promote that approach. 

As long as one opts for a state Islamism, for which one can never determine the correct dosage, and which in any case works in favor of fundamentalism, one can only offer a negative answer to the question: “how can a Muslim population achieve modernity?”  This question is, in and of itself, a legitimate one.  However, the answer that suggests we should do so “by Islamizing modernity” is nothing more than a false response, which amounts to the same thing as “modernizing political Islam”.

In all cases, this means one imagines modernity as replicated in the future on the present and past reality, and from the point of view of a “specificity.”  It designates the “umma” as a part of humanity which excludes itself from humanity.  It bases faith on a personal, internalized conviction that excludes rationality.

What then would be the most positive answer to the question of how a Muslim population can achieve modernity?  It could be expressed as follows:  For a Muslim population that is culturally Arabo-Amazight (Berber), doing so means accepting and being at ease with modernity, without negating  any of its own specificities vis-à-vis other Muslim populations, and other peoples of the world, who also have their own specificities….

Why is secularism so often reduced to a kind of offense against religion?  Why engage in such useless questioning of motives when our country needs instead a sincere and objective debate?...  Political discourse in religious garb is the cancer that eats away at our society. 

An impossible compromise

There is a very serious misunderstanding of what is at stake strategically. This reality is becoming increasingly clear in the eyes of public opinion. We are talking about saving Algeria as a modern nation.

If it is simply a question of courting those who voted for the Islamic Salvation Front because they wanted to reject the bureaucratic rentier system that President Chadli Benjedid represented, for this we are risking the possibility of throwing them into the arms of an even more powerful fundamentalism in the short term and thereby putting the very Muslim identity of the people itself in danger.

Ultimately, it may be the crony bureaucracy itself that refuses to yield. At the end of the day, it is this system which guarantees the political survival of fundamentalism.  It is “economism”, the false belief that economic problems can be resolved by economic formulas independent of the political context and without a resolute ideological struggle against the forces that are the cause of the multidimensional crisis. Those causes are, in fact, the impoverished thought and ideology of the crony bureaucracy for which fundamentalism acts as a counterweight.

Compromise with fundamentalism and all political Islamism is absolutely impossible.

Persisting in defending the possibility and the necessity of such a compromise merely perpetuates illusions and mystifies public opinion. It paves the way for fundamentalism to seize absolute and undivided power.

This thesis is no longer simply theoretical. It has been proven in practice, at the cost of hundreds of victims. Every effort to build bridges with fundamentalism, every effort to draw away from the forces that strive for progress, results in emboldened fundamentalist forces, and a resumption of their initiatives.

The best way to defend Islam is to put it out of the reach of all political manipulation.

The best way to defend the modern state is to put it out of the reach of all exploitation of religion for political ends.

This article has been abridged and annotated for English language readers by the translator, Karima Bennoune. Read the original article in French.