WESTERN fear of Islamic fundamentalism seems to have blinded analysts to the motives behind the latest Algerian unrest. The question is, are those Algerians fundamentalists or Islamists? To understand the turmoil in Algeria, we have to grasp the difference between the two terms. Fundamentalist Islam is a way of life. It is a belief system in which the social and the political are inseparable.
When fundamentalism is state-sponsored, it focuses mainly on the social aspects and is used as a way of preserving the political status quo. In the cases of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the emphasis has always been on forcing women to wear veils and making men go to mosques.
The purpose is to invade the private sphere of the citizens and keep them from questioning the government's legitimacy. While some fundamentalists are extremely political, their agenda habitually confuses political and social issues. That is, they want the political power to force their social norms on everyone, wealthy as well as poor.
Islamism, on the other hand, emphasizes the political realm and allows social issues to be resolved privately by its followers. Islamism is not a way of life but rather a political movement aimed at combating both corruption and fundamentalism. As a political movement, it is closer to Latin American liberation theology than to the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia or even Iran.
The animosity between Saudi-sponsored fundamentalists and the Islamists of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia during the Gulf crisis confirmed this distinction.
The Algerian protests are Islamist rather than fundamentalist. This is the case in all the Maghreb countries (Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco). The leaders of this movement, like Abbas Maddani in Algeria, Al Ghanoushi in Tunisia, and Al Turabi in the Sudan are Western-educated intellectuals rather than religious leaders. Their ideas are political, with a commitment to democracy and fair representation of all social groups.
In Algeria, Maddani has attracted more followers than the governing party because of the reformist program he proposes. His program attracts many French-speaking and French-educated Algerians for two reasons.
First, the promotion of political Islam is an attempt to establish their unique identity. Many of Maddani's followers were ill-treated while they were working in France. They once considered France their home. Yet, with the wave of anti-Arab feelings in France, including murders over last two years, many Algerians had no choice but to return home.
Many of these returning workers, however, despised the corruption within the current regime in Algeria as much as they did the chauvinism of the French National Front. They were looking for a forum where they could express their anger. The only group that shared their rage was Mandani's Islamic Salvation Front.
Not only did it share the workers' anger, but it did not infringe on their rights to freely express their concerns. In addition, the front was committed to pluralism.
Second, the Islamic Salvation Front shares with its French-educated followers a hatred of the dictatorship that has long run Algeria.
Most Western analysts emphasized the call to an Islamic state by some elements among the demonstrators. This call, however, should be viewed in the light of the pluralistic nature of the Islamic Salvation Front.
Within the movement are those who want an Islamic system with the Shura (something similar to the Iranian Parliament) as its form of governing. Yet the majority within the movement are committed to pressuring the current government to further the democratization process started two years ago.
The demands of the demonstrators reveal their ideology. A main demand of the Islamic front was democratization and the end of the monopoly on power exercised by the National Liberation Front, which has dominated Algerian politics since independence in 1962. It also demanded that parliamentary and presidential elections be held under the observation of a neutral body.
The Islamists charge that the now postponed elections, which had been scheduled for June 26, were rigged in favor of the ruling party. When the new prime minister, Sid Ahmed Ghozali, assured the Islamic leadership that the government is committed to democratization and that elections will be held within six months, violence stopped.
One can conclude from this that the Islamists are calling for their share of power within a new democratic political system. The ruling party in Algiers, however, may try to take advantage of the outside world's fear of fundamentalism to disenfranchise the majority of Algerians and consolidate its own power.