Nasser Nouri

World News


Maghreb: Tug of War Between Religion and Tradition

After the independence of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria in the mid-fifties and early sixties there was a cautious move towards modernity. Women were offered education on an equal footing with men and the path was cleared for future possible equality. In Tunisia, this equality was made even more real under the leadership of President Habib Bourguiba, the national hero of independence.

By the early 1970s there was a surge of socialism and communism with the aim of toppling the monarchy in Morocco and creating socialist entities in Algeria and Tunisia. The grand design failed in Morocco and Tunisia but succeeded in Algeria. Nevertheless, the three countries were on their way to modernity but not democracy. In Morocco, after the military coups, the executive monarchy turned repressive. In Algeria, the Boumedienne socialist absolutism became normal practice and Tunisia was transformed into an enlightened dictatorship.

In 1979, with the advent of the Iranian revolution and the takeover of power by the Mullahs, the Arab region was in for a big change: the surge of Islamism. This surge was made inevitable by two important events: the determination of the Iranian theocracy to export its revolution to the rest of the Muslim world and the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan in 1979.

Threatened by the ‘Big Bear’ in the North and Persian Shiism in the East, the Gulf states reacted by bankrolling Salafist Jihadists. First the Soviets in Afghanistan and later the Shiite influence in the Middle East. Thus, was born the notorious and ill-reputed al-Qaeda.

It was the beginning of the orientalization of the Muslim world through religious practice, dress code and extensive predication, using nascent satellite TV and the Internet to spread radical Islam and Wahhabism which called for the return to the benevolent tradition of the good and pious Muslims of the past.

While this return to the past was taking place in the Middle East, the Maghreb countries, to counter French cultural influence, decided to fully “Arabize” the educational curriculum. This move dictated by pure nationalism had later dire consequences in the Maghreb.

In Morocco, the rise of Islamist militant fervor with Shabiba Islamiyya, founded by Moutti, and Al Adl Wal Ihsan denied the Alaouite monarchy its religious and historical legitimacies. The leader of the latter movement, Abdessalam Yassine, sent a letter entitled: “Islam or the downpour” in which he candidly asked the monarch to abandon modernity: “Sweep the political parties aside and come hither to sit together: you, myself and the army.”

In Algeria, the FIS (Front of Islamic Salvation) was founded in 1989 and soon won more than half of the valid votes cast in the municipal elections in 1990, and achieved almost a landslide in the legislative elections of 1992 with the slogan: “Islam is the solution.” Threatened by this movement, the army annulled the results of the general elections, disbanded this Salafist party and interned its cadres in 1992. This led to a bloody civil war that lasted until 1998 and claimed the lives of 250,000 people.

In Tunisia, the senile President-for-life Bourguiba was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the ambitious general and Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, who immediately set out to strengthen Tunisia’s modernity through a tribal form of presidency built on corruption and repression. His ambitious and highly-personified republic was immediately rejected by the Tunisian Islamists who called for the re-Islamization of Tunisian society. Ennahda, the flag-bearer of Tunisian Radical Islam, came about in 1980. This Islamist party, under the leadership of Rashid Al Ghanoushi, is probably the most democratic and moderate of the whole Arab world upholding political pluralism and dialogue with the West. Its moderate attitude did not save it from being banned in 1989 nor the imprisonment of 25,000 of its activists in 1992. Exasperated, Ennahda and its leadership relocated to England, where they were given asylum until their triumphant return in 2011, after the advent of the Arab Spring uprisings.

Besides the political impact of Islamism on the Maghreb since 1985, probably the other most important impact of the return to tradition and the orientalization of this region can be felt on the massive return to religious practice and belief, especially among the youth who reject Western culture through steadfast re-Islamization.

What happens next in the Maghreb is likely going to be overshadowed by ISIS but what comes next is anyone’s guess.