My previous post regarding the role of Algerian Islamist parties in the post-Civil War period focused primarily on the functional and strategic role of such parties. This is also true of the previous posting on the Mauritanian Tawassoul. The conclusion of both of those posts was that the net affect of these parties, both representing historically marginal political constituencies and tendencies, was to legitimize established political authorities. In their pursuit of position, whatever their intentions or goals might be, have served to offer a glean of Islamic legitimacy to their respective regimes through their commitment to compromise at any cost.
Unfortunately, both posts fail — as I see it — to address what affect these parties’ activities might have on Islamist politics in their countries and some of the less functional and more ideational aspects of their behavior. Both posts under-emphasize the parties’ own agency within the structural limits of Mauritanian and Algerian political society, which is admittedly limited.
More thoughts on Algeria
The post on Algerian parties addresses this in its concluding paragraphs, arguing that the long term affect has been to alienate more radical tendencies in Algeria, rather than to moderate them. The status quo Islamism of the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), now part of the ruling coalition, holds little appeal for those who provided the constituency and membership of the FIS, for instance. By now the party serves the role of the conservative bulwark against the de-Islamization of the state, rather than a revolutionary force (which it never was) seeking to expand the role of Islam in government (which it was at its origin). It accepts the establishment view of Islam as one component of several others in making up the identity of the Algerian Revolution, state and people but it does not esssentialize the Algerian polity into a Muslim one. It seeks to preserve those elements of the state that are widely accepted as Islamic and to enhance their role to the point of sustainability. The debate over the weekend, for instance, is a part of this process which is not one of negotiation but of affirmation and conservation. Its old refrain that the state ought to be Islamized gradually and by winning the hearts and minds of the people. Today, it seems to believe that its duty is to preserve what it can of the state’s Islamic identity and to encourage the role of Islam in the private sphere. Thus, society more readily accepts Islam for itself while disassociating it with the state, whose “Islam” is more superficial and control-oriented than spiritual. The impact of such moderate parties has been to make the state more tolerant of Islamist and reformist activity at a grassroots level — though the experience of the Civil War likely contributes to this realization that the population will not tolerate a kind of unilateral secularism as well. The regime also might have it that it is better to have religious people more eager to pray than vote or protest, however long that is likely to last.
At the same time, though, it has also caused the parties’ popular credibility to evaporate through their collaboration with the regime and their failure to provide any meaningful element of positive economic or social development for the population. These parties are the advocates of their Islamist agendas and leaders, not so much the “common man,” or even the common Algerian Islamist from whom both the MSP and en-Nahda actively distance themselves from. This element was sacrificed in the previous posting in favor of an analysis that more heavily emphasized rational choice at the expense of ideology and whatever genuinely good intentions might be capable of existing in men active in the Algerian government. The ultimate victory of the MSP has been to make itself the political face of Algerian Islamism. In this it has made status quo Islamism, which in the 1960’s and 1970’s was mostly the domain of landed men and scholars, the most “active” tendency in Algerian Islamist politics at the expense of the revolutionary one, represented by the leaders of the FIS, whose idiom more closely resembled that of Kwame Nkrumah’s “seek ye first the political kingdom, and all else will follow.” The party, however, has not put to rest popular expectations many Algerians hold for men in the opposition, namely that such men do not dignify an “illegitimate” or repressive government by joining it or compromising their own standing with the party faithful by participating in it. Here is where its victory of the last ten or so years may be quick to unravel. For now, it is the most significant religious political actor in Algeria, though it does not control a serious mass of people who would follow if the party were to find itself in disagreement with the rest of government. In essence, the Strongest Lamb paling about with wolves. Abdallah Djeballa’s movement has been ripped up and he has adopted position of traditional opposition in Algeria, opting out of, for instance, the last presidential polls, looking to bolster his credibility after his force in parliament was diminished. So while both groups have calculated their positions carefully (sometimes more than in others), there are ideological aspects that are especially important.
Mauritania: the strength of traditionalism in politics and ideas
In the Mauritanian case, Tawassoul is still early in its development as an independent actor. It conducts its politics not unlike other small Mauritanian political parties and it makes no remarkable demands towards the Islamization of government. This is partly because the Mauritanian authorities have coopted elements of its agenda, from the weekend issue to Israel to the application of shariah. Its real frontier is at the grassroots, where it is will not only win voters but ideological allies. Most unfortunate has been the tendency of both sets, the Mauritanian and the Algerian, to move into political positions that undermine their popular legitimacy in very basic ways. This has been a greater trouble for the Algerians than the Mauritanians. That Tawassoul moves easily between government and opposition is seen as a necessity of political life in Mauritania, and it does not carry the connotation of spinelessness, lust and narcissism as heavily as Algerian Islamist parties do. What is more damaging to its credibility is its failure to produce new policy proposals and its tendency to openly collude against other political actors. For its party cadres the first count may produce boredom and erode sympathy. The second count makes other political actors weary of its unreliability. In a society where most political actors are aiming for politics that preserves basic elements of the status quo within a democratic framework, Tawassoul is very often seen as putting its own survival above the process rendering itself to assist in the apparatus of manipulation and despotism while relying on an ideology whose long-term affects on Mauritanian society and Islam are still unknown.
This also leads to another trouble facing the party: the contradiction between the reformist and potentially revolutionary instincts arising from its eastern ideational framework and the very worldly nature of its political activity. If it is possible to harmonize the teachings coming from twentieth century Egyptian political Islam and rigid reformism from the Gulf with the historic civic and social Islam of Mauritania, the party and the country could provide a most fascinating study in the future. If it does not and the two tendencies come into competition not just ideologically but physically, as they did in Algeria in the late 1980’s, with traditionalist and revolutionary Islamists coming to blows at mosques and in shanties, it is likely one would attempt to eliminate or otherwise subordinate the other.
Such a scenario is unlikely, though, as the most radical Islamist tendency in Mauritania is unpopular and held in powerful contempt by most people. Traditional religious and social values are still strong and there is no quest to reclaim Arabo-Islamic identity as in the Algerian experience. Whereas in Algeria, traditional religious institutions were weak and urbanization so disorienting as to provide fertile ground for reformist and then revolutionary pollination, Mauritania’s traditionalists are better positioned to respond to rising trends. The country’s isolated geography helps, too. In any case, Tawassoul’s conduct and position shows the importance of structural challenges to radical Islamism in the far reaches of the Arab world. A return to the state of nature as went on in Algeria is unlikely in Mauritania, though if particular trends continue and intensify a certain level of misery might find its way there. Nevertheless Mauritania is still a testament to the value and importance of tradition in political life. The persistence of slavery there emphasizes its limits just the same.