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  Algerians United And Divided by Faith

By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 5, 1999; Page A11

ALGIERS –– The Movement for the Society of Peace is one of Algeria's main Islamic groups, an organization with political clout, a wide charitable sweep and a popular sheik who once said that if the Prophet Mohammed were alive today, he would keep up with the times and probably wear a business suit.

The group's corridors are decorated with pencil sketches of some of an estimated 400 members who have been killed in recent years, largely by Islamic militants who say they are warring in favor of the same religion, which the movement practices peacefully through its schools, charities and political work.

Although the fighting in Algeria's civil breakdown is ostensibly about religious values, the killing has not been limited to secular academics, government officials, bar owners, foreigners or others who might reject the Islamic rule the country's armed fundamentalist groups have been fighting to install. It has fallen equally hard on committed Muslims--men and women whose dedication to the faith would seem beyond challenge.

In the eyes of the radicals, movement members say, it is not just whether you believe but whether you believe the version of Islam they proffer.

"They just take it like slogans and use it for other purposes," said Makri Abderrazak, a member of Parliament and head of the movement's human rights program. "It is a struggle not for Islamic values but for power."

Between the actions of the armed fundamentalist groups and a hard-line state security apparatus, the conflict in Algeria has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives since it erupted in 1992; perhaps another 20,000 people have disappeared. While the security forces in this North African state seem to have the upper hand, and militants are surrendering under a six-month amnesty recently endorsed by Algerian voters, an average of 300 people per month still are being killed.

The conflict reflects a broad rift in the Middle East over how to practice and interpret Islam in modern times and how to define its role in the governance of a modern society. All Muslims accept the Koran as the basis of their faith, a book they believe is the direct word of God, delivered through the Prophet Mohammed. They feel that the Koran, coupled with the examples and words of the Prophet, forms not just a set of moral and philosophical beliefs but also a system for regulating individual lives and society as a whole.

There, however, the agreement ends. Throughout the Islamic world, those same tenets encompass widely divergent societies--all of which claim a foundation in, or at least a consistency with, Koranic principles--but have different practices regarding family life, dress, alcohol, entertainment, criminal law, human rights and other issues.

In Algeria, academics and moderate Islamic activists agree that the rise in popularity of the Islamic Salvation Front in the late 1980s and early 1990s was more an expression of frustration with the country's long history of corruption and authoritarian rule than a desire to remake Algeria in the image of Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Algerians regard their society as unique in the region, with its own complexities--not entirely Arab or European, but stamped with certain European trappings after more than a century of French colonial rule. These Western influences include widespread use of the French language, a taste for local wine, comparatively free association between men and women and other habits that would be difficult to supplant with the type of conformity demanded in more fundamentalist states. It is common in central Algiers, for instance, to see veiled women strolling nonchalantly with friends in sleeveless shirts and other Western fashions.

Even outside Algiers, many Algerians say it is the militants who have strayed from the faith. "What happened in Algeria is not from Islam. Our religion is one of peace and tolerance," said Souhila, a teenager from Sidi Moussa, a town a half-hour's drive from Algiers that was a stronghold of the Islamic fighters.

She lives in a house that her little brother has decorated with chalk drawings of the various weapons he has seen on the street; the bridge from her neighborhood to the town lies in dynamited ruin. Among the victims of the conflict was her father, a cab driver who was abducted by an armed group she presumes to have been militants.

Today, calm has largely returned to the neighborhood. Souhila and the other children have returned to school, a journey some said they did not like to make during the worst of the conflict for fear of harassment for their dress or some other reason. Souhila is plowing through "Pride and Prejudice" to improve her English.

At the Irchad Islah Association, another Islamic charity, Aissa Benlakhdar, the president, said he fully supports the idea of an Islamic government in Algeria. However, he said his association's notion of what that means bears little resemblance to the ideas espoused by the militant fighters. In fact, militants killed the group's founder, leaving his body with copies of his writings on his chest.

"We want to put Islam into real practice," said Benlakhdar. "It is not a magic solution but a start. . . . We want to see a resurgence for the role of justice, for the role of peace, of accepting others. That is the real spirit."

© 1999 The Washington Post Company

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