Islamic Thought and the Eradicator Mentality in Algeria

When news broke in Algiers of Abbassi Madani’s death in April 2019, thousands took to the streets to commemorate his legacy. This came as a shock to many, considering he was a founder of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party, which, on paper, was held responsible for most of the tragedy that took place during the Algerian Civil War in the 1990s.

After receiving his doctorate education in London, Madani went on to teach at the University of Algiers. His activist career began in 1954 when he was arrested by French occupation authorities. He stayed in jail until 1962, when Algeria gained its independence from France. However, he soon found himself at odds with another force, this time involving his own people — the ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) party.

Madani’s demand that the government replace French with Arabic in all areas of public life cost him another jail term in 1982. [1] Following his release, he created the FIS in 1988 with Ali Benhadj, considered the more aggressive co-founder, and grew a following through his preaching and philanthropy. In many respects, the FIS compensated for larger state failures. Its charitable efforts re-established more equitable conditions for a population that had been disadvantaged by government negligence. 

In “The Genesis of a Partisan Mobilization: Continuities and Politicization of Charitable and Religious Activism within the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS),” Myriam Ait-Aoudia gives an example of such efforts: “During the Tipaza earthquake of October 29, 1989 and the floods in the south the following year, the party leadership took charge of the collection, transport, and distribution of tents, clothing, blankets, foodstuffs, and medicines” [2] for the affected groups. This represents only a fraction of the grassroots work done by the FIS.

The Islamic Salvation Front regarded itself as the successor to Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis’ ‘ulamā movement in the 1930s, and this continuity was personified by leaders Shaykh Ahmad Sahnoun and Shaykh ‘Abd al-Latif Soltani, both of whom were respected Islamic legal scholars active in Ben Badis’ association. Shaykh Ben Badis was trained in the Islamic sciences and aimed to bring Muslims back to tradition, away from paths taken by both ossified conservatives and traitorous repudiators. Whether or not Abbasi Madani and Ali Benhadj properly followed Shaykh ‘Abd al-Hamid Ben Badis’ footsteps is a separate discussion.

Backed especially by Algeria’s disenfranchised and urban youth, the FIS saw itself as a sequel to Ben Badis’ project and an alternative to the establishment, the latter remaining closely associated with France. Even only a year after independence, the Qiyam al-Islamiyya (Islamic Values) Association, founded by Malek Bennabi and Tijani al-Hashani, opposed the secular and socialist policies of Algeria’s first president Ahmed Ben Bella (1962-65) and, later, of Houari Boumedienne (1965-78).

In 1990, the FIS won local elections, making it the only real threat to the regime. In December 1991, the FIS won even more decisively in the first round of the parliamentary elections, securing 188 of 231 seats. [1] Concurrently, the ruling military hierarchy had been co-opting its clerical class by requiring state-approved certification and screening, and sometimes even composing Friday sermons. [4] Through the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the expression of Islamic thought was supervised and controlled. Professor John Entelis writes in his book Islam, Democracy, and the State in North Africa, “State Islam failed to satisfy the many deep aspirations of disoriented Algerians.” [4] It was within this context that the Islamic Salvation Front gained popularity for its vehement opposition to the system on both a religious and secular scale. They convinced thousands of their potential through unions and culture. 

To prevent an FIS landslide-win in the second round of elections, the French-backed defense minister General Khaled Nezzar staged a military coup. Nezzar was criticized for his former service in the French military and late engagement with the Algerian revolution against France. [1] Ali Hussein Kafi, an Algerian politician who became chairman of the High Council of the State and acting president from 1992 to 1994, even accused Nezzar of infiltrating the FLN on behalf of France. Journalist Vakkas Doğantekin wrote the following in a news article titled “Son of Algeria, hero of glorious defeats: Abbasi Madani”: 

“The Nezzar-appointed junta reimposed martial law and tortured, murdered, and killed thousands extra-judicially. Enforced disappearances and other acts constituting grave violations of international human rights law were everyday occurrences. These crimes were mostly committed against FIS supporters. They upheld laws that forced men to shave off their beards in a bid to humiliate practicing Muslims in an overwhelmingly Muslim country.” [1]

Doğantekin’s words continue to be controversial. However, multiple accounts claim that Algeria’s secret military intelligence had indeed deployed forces masquerading as “Islamists” to commit crimes and escape blame. Habib Souaida’s book The Dirty War is one of the most famous testimonies of this hidden scheme. Having worked for the Algerian Special Forces, Souaida exposed elites who did everything to induce a collective psychosis among the general population, a strategy engendered by mass insecurity, in order to pass themselves off as the ultimate protection against the backwards government the Islamists would supposedly impose. The irony is that the ruling class in place was not the least bit concerned with democracy or peace, only with maintaining their own power. 

When the FIS was banned without a legal warrant in 1992, many turned to guerilla activity as the only viable option. Yet before this shift, Entelis categorized FIS in a way contrary to today’s mainstream media coverage on the civil war, writing:

“Despite the publicity militant Islam has received, the principal Muslim opposition movements in the Maghreb subscribe to a nonviolent transfer of national power. The three most popular and influential movements – Abdessalam Yassine’s Justice and Charity in Morocco, Rachid al-Ghannouchi’s an-Nahdah (Renaissance) in Tunisia, and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS or Front Islamique du Salut) in Algeria headed by Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj – are in fact politically moderate, though all are banned.” [4]

Since the civil war is often spoken about through a binary lens, there is hardly any attention given to supporters of an Islamic government who were critical of how certain militant ligaments of FIS evolved. 

Different coalitions that branched off of the FIS proceeded to disparage the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), considered the most violent of militant groups that emerged during the Civil War. The Army of the Islamic Salvation (AIS) described them as manipulated pawns, and the Islamic League of Dawah and Jihad (LIDD) maintained that the GIA was a secret apparatus used to project Muslims as a bloodthirsty people. The GIA challenged the political leadership of the FIS and so Madani became as much a target as journalists and innocent bystanders — all collateral damage in the GIA’s plot to topple the regime by targeting senior power holders. Such ambitions had been muted for the MIA, who did not envision a revolutionary seizure of power to the same degree, and instead attacked low-level functionaries. The GIA subsumed various elements that were never part of the FIS roadmap. The confusion people experienced on the day of Madani’s passing displayed the extent to which this history, covered in cobwebs, has been misunderstood. 

Many are unaware of how the Algerian government has treated even non-violent FIS supporters. Brute force in the form of state-sponsored terrorist squads, mimicking the French police sweeps in poor neighborhoods during the war of independence, is only the tip of the iceberg. Prevailing history has also shown that parties advocating for Islamic jurisprudence are never fully accepted by corrupt Arab regimes even when playing by the rules, a fact which must be remembered when contemplating the hypocrisy of state monopoly on violence. 

Entelis argues that “if reformist movements have in both the distant and the recent past given rise to radical offshoots – especially when moderation has failed to achieve results quickly or broadly – the nonviolent reformers do not bear the responsibility.” [4] It is also important to stress that even the most pragmatic and measured type of Islamism is deemed completely unacceptable by the deep state. The mobilization of youth behind the FIS represented not a barbaric propensity for “unhinged Islamism” but a respect for the FIS’ accomplishments in daily life (crime, jobs, housing, sanitation, health, law, order) and of course, a strong will to restore Islam and tradition in the public sphere. People were at wit’s end with the political authoritarianism, centralized economy, bureaucratic mismanagement, rampant corruption, and cultural insensitivity (mindless Westernization and secularization) [4] characterizing the country.

Who are “the eradicators” and what is the “eradicator mentality?”

The Islamic Salvation Front does not have a clean track record, but the “eradicator mentality” that came out of its secular opposition has had lasting effects on Islamic thought in Algeria, even if some FLN reformists contributed in exposing the eradicator faction within the military and superficially invited “Islamists” into their ring in the name of pluralism.

In the Middle East Report, historian Hugh Roberts writes:,

“Two tendencies have been confronting one another within the Algerian power structures broadly speaking, those who favor a strategy of brutal suppression of the Islamist movement (les éradicateurs) and those who argue that a compromise must be negotiated if the state is to be preserved (les conciliateurs). In so far as the “eradicators” have had a political vision, it has been that of a modern state à la française, implying a radical rupture with the populist tradition of the FLN state and a secularist separation between politics and religion. The main adherents of this project have been those officers who served in the French army and who have held commanding positions in the Algerian military hierarchy since 1988.” [3]

In Algeria, the hawkish eradicator position enjoyed Parisian sympathy and the bulk of the French-language press. Though it only sustained minority support from the Algerian people, there have been repercussions gone unnoticed. 

In blatant view, a puppet regime of discredited ex-FLN politicians was installed and the FIS was delegitimized. Behind closed doors, Islamic thinkers and innocent FIS supporters were imprisoned or deported. Anwar Haddam, who stressed the need for nonviolent opposition, was still forced to flee to the United States, whose State Department had been critical of the eradicators since March 1994. Eradicators were in favor of a strong veto to Haddam’s return that remains in effect today. As Entelis explains, this suppression, though its own kind of extremism, is “justified in the name of fighting terrorism and Islamic fundamentalism – policies which find receptive audiences in the West.” [4] 

As previously highlighted, the FIS was a vector of social demands that represented Algeria’s Arabic-speaking majority. There continues to be disproportionate status and privileges given to Francophones, indubitably inherited from a colonial past begging to echo. While “eradicator” is a term specifically assigned to figures who pushed to squash “political Islam” all-together during the Black Decade, and although the Algerian government then and now would be considered to have an ambiguous position on the religious content of the constitution (unlike Ettahaddi and the RCD who are explicitly for a secular republic), the liberal upper class can still be described as preservers of an eradicator mentality, defined by a stubborn dismissal of Islam as a vehicle for political and ethical transformation. And it is the members of this class, perched in their villas with noses pointed to the sky, who continue to be staunchly perplexed at the grievances held by common people. 

In March 1984, at age 82, Shaykh Soltani died under house arrest, drawing a funeral procession of over 25,000 mourners, brought full circle by the turnout for Madani’s passing 35 years later. Algeria has yet to recover from an unpronounced death of Islamic thought, because even its wise proponents were cast as murderers. While Islam holds an important place in spirit, it is denied flesh. In 1994, Roberts wrote: “It is no longer clear what the positive content of the eradicators’ vision is now, beyond defense of their own Western lifestyles.” [3] His words remain as true today as they were then.

Works Cited:


[2] Aït-Aoudia, Myriam. “The Genesis of a Partisan Mobilization: Continuities and Politicization of Charitable and Religious Activism within the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS)”, Politix, vol. no 102, no. 2, 2013, pp. 129-146.

[3] Roberts, Hugh. “Algeria between Eradicators and Conciliators.” Middle East Report, no. 189 (1994): 24-27. Accessed March 2, 2021.

[4] Entelis, John P. “Political Islam in the Maghreb: the nonviolent dimension.” Islam, democracy, and the state in North Africa (1997): 43-74.

Photo via Azzedine Rouichi

About the Author: Sabrina Amrane is a journalism and political sciences student. Her interests include Maghribi history, literature, and philosophy. You can follow her on Twitter here.

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