Islamic Movements in Northern Africa
Committee on Foreign Affairs
United States House of Representatives
Islamic Fundamentalism in Africa and Implications for U.S. Policy, 102nd Cong., 2nd sess (1992)
Northern Africa (meaning Africa north of the equator) hosts some of the most active and powerful fundamentalist Muslim movements. Indeed, with the exception of the Iran-Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan area, Northern Africa may be the region of the world with the greatest potential for the fundamentalists. In brief compass, I shall survey the most consequential of these movements, then consider their implications for U.S. policy.
By way of introduction, I would like to define fundamentalist Islam. Though often perceived as a traditional approach to Islam, it is nothing of the sort; rather, it specifically represents a response to the challenge of modernity and the West, and so is a recent phenomenon. Fundamentalism argues that this challenge is best met by rejecting modern or Western ways and seeking all answers in Islam, especially Islamic law (which it contends must be implemented in its entirety). In effect, fundamentalist Muslims turn Islam into the equivalent of a political ideology, comparable in its totality to socialism or fascism.
Fundamentalist movements have had considerable strength in many countries of Northern Africa, including Egypt, Morocco, and Nigeria; but I shall concentrate on four places where fundamentalist movements have particular relevance to U.S. foreign policy: Sudan, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya.
Sudan: Soon after a group of military officers led by 'Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir overthrew the democratically elected government of Sadiq al-Mahdi on June 30, 1989, they showed themselves to be disciples of Hasan at-Turabi, the great fundamentalist figure of modern Sudanese history and the gentleman who testified earlier this afternoon. Though Mr. Turabi did not fill a first-rank position in the new government, the officers' esteem bestowed enormous power on him. He has not been reticent about using this power via the National Islamic Front (NIF) to influence the government of the Sudan during the past three years.
To summarize a complex situation, Mr. Turabi helped turn a poor country in the throes of a decades-long civil war into one of the most wretched places on the planet. The Christians of the Sudan face imposed starvation that recalls the Stalinist famine in the Ukraine. Rather than deliver food, the Sudanese air force has responded by bombing relief sites. Of the regime's many barbarisms, perhaps its outstanding accomplishment lies in its forcing some 400,000 Christians out of their homes and into the barren desert; thousands have already died and many more are in jeopardy unless rescued immediately. Among relief workers, the Sudanese authorities are known as the "Khmer Rouge of Africa"-accurately, for they may be mounting a killing field unmatched since Cambodia's.
Nor is such mischief new to Mr. Turabi. To give one other example, in 1983-84 he held sway over the government of Ja'far Numeiry when Numeiry imposed Islamic law on the entire Sudan, including its Christian population. This had the intended effect of perpetuating and deepening the Sudanese civil war, which continues to the present.
To make matters worse, for the first time in its history, the Sudan has become a menace to its neighbors and beyond. Unlikely as it sounds, Mr. Turabi has worldwide ambitions for fundamentalist Islam and for himself. Thanks to support from the Iranian and Libyan governments, Khartoum has become a significant player in African and Middle Eastern affairs. While Sudan itself stands apart from any vital American interests, it adjoins Egypt and is close to Saudi Arabia, two key countries for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Also, as the largest state in Africa and one that borders on eight countries, it serves as a base for Iranian efforts in Africa, and perhaps other regions too.
During Desert Storm, Mr. Turabi and his colleagues had the nerve to pass foreign-donated emergency aid to Iraq. Further, the Sudan has become a shelter for fundamentalists (for example, Rachid Ghannoushi, leader of Tunisia's Ennahda, for a while enjoyed the use of a Sudanese diplomatic passport). Politically, the regime has allied itself with Middle Eastern radicalism; remember that when Yasir 'Arafat crashed last month, he was on a flight from Khartoum. Sudanese ambitions range yet further: according to a document published in a Tunisian newspaper, Akhbar al-Jumhuriya, fundamentalist elements have since May 1991 been trained in the Sudan with an eye to violent operations in Europe. New African, March 92
Algeria: Fundamentalist Muslims nearly came to power early this year in Algeria, but were prevented from doing so by a preemptive coup carried out by the ruling National Liberation Front party (FLN) in late January 1992.
In contrast to the dissimulation of fundamentalists elsewhere (including Khomeini, Fadlallah of Lebanon, and the current opposition movement in Tajikistan), the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, to its credit, made no bones about despising democracy. Its slogans included such gems as: "No democracy in Islam," "Democracy is blasphemy," and my favorite, "Islam is light, democracy is darkness." The coup raised a classic philosophic dilemma about the democratic process: should an openly anti-democratic party be permitted to gain control of the government? Do democratic rights include the right to eliminate democracy itself? It also raised practical concerns: Will cutting off the fundamentalist Muslims in 1992 mean they will return with greater force and greater fury in the future? Or does it deny them their one and only chance at taking power?
While a good case can be made to have let FIS take power (and, indeed, this was my initial response), several months' meditation on the problem persuades me otherwise. Leaving aside the philosophical issue to concentrate on the practical one, I now see that the fundamentalists had just one chance to take power, and it was important that they be prevented from doing so. Admittedly, foul means were used, but Algeria may have been spared years of trauma in the process.
Fundamentalist Muslims remain the major opposition force in Algeria, and will remain so for some time to come; but if the non-fundamentalists play their cards even half right, they should not take power.
Tunisia: Like Anwar as-Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, Habib Bourguiba allowed the fundamentalist Muslims to flourish, thinking that they offered him protection against his leftist enemies. Well, they may have done a bit of that, but they also presented a large and growing threat in their own right. An increasingly senile Bourguiba was about to lose power to the Movement of the Islamic Tendency (MTI) when Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali deposed him in November 1987. Ben Ali, who had put many of the fundamentalists in jail when he served as Bourguiba's interior minister, not only saved the country from fundamentalism, but he made its repression a hallmark of his rule. While easing up on other opposition movements (for example, giving them media access), he has tried to isolate the fundamentalists. Ben Ali also managed to split off a legal branch of the Islamic opposition (headed by Sheikh Abdelfattah Mourou). In a completely unprecedented move, he convened a meeting of interior ministers from sixteen Arab states this past January to, among other things, coordinate policies against the radicals.
Despite these activities, fundamentalist Islam remains a major force in Tunisia. MTI regrouped as the Ennahda movement; as such, it has shown an uncommon lack of divisiveness and depth of appeal. Despite severe police harrassment, its adherents persevere for the most part quietly, so as to avoid the authorities' wrath. Still, they stood accused of attempting to overthrow the government last May and trying to kill Ben Ali in September 1991, and suffered in each case a large-scale setback.
Libya: Although Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi was one of the key figures in beginning the Islamic revival in the early 1970s, he marched to his own idiosyncratic, anti-fundamentalist tune. For example, he dramatically put Qur'anic punishments on the books, but then did not apply them. Indeed, his two decades in power saw the Libyan government move further away from the Islamic law, not closer to it. Not surprisingly, Qadhdhafi and fundamentalist Muslims mutually despise each other and he actively represses their organizations. So long as Qadhdhafi remains in power, fundamentalism has no role in Libya.
But how long will he remain in power? Qadhdhafi has many enemies, both internal and external (of whom the most determined are probably the Shi'ites of Lebanon, who cannot forgive him for murdering their leader, Musa as-Sadr). The American bombing raid of April 1986 seems to have had a lasting impact on the colonel; while his eccentricities grow ever more monumental, he seems to have lost much of his old aggressiveness. His end seems nigh.
Were that to be, fundamentalist Muslims would be in a strong position to succeed him. For example, while the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, a leading opposition movement, appears broad-based in appeal, fundamentalist Muslims behind-the-scenes run the show.
Implications for U.S. Policy
What do fundamentalist Islamic movements mean for United States foreign policy? I begin from the presumption that, with only rare exceptions, fundamentalist Islam adversely affects the interests of both those under its sway and the United States. Accordingly, to the extent that the U.S. government has the energy, resources, and will to deal with fundamentalist Islam in Northern Africa, it should take steps to block its progress. As with other radical movements, the earlier fundamentalism is blocked, the less mischief it is likely to make.
With this in mind, what about Algeria? The prospect of fundamentalists ruling in Algiers has produced near-panic in France. The authorities in Paris have induced the European Community to pay out large sums to keep Algeria economically afloat. (In mid-1991, even before this year's crisis, for example, the European Commission proposed a loan for $560 million; at the same time, Tokyo considered a loan.) While the U.S. government could aid this effort, the Europeans do seem to have made a commitment to seeing matters through.
The authorities in Tunisia seem to have Ennahda under control, excluding any U.S. policy on the matter. In Libya, fundamentalist Islam poses a potential problem; aiding the non-fundamentalist opposition could tip the balance slightly.
Sudan is the place to concentrate American efforts. The junta there goes far beyond the run-of-the-mill dictatorship in the mortal danger it poses to its own people and the threat to destabliize its neighborhood. To counter this viciousness, the U.S. government should begin with two steps: provide moral and political support for the opposition forces (which have joined together and are reasonably effective) and work through the United Nations to impose an international embargo on all arms transfers. The Sudan faces no threats from its neighbors; imported bullets kill only Sudanese, especially southern Christians.
Virtually every government in Northern Africa would welcome this step.
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