Islam is on the move. The stunning success of the fundamentalist Islamic Salvation Front in the first round of the parliamentary elections last week represents a turning point in Algeria's political history: A 30-year socialist experiment is out and Islam is in.
So far, the response from neighboring countries, Europe and the Establishment in Algeria has been one of shock and alarm. Yet there is nothing to be shocked about or alarmed by. The triumph of the Muslim fundamentalists was the inevitable response to years of repression by the National Liberation Front, which has been in power since Algeria won independence from France 30 years ago. The government's refusal to allow effective opposition before 1989, and its frequent jailing of Islamic fundamentalists helped give legitimacy to the FIS (the Islamic Salvation Front's initials in French). The movement made effective use of the mosques to communicate with the masses of the disenchanted and disenfranchised. Finally, with the collapse of oil prices in 1986 and a $26-billion foreign debt, the country's economy simply could not meet the needs and aspirations of the working class, particularly the millions of unemployed youth.
Not that the rise in Islamic fundamentalism in Algeria or in any other Arab country is purely due to economic factors. If the high cost of living and the lack of jobs and housing were the driving force, we would be at a loss to explain similar movements in some of the rich Gulf states.
In Algeria, the movement can best be explained as a response to the failure of socialism and, as in many other Muslim societies, a real desire on the part of millions in search of traditional values not all that different from the demands of the religious right here in the United States.
The FIS gives those who supported it the Islamic-Arab identity they have been searching for. They are tired of Western cultural influence that has permeated their society at all levels. They simply long for a just and fair society consistent with the teachings of Islam, which, in their view, is "the only way." It is also a desire for a return of honesty in government and due process, which, in the eyes of those who voted last week, only the FIS can provide.
The vote for the FIS, winning 189 of 386 seats in the National Assembly, also was a vote against the FLN (National Liberation Front), which won only 16 seats. People are fed up with a party that insists on controlling the country despite its government's miserable failure. The Dec. 26 election, with 49 parties on the ballot, was the first truly open opportunity for millions of voters to vent their pent-up anger and frustration with a party that won the country's independence after years of brutal war with France but had lost touch with reality.
Many analysts reacted to the FIS' strong showing with talk about a second Iran. Well, not quite. First, Algeria is nothing like Iran. However, if the West wants to, it could easily turn Algeria into another Iran by refusing to accept what the FIS won in a free, democratic election. The West also could reduce the amount of trade and banking business done with Algeria, which would hurt an already bankrupt economy. All of this would play into the hands of those in the Islamic fundamentalist movement who have argued all along that the West is and has always been absolutely opposed to Islam.
It also would be a mistake for the West to condone efforts by other Arab governments to ignore or in some cases crush popular Islamic movements. As Algeria's experience shows, that only increases the movements' legitimacy and respect in the eyes of the poor, the downtrodden, the young people who feel totally left out. It also forces the movements to go underground and increases the likelihood of further violence. Furthermore, even giving the impression that the West is hostile to Islam widens the gap between the fundamentalists and the non-Muslim world and in the process helps the more radical elements to rise to the top.
Instead, a sincere effort must be made to understand the popular yearnings that these movements express. The FIS should be given the chance to prove itself. Whether it can deliver is doubtful, given its lack of a clear program to deal with Algeria's abysmal economy. But it has at least earned the right to try.