Algeria’s Islamists use identity issues to drum up support, serve agenda

The booby-trapped questions of cultural identity and language in Algeria that were planted by the new draft constitution have sparked heated debates.
Saturday 23/05/2020
A man prays outside a mosque near his car in Algiers. (AFP)
A man prays outside a mosque near his car in Algiers. (AFP)

ALGIERS–The largest Islamist party in Algeria is jumping on the bandwagon of the ongoing debate about cultural and linguistic identity in the country to try to capture the hearts and minds of a wide segment of Algerians, by promoting a proposal to ban the use of French in the official institutions of the state.

As a reaction to the Algerian government’s courting of the Amazigh minority by defending the constitutional proposal to make the issue of “the Amazigh component not subject to review or amendment in the future,” the Peace Society Movement called for “the criminalization in the constitution of the use of the French language in official institutions and in official documents”.

Algerian protesters wave the Amazigh (C) and national flags during a demonstrastion in the capital Algiers, last June. (AFP)
Algerian protesters wave the Amazigh (C) and national flags during a demonstrastion in the capital Algiers, last June. (AFP)

The booby-trapped questions of cultural identity and language in Algeria that were planted by the new draft constitution have sparked heated debates about who the Algerians are and produced political and ideological stances and alignments that threaten to dismantle Algerian society, particularly in the absence of an appropriate climate of freedoms and political stability in the country.

Algerian conservatives were joined by Islamists in forming a solid front and mounting a staunch campaign in defence of the Arabic language as the only official and identity language of Algeria, in addition to what they called “the traditional constants of the society”. Of course, political opportunists could not let this debate pass them by without pushing their political pawns. Such was the case of the Algerian Muslim Brothers, who are in the habit of beating a path to the existing conflicts and other potentially divisive issues.

The Peace Society Movement did not miss this opportunity to insist on making “the Islamic Sharia and its intentions as the sole source of legislation,” and on “generalising the use of the Arabic language as a national and official language and criminalising the use of the French language in official institutions and documents,” and on considering in the preamble of the of the Constitution “Arabic and Berber as two languages ​​belonging over centuries to one civilizational dimension”.

In this regard, the movement decided to “involve the movement’s structures and institutions in discussing the constitutional project in internal seminars and organize thematic seminars with the participation of experts and specialists, as well as organize bilateral consultations with personalities and parties,” and this suggests that the movement intends to go far in exploiting the issue to serve its political agenda.

In 2014 and just before the election of former President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for a fourth term, the Muslim Brothers tried to appear as the locomotive that was leading the political opposition. And now, the Peace Society Movement wants to play a similar role by starting a debate with the political class over the question of cultural identity and thus appear as leading the current defending the society’s identity and its cultural constants and opposing the Francophone front.

Since the beginning of the current political crisis and the popular Hirak of February 2019 in Algeria, there emerged a current opposing the tide of the French-speaking forces in the country. This current became known as the “Novemberist Al-Abadissia”, in reference to Abdelhamid bin Badis, a historical figure who led the reform project during the French colonial era, and to the liberation revolution which had exploded in November of 1954.

This current has certainly started to look like ideal for political exploitation. During the period of institutional vacuum, it was used by transitional institutions, especially the military establishment, to shove the agenda of recycling the old regime and rehabilitating it with new faces and new elections down the opposition’s throat. And now, it moved into the hands of the Islamists, who want to play the tune of national constants to get close to those who circles that ploughed fourth with the presidential elections in order to give some legitimacy to the authorities’ decisions.

The head of the Islamist “Peace Society Movement”, Abderrazak Maqri, insisted that “the demand to criminalise the use of the French language in state institutions and official documents, which was adopted by the first Hamas organisation, has restored the battle to its original and proper framework.”

“France’s children must have felt the pain of criminalising the use of the French language in official institutions and documents, because their real cause is defending the French language and France’s interests,” he tweeted.

This debate about identity seems to have taken on different dimensions in Algeria. As the Islamist and conservative front had apparently declared war on the Francophone current, hoping to lure the supporters of national constants to their political agenda, the government decided to flirt with the Chinese giant by opening the way for the Chinese language in Algeria.

An Algerian man reads a French-language newspaper  in Algiers. (AP)
An Algerian man reads a French-language newspaper  in Algiers. (AP)

During the inauguration of the state-run Al-Maarifa television channel, Prime Minister Abdelaziz Djerad said that “this new channel, which is added to the package of public channels, will contribute to teaching knowledge and providing lessons to (secondary education) students of all levels, especially those in the final classes, and contribute to raising the level of university enrolments”.

“It will be open on the world and be a space in which global cultures meet; and it will work to enhance foreign language education, focusing not only on Arabic and French, but also strengthening the role of English and Chinese,” he added.

He further justified this choice by the fact that “China is a pioneering country, and this was demonstrated during the coronavirus crisis. This channel would bring us closer to distant civilisations; our relationship with China is strong and the channel would be an opportunity to learn Chinese grammar and language in order to understand Chinese culture and civilisation and how Chinese people think”.