The elections in Turkey and Algeria last month were important for the countries’ Islamic movements. In Turkey, the ‘Islamic’ party Fazilat came a disappointing third, behind prime minister Bulent Ecevit’s centre-left party and the right-wing nationalist MHP. Fazilat had been the largest party in the last Parliament, and had hopes of improving their position this time round. In Algeria, the presidential elections were won by the establishment candidate Abdul Aziz Bouteflika after all six alternative candidates withdrew. The Islamic Solidarity Front (FIS) took no part, being banned, but had supported an opposition candidate, Ahmed Talib al-Ibrahimi.
There were key parallels and differences between the two cases which have lessons for Islamic movements elsewhere. Both Turkey and Algeria are countries ruled from behind the scenes by their militaries, who see themselves as guardians of secularism. Both militaries also maintain close links with foreign powers independently of their countries’ governments - Algeria’s with France, Turkey’s with the US and Israel. Both intervened in constitutional politics in order to prevent popular Islamic movements and leaders from coming to power.
One difference is in the strategies the two groups have adopted. FIS tried working constitutionally, and was close to achieving power democratically when the elections were stopped early in 1992. FIS went underground, became an armed resistance movement, and has made only marginal progress in the next seven years. The military having redrawn Algeria’s political landscape, FIS is looking to re-enter the political scene on the military’s terms.
The Turkish ‘Islamists’, on the other hand, took a more conciliatory approach. The Refah Party was allowed to come to power under Erbakan - handcuffed to Tansu Ciller’s staunch secularists - but was forced from office in 1997. This was followed by the political prosecution of many of their top leaders, including Erbakan, who was banned from politics. Refah was banned, but the re-grouped Islamists remained the largest party in the parliament, operating as Fazilat. However, Fazilat has repeatedly been forced to backtrack and deny its Islamicity to avoid falling foul of Turkey’s strict secularism laws. In the recent elections, it even fielded candidates who admitted to drinking ‘occasionally’ in order to avoid accusations of being fundamentalist!
After a decade at the forefront of their respective countries’ political scenes, neither party has much to show for its efforts and sacrifices. This is surprising and disappointing to many people in view of the successes of the Islamic movement over the last 20 years. The main comparison, of course, must be with the success of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the launching pad for the global Islamic movement. The differences between the three cases are clear: the Islamic movement in Iran was the only one based on the popular support of the people, rather than any constitutional or political position. While FIS and Refah/Fazilat both organised as political parties, representing some sector of the community, the Islamic movement in Iran was an all-inclusive movement from day one.
It is easy to see what FIS and Fazilat might have done differently. If FIS had gone to the people in 1992, instead of going into the hills, things in Algeria might have been very different. If the army’s brutality had been against crowds coming into the streets to support FIS, it would have had far more trouble blaming unknown ‘extremists’ for the bloodshed, and the Algerian people’s disillusion would have been with the military specifically rather than with politics and war generally, as it is now. In Turkey, the opportunities for changing direction and strategy were legion over the years. Most recently, the party approach could have been abandoned in favour of popular activism when Refah was banned. But by operating within the political system, as a political party, instead of transcending the divisions inherent in a party political system, the ‘Islamists’ restricted themselves to a party-style support.
The popular solidarity forged by the Iranian people in the face of the Shah’s brutality in 1978-79 was an essential ingredient of Iran’s revolution. If other Islamic movements are to emulate the Iranian movement’s success, they must learn the lessons from Iran, and base their movements on the collective power and taqwa of the Muslim people.
Muslimedia: May 1-15, 1999