Asharq Al-Awsat Interview: Algerian Salafi Leader Abdel Fattah Zarawi
Leader of the Free Islamist Salafist Awakening Front announces group is seeking to enter politics
Algeria, Asharq Al-Awsat—Abdel Fattah Hemdash Zarawi, leader of the Algerian group the Free Islamist Salafist Awakening Front, a Salafist party still in its embryonic stage, said that the party’s founders recently presented its application for licensing to the authorities. He added that not allowing Salafist Islamists to partake in political activity, “May force these groups to use other means.” In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat in Algeria, Zarawi pointed out that, “Change is inevitably coming to Algeria, and if we are not the ones to effect it, others will.”
Zarawi served a long prison sentence for his activity with the Islamic Salvation Front and he spoke about the litany of laws preventing leaders and activists from the Islamic Salvation Front from establishing political parties. He explained the objectives and platform of his party, and also spoke about how Ali Benhadj, the spiritual leader of the Salafist movement, views this initiative, which is the first of its kind in Algeria.
The following is the full text of the interview:
Q: You have stated that your new party reflects the aspirations of the Salafist movement and will operate as a vessel through which the Salafists can influence politics; can you expand on this?
A: The 22-year absence of Salafist groups from politics has prevented this large section of Algerian society from communicating its opinion and participating in finding viable solutions to the problems plaguing Algeria. This in turn has prevented Algerian society from benefitting from the large swathe of Algerian Islamists who enjoy widespread popular support at all levels of society, both at home and abroad. Their credibility stems from the purity of their mission and from the time-honoured Salafist commitment to sharia and spreading the word of God.
Through political participation, the Salafist community aspires to tap its community’s large reserves of political and practical energy and contribute to ridding society of the serious perils it now faces. Through the Free Islamist Salafist Awakening Front, we strive to consolidate the ranks of the Algerian Salafists and operate openly, transparently, and freely in accordance with this community’s conviction to establish sharia and its Islamist vision. If we were not truly convinced that we are capable of effecting a qualitative shift in the rhetoric, positions, and balance of Algerian politics and society, then we would have stayed in our homes with our families, and would have had no need to create a Salafist party.
Q: How did people react both locally and abroad when you announced the launch of this political project?
A: Our modest political announcement met a great response from Islamist and mainstream circles, both in the street and in mosques. It sparked private and public dialogue in universities, institutions, and representative bodies. The discussions revolved around our political activity, its motives, aims, consequences, and its legitimacy. Some fear this foray into politics because of the adversity and clashes which befell the country in the past, whereas a great many people view this as a natural step forward in accordance with the nation’s constitutional and political rights.
More importantly, there are no vacuums in nature. Meaning that if we leave the political arena for others, that is, non-Islamists from the secular currents, a new generation in Algeria will arise which will be wholly detached from political Islam, contrary to the neighboring Islamist countries that have made significant progress in this regard. With the Lord’s help, we will gift the Muslim people of Algeria a pleasant surprise, thanks to the moderate and balanced platform the Salafist community adopted after the experiences of the 1990s which offers sensible solutions and reformative measures.
Q: You are aware that authorities have issued a litany of laws banning the establishment of religious parties; So what motivated you to request a licensing to establish a party?
A: Many factors motivated us to participate in the political process, not least of which was the desire to exercise our rights unimpeded, and overcome the injustice, exclusion and marginalization we have had to endure. We thank God that we are Algerians. We truly love this country and feel a need to serve and protect it. The domestic scene has deteriorated as of late, foreign powers have leaned hard on the country and weakened the current system. Feuding parties and the emergence of opportunists and hack politicians have stripped the country of its resources. They have undermined the nation both economically and socially. These developments have increased our desire to partake in politics. We oppose the calls of the revolutionaries, and we believe that enacting reform through political engagement and spreading the word of God offers an alternative to other potentially dangerous and painful propositions. If the state does not include us in the reform process, it will spur a large group of Islamist Salafists who desire peaceful, gradual reform, to resort to other means. Change is inevitably coming to Algeria, and if we are not the ones to effect it, others will. They will either be from within Algeria or from foreign countries competing to hold sway over our country.
Q: Is it true that the core of this new party is comprised of Islamic Salvation Front activists?
A: At the grass roots level, Algeria hosts a diverse array of reformist, Islamist groups irrespective of socio-economic class. The party’s base is unified at its core, regardless of its differing views or ideologies, because we all seek to make Islam the governing constitution and we all embrace the party slogan: “Islam is the solution.” The party’s unifying basic principles override the divergences in the details. Installing sharia law through legitimate political participation is the goal of the Free Islamist Salafist Awakening Front. Its balanced and sensible platform calls for the Algerian people to truly implement sharia without half-measures or loopholes in accordance with the nation’s Islamic, Sunni identity and the edicts of the Association of Algerian Muslim Ulama, led by Sheikh Abdelhamid Ben Badis.
We seek to accomplish this while embracing modernity and by honouring the conditions and regulations to enacting gradual reform. This is what will bless grass-root Islamists and politically active Salafists in Algeria. An increased presence of political Islam in power will inevitably contribute to the eradication of the country’s bureaucratic, social, and economic corruption. It will likewise provide a viable and useful alternative God willing. We Salafists promote Salafist ideology with a Salafist approach. We call on all Islamists to support us in bringing about this sensible and balanced Islamist solution. It was the grass-roots Islamists, in ages past and present, who spread Islam, led it to victory, and defended it. And it will be the grass-roots Islamists and Salafists who help political Islam achieve victory, and who will vote in its favour, and who will support its age-old Islamist mission to be realized in our Muslim country of Algeria.
Q: In regards to your initiative, what is the position of Ali Benhadj, who is often described as the spiritual leader of the Salafist movement in Algeria?
A: Sheik Ali Benhadj is a good man and an established leader, and no one doubts his sincerity, wisdom, and integrity in defending his version of political Islam. He played a pivotal role in molding political Islam in Algeria. However, no one is infallible after the Messenger of God (Peace be upon him). Muslims are free to take what they wish from the sayings of Imams leave what they wish. Islam rejects giving one’s full loyalty to another person, and he is not the overriding authority on Islamist political activity in Algeria. He himself does not like to be characterized as such, and he likewise does not want the Islamic Salvation Front to be the unchallengeable authority on political activity in this country, because that would negate Islamist political pluralism in Algeria, and there is no dictatorship in Islam. He still advocates for the rights of the oppressed, and I doubt that he will oppose our political activities. We are sons of Algeria, and we have the right to find solutions for our country. We do not want anyone to be banned, as we reject his being banned, for he also has suffered from exclusion and marginalization. I do not think that he would condone the exclusion of his brothers and fellow countrymen from honest and purposeful political action.
As Sunnis, we do not accept the notion that one person’s voice cancels out all others’. If we had to choose between Islam and party politics, we would choose Islam without hesitation. If we had to choose between Islam and a particular person, even if he is a good man himself and good to others, we would choose Islam without hesitation. As for his stance towards the political practices of the Free Islamist Salafist Awakening Front in Algeria, I prefer that he answer that question himself.