THE ISLAMIC OPPOSITION in the Maghreb has been put on the defensive. Robbed of its election victory in Algeria, the Islamic Salvation Front has been banned and suppressed. In Tunisia, Enahdha (Renaissance) has been weakened by the arrest, trial and imprisonment of hundreds of its members. In Libya and Morocco the harrassment of political Islamic groups continues unabated.
But in spite of recent setbacks, political Islam remains by far the most potent opposition force in the region. Buoyed by tremendous faith, the fundamentalists themselves show little sign of despondency. The religious dimension of their political discourse provides inbuilt defenses. They argue that the Prophet Mohammed too experienced setbacks in his struggle to establish an Islamic state and that the Koran promises inevitable victory to the believers over the faithless and the hyprocrites.
In the crowded mosques of the Maghreb, the faithful are told that Islam is the future promise for the world: atheist Communism has fallen (thanks partly to the mujahedin of Afghanistan) in ignominious defeat; capitalism, corrupted by greed and egoism, is on the verge of auto-destruction; Islam is waiting in the wings as the coming power.
At home, the militants now know that they can win power at the polling booths. By stepping in with the army and snatching election victory from the FIS, the Algerian regime underlined what believers throughout the Maghreb already suspected: that only force and repression stand between them and the creation of a "true" Islamic state.
Ever since the first arrival of Muslim armies in the Maghreb, Islam has been the motor of political renewal, the dynamic behind the rise and fall of governments. One after another Muslim dynasties came to power by rallying the strongest tribes around the idea of a return to the purity of the original message of the Koran. Each new aspirant to, power overthrew its predecessor on the promise of religious renewal and the claim that the existing order, corrupted by the luxury which power bestows, had deviated from the true path of God.
By the middle of the 20th century, it was thought that colonialism and modernisation had profoundly changed the religious dynamics of Maghrebi politics. It was argued that political and economic success now depended on adopting Western political values and on sharing the world view of the conquerer as well as his technology. The religious spirit, opposed to the scientific, would gradually be discarded as the colonies progressed towards independence and technological proficiency.
This has not happened. Indeed, we are now witnessing what some describe as the Islamisation of modernity in the Maghreb. Over their loudspeakers, the muezzin call worshippers to prayer in ever greater numbers. Bookshops and street vendors hawk the latest Islamic tracts and Islamic fashion magazine. Outside mosques and in street markets bearded men in Islamic dress sell the latest Islamic paraphenalia from incense to prayer stickers and Islamic sex manuals. Tape recordings of Koran readings and sermons by popular Islamic leaders sing out from Taiwanese tape decks behind market stalls.
Koranic soap operas made in Saudi Arabia are the TV vogue. Strangers discuss faith and the details of Islamic ritual in taxis and cares. Religion and God colour the most mundane of conversations. On the political level, the principle contest is, increasingly, the age-old struggle between regime and opposition for the mantle of religious legitimacy.
So far from leading to a secularisation of society, it appears that modernisation has actually encouraged religious revival. Political Islam has been most pronounced in Algeria, the Maghreb country most...