CSRC Briefing Paper 15

Title : North African Islamism after 9-11
Date : January 2004

Abstract : Based on Working Paper no.34: Hugh Roberts, 'North African Islamism in the Blinding Light of 9-11'. It is intended to provide a summary of the principal findings, and an indication of the implications these may have for debates over policy.

The phenomenon of Islamist activism in North Africa, in both its non-violent as well as its violent variants, is the product of the complex history of the region. It is also symptomatic of a profound problem in the ideological and political life of their societies, a problem which should not be reduced to that of American (or Western) behaviour. However, the most prominent variant of this argument since "9-11" has been the thesis that 'the problem' is the particular ideological tradition from which Al-Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden are derived, namely Wahhabism, the religious tradition which emerged and has come to dominance in Saudi Arabia. The main argument of this paper is that this view is mistaken, and that an entirely different way of understanding the nature of the problem of contemporary Islamism is mandated by the historical evidence, as well as being badly needed by Western policy makers. Three theses are presented which seek to explain what has happened in North African Islamism over the last century; what is happening in radical Islamism in Sunni North Africa; and what the logic of recent re-orientations in the region might be.