Madani, Abbassi (1931–)

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Madani, Abbassi

Abbassi Madani (also known as Abbas Madani, or Shaykh Abbas Madani) is a leader in the Islamist political movement in Algeria. After 2003, living in exile in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, Madani was one of the key leaders of the Islamic Salvation Front (in French, Front Islamique du Salut, or FIS). As a legal political party in 1990, it won half of the vote in local Algerian elections, the first held in that country after thirty years of one party rule by the National Liberation Front (in French, Front de Libération National, or FLN). These electoral victories, however, led to the intervention of the Algerian army, the invalidation of the elections, the banning of the FIS and other Islamic parties, and the arrest of the two main FIS leaders, Ali Belhadj and Madani. Even from exile, and despite ill health, Madani continues to be considered by many as the main political and intellectual leader of the FIS, and a significant figure for political Islamists both within and outside of Algeria.


Madani was born in 1931 in the Algerian town of Sidi Okba, southeast of Algiers, near the city of Biskra, where his family moved when he was ten. His father was an imam (Islamic religious teacher/leader), and Madani had a traditional religious education in Arabic with only two years in a French high school. After that he attended an école normale (normal school/institution of higher education that trains teachers) in Algiers from which he graduated with a diploma qualifying him to be a teacher.

It was in Algiers that he became involved in the resistance against French occupation and colonization, which was coalescing into a coherent insurgency by the 1950s. As a member of one of the insurgent groups, Madani was put in charge of planting bombs at Radio Algiers. He was caught and arrested by French authorities on 17 November 1954, and put in jail where he remained for the next seven years. He was released in 1961, one year before Algerian independence was won. After independence Madani was not involved in politics except to denounce the perceived anti-Islamic tendencies of the secular and socialist FLN that now had control of the government. He also had ties to the organization Al Qyam (Values), founded in 1964 to protest the secularism of the FLN government.

After independence Madani returned to the University of Algiers where he had been studying before his arrest and pursued studies in educational psychology. From 1975 to 1978 he went to the United Kingdom to complete a doctorate in education. Madani returned as a professor to the University of Algiers, teaching in the faculty of education. It was in the early 1980s when economic problems were leading to discontent with the FLN leadership that Madani returned to political activism, this time with the growing Islamist movement that was seeking an alternative to the FLN government, and advocating a more central role for religion in the governing of Algeria. He was arrested in 1982 after taking part in the largest Islamist demonstration in the country to date at the University of Algiers, when five thousand turned out to hear Shaykhs Abdellatif Soltani and Ahmed Sahnoun. At this meeting a petition was written and endorsed by these two shaykhs, plus Madani, and was sent to the Algerian president Chadli Bendjedid. The petition requested that the government undertake various reforms to bring Islamic values to bear on political and economic development; it did not, however, demand an end to FLN rule, nor a transformation to theocracy.

Madani was kept in prison, this time with no trial, until 1984. Upon his release he returned to teaching. Instead of the University of Algiers, he was employed at the Institute of Educational Sciences. During the fall of 1988, antigovernment demonstrations, fomented from a wide political spectrum (not just the Islamists), resulted in a harsh government crackdown on dissent. Soon after-ward, however, the Bendjedid government, in a dramatic reversal, opened the political system and legalized opposition parties, including those with an Islamist platform. Madani took on a leading role in organizing an Islamist party, at first attempting to make a single party that would include everyone in the movement. This proved difficult, however, and several Islamist political parties resulted, including the FIS, cofounded in 1989 by Madani and Ali Belhadj, a young teacher and imam.


Name: Abbassi Madani (Abbas Madani)

Birth: 1931, Sidi Okba, Algeria

Education: Teaching diploma, Normal School, Algiers; 3rd cycle in psychology, University of Algiers; doctorate in education, University of London, 1978

Family: Married; six children

Nationality: Algerian


  • 1954: Arrested by the French authorities for insurgency against colonial rule
  • 1978: Receives doctoral degree and begins teaching at the University of Algiers
  • 1982: Arrested for demanding that the FLN make changes toward Islamic values and tenets
  • 1989: Invited to form a new Islamist political party and cofounds FIS with Ali Belhadj
  • 1991: Arrested for allegedly endangering security of Algeria, sentenced to twelve years in prison
  • 1997: Released to house arrest
  • 2003: Released from house arrest, leaves country for Qatar
  • 2005: Ill and living in Qatar, issues statement supporting Algerian president's call for amnesty for combatants of civil war

The FIS was successful as a new political party and, in 1990 and 1991, captured nearly half of the vote in local elections, especially in urban areas. However, in 1992 the Algerian military reacted against the Islamist electoral victories, deposed Bendjedid, canceled and voided the election results, and outlawed the FIS. The military had intervened, arresting and jailing Madani and Belhadj, even before the FIS had been disbanded. In 1992 the two men were judged by a military tribunal, convicted of endangering national security, and sentenced to twelve years in prison. It is said that during this time Madani was suffering from ill health and was often confined in isolation, with no visitors allowed, and in austere conditions. Madani remained in prison until 1997, when he was placed under house arrest in Algiers, guarded by military security personnel. His house arrest continued until 2003, when the policy was lifted. He soon left the country, first for medical treatment in Malaysia, and then to live in exile in Qatar.


Madani's early experiences growing up in a religiously observant family, with a father who was an imam, and his grounding in Islamic education, had a profound impact on his outlook. Thus although he was not a religious scholar, nor did he become a member of the Islamic ulama (religious leaders or Islamic clergy), his background contributed to his later conviction that Islam provides the guidelines for political, social, and economic development and governance, and these beliefs eventually became part of the FIS platform. It was becoming a young adult during the early days of the burgeoning revolution against French control that would mobilize Madani politically: first to oppose French, and later to criticize the secular, Western-influenced FLN government.

The indigenous mobilization against French rule in Algeria would play an important role in the formation of Madani's political thinking. Islamic identity was a key element in the Algerian revolution, due to an alliance between the country's ulama and Western secular revolutionaries, as well as a lack of any popular Algerian nationalist feeling. The Association of Algerian Ulama (AUMA), founded by Shaykh Abdelhamid Ben Badis in 1931 and influenced by Salafism, had, by the 1950s, cultivated among their followers the awareness of Islamic identity as a counter to French secular and cultural domination. Salafism, from the Arabic word for pious ancestors, was a movement to return to the basic values and ideals of Islam. Particularly in North Africa there was an emphasis on discouraging the worship of marabouts (Islamic holy men, whose tombs would become places of worship and pilgrimage) and other practices deemed heretical. The Salafis in Algeria also sought to return to the fundamentals of Islam in order to reconcile and make relevant Islamic practices with modern societies. This reconciliation would influence Madani in his scholarly work on education and society in Algeria, and later in his development of an Islamist agenda for the Algerian political scene.

Although there was not a strong sense of an Algerian nation, which had never existed in the past, there was strong resentment against the French colonial policies that sought to remove Islamic and Arabic influences from the public sphere. These religious leaders who made up the AUMA, although not advocating revolution in the beginning, would lend their support to the secular nationalists in mobilizing Algerians to revolt against the colonial power. Thus, in the early 1950s when Madani joined the insurgency against the French, preserving and promoting Islamic identity, Islamic values, and Islamic institutions for Algeria was well established. Madani, however, was not a member of the ulama, and although he advocated for the infusion of Islamic values and law into the political process, he would not call for rule by the ulama, or for a theocracy.


Ali Belhadj (1956–; or Benhadj), a Tunisian by birth, cofounded the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) with Abbassi Madani. Belhadj received a religious education and became a teacher and an imam, preaching at mosques in Algiers. He was arrested in 1982 for opposing the ruling FLN government and in 1991 for being a leader of the FIS, which was alarming secular and military forces in Algeria with its electoral wins and antidemocratic rhetoric. Released from jail in 2003, Belhadj was arrested again in 2005. Often called in the media the fiery orator or firebrand imam of the FIS, he has expressed more radical Islamist views, such as declaring Islam incompatible with democracy because it is God who must rule, not the people. His views on democracy, though contradicted by his colleague Madani who insisted that FIS would not undermine Algerian democracy, became official components of the FIS platform. Some say that the two founders of FIS made an effective team, with Belhadj being the more charismatic, impassioned leader, and Madani offering the voice of reason and rationality.

Madani was disillusioned with the political process after independence, as the FLN leadership moved toward a socialist and Western model of governance and economic development, with little incorporation of Islamic ideals, other than to declare Islam the official religion of the country. Islamic law did continue to cover areas of family law and inheritance, however there were reforms to modify and in effect Westernize these sets of laws (called the Family Code), a move countered by the ulama, and in particular Al Qyam. Thus the secular and the Islamist tendencies became polarized after independence, but the religious leaders did not actively resist the uncontested control of the single-party FLN rule. So whereas Madani was sympathetic to the ideas promulgated by Al Qyam and was associated with the group, during the 1960s and 1970s he concentrated his energies on academic and teaching pursuits, and neither he nor Al Qyam openly challenged FLN control of Algeria.

His interest in education was apparent early on with his training as a secondary school teacher, and then with his graduate work in education and psychology. He would later blend his religious beliefs with his professional training, writing essays on educational issues in Islamic countries, and in particular Algeria. With his doctorate from the United Kingdom, and his fluency in English, French, and Arabic, Madani was also exposed to Western history and economic and political ideas, which also influenced his approach to Islam as a political and socioeconomic system for Algeria. This diverse background may have resulted in his more moderate stance on Islam and politics, especially in comparison with his colleague, Belhadj. Whereas the latter has often been portrayed as the radical face of the FIS, Madani is viewed as being a thoughtful and rational communicator, and has described the compatibility of Western models such as democracy and capitalism with Islam.

Whereas Madani's experiences growing up in French colonial Algeria provided the foundation for his vision of an Islamic alternative to a secular Western nation-state, the civil war that ensued in Algeria after the disruption of the democratic process in 1991 influenced Madani's preoccupation with resolving the conflict in Algeria. From his exile in Qatar, Madani has often issued statements and plans for political reconciliation and peace in his home country. The terrible violence in Algeria that began in 1991, which after a decade had killed hundreds of thousands of Algerians, has been blamed on the government and the military, as well as on the radicalization of the Islamist movement. Madani called in 2005 for national reconciliation in which all political prisoners would receive amnesty, including those from the more radical factions.

Madani's continued visibility in the context of Algerian politics, even from exile, is due to the key role he played in the unprecedented democratization of the Algerian political system from 1989 to 1991. Although short-lived, it was a response to the calls for political change in the 1980s, in which Madani was central. By the time of Bendjedid's policy change that legalized other political parties, Madani had succeeded in achieving, along with Belhadj, the coalescence of the Algerian Islamist movement into one of the first Islamist parties in Algeria. Madani is credited with lending to the FIS a more moderate tone. Whereas Belhadj was known for giving impassioned speeches and declaring Islam incompatible with democracy, Madani had a less radical demeanor.

Even by his critics, Madani was perceived as being a moderate Islamist. He insisted upon participating in the democratic process, stating that the FIS would work within the principles of a pluralistic system that allowed the expression of different political viewpoints. Madani's intellectual approach, which incorporated Western ideas and allowed for modern science and technological development, could partially explain the large constituency of middle-class, urban Algerians who voted for the FIS. During the 1990 elections Madani declared that one should retain "the Qur'an in one hand, and knowledge and science in the other, never separating the two, for with one you achieve your spiritual life, and with the other your material life" (Abderrahim, 1990, p. xi).


Madani's influence on the Algerian political scene might be considerably less from exile, but his symbolic leadership of an Islamic alternative to Western secularism and his pronouncements for national reconciliation and a return to the democratic process in Algeria have kept him in the Algerian and Middle Eastern media. He is recognized as the leader of the "ex-FIS." Madani has been viewed, overall, favorably in the Middle East and other parts of the Muslim world, as an Islamist leader, but also as an Algerian nationalist seeking a peaceful settlement to the Algerian political tragedy. In 2005 he declared his support for the government of abdelaziz bouteflika. He particularly favored Bouteflika's intention to grant amnesty for the combatants of the civil war.

In the Western world there is less understanding of Madani and his role in the Algerian conflict, with some considering Madani a terrorist simply by virtue of being a leader of a banned Islamist group. There was also some ambiguity immediately after the elections were shut down as to the FIS's stance on violence, and Madani's stance in particular. However, he has since distanced himself from the radicalized factions of the Algerian Islamic movement, particularly the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) which took up arms after 1991, and has stated that the FIS is committed to participation in a nonviolent political process.

Human rights groups such as Amnesty International consider Madani a victim of a repressive government crackdown on democracy and of an unjust judicial system that serves the government. In 2001 the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded that both Madani and Belhadj were arrested arbitrarily and subsequently held without a fair trial by the Algerian military.


Madani is an Algerian leader who bridges the span of the country's history from the time of the revolution through the end of FLN control and the country's tragic struggle to develop more democratically. Having fought in the revolution, being imprisoned by the French and later by his own nationalist government for opposing its secular policies, Madani has been a central figure in the process of decolonization and political development in Algeria. He will be remembered as a key leader in Algeria's transformation from a nation state ruled by a single party to a much more diverse and pluralistic state. Following the tragic events that ensued during the 1990s, the country has not returned to single-party rule. Madani will be associated with the civil strife as a victim because he was imprisoned during much of that time. As an educator and as an Islamist, he leaves behind many writings that suggest avenues for reconciling the role of Islam in political life with the tenets of modern society, such as democracy and scientific advances. It seems that religion continues to be a major avenue for political expression in Algeria. However, the balance has yet to be found on how to incorporate the secular with the religious in the political sphere.


"Abassi Madani and Ali Benhadj v. Algeria." Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, United Nations Document E/CN.4/2003/8/Add.1 at 32 (2001). Available from

Abderrahim, Abdel Kader. "D'une main le Coran, du l'autre le fusil." Les Cahiers de l'Orient 18 (1990): 11.

"Algerie." Amnesty International. Available from

Burgat, Francois, and William Dowell. The Islamic Movement in North Africa. Austin: University of Texas, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, 1993.

Takeyh, Ray. "Islamism in Algeria: A Struggle between Hope and Agony." Middle East Policy 10, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 62-75.

                                   Mary Jane C. Parmentier


Is Islam compatible with democracy? The Western notion of democracy carries with it the assumption that secularism must accompany democratization, with religion removed from the public sphere. This separation of religion and state has its basis in the Western European experience of political domination by religious institutions. In Algeria, however, as throughout the Middle East, the experience of religion and politics was different. In those regions, religion was infused throughout society, lending rules of social, political, and economic organization, but without theocratic rule (or rule by religious leaders). In Algeria the French attempt to remove Islam from the public sphere (following the French separation of church and state) caused many Algerians to seek out and promote their Islamic identity and beliefs. Thus the rise of Islamism in the 1980s must be seen within this context, as Algerians were seeking political and economic alternatives. Islamic scholars have argued that Islam is not antithetical to democracy, and there are institutions within Islam that allow for participation and shared decision making. It is argued that there could be different forms of democracy, with Islamic democracy being one of them.