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Making the Most of a Rare Opportunity

BC's Laurence wanted a chance to do research in Algeria - and he got more than he imagined

03/13/14
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Assoc. Prof. Jonathan Laurence (Political Science) in front of a defunct synagogue with a local imam and children in the Bab el Oued district of Algiers. (Photos courtesy of Jonathan Laurence)

By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Mar. 13, 2014

It’s not every day when one of the world’s least studied political systems unexpectedly opens its doors wide. So Associate Professor of Political Science Jonathan Laurence had reason to feel fortunate when Algeria offered him unprecedented political and diplomatic access during his visit there last month.

Laurence had applied for a visa to Algeria to do research for a forthcoming book on how religious affairs are governed in Muslim countries, especially in the wake of the Arab Spring. Algeria, he explains, represents a very useful case study, given its history – including its 1990s civil war – and its status as a major player in Northern African and European affairs.

“When I consulted with colleagues around the US, I was told that the regime held its cards very close to its chest,” says Laurence. “It can take time to get a visa, and even though Algeria’s relations with the US are good, they have not cultivated a tourism industry – which is a missed opportunity for all.”

Laurence was rather surprised, then, to receive a response from the Algerian embassy approving his visa and a phone call expressing pleasure at his interest in Algeria. But while he had the necessary permissions to enter and travel around the country, he had thus far been unable to obtain appointments with any Algerian officials.

“Then, two days before I was to leave, I got a call saying the Algerian president’s office was sponsoring my visit,” says Laurence. “This was a case of good timing: I was given full access to key policy-makers and politicians, so I had a rare chance to get a peek at the way government works there, at the very moment things began to open up to greater public contestation and debate over the future.”

As it turned out, on his first day Laurence also had an unusual perk for a social scientist: a seven-car convoy of military police to take him to his appointments in the coastal city of Oran.

“I always had ministry people with me, but I was able to go to all the sites and offices I wanted, and could ask questions freely,” he says.

During his four days in Algeria, he had meetings with the minister of religious affairs as well as officials of the education ministry and an imam training institute. He also visited two Catholic churches and the modern ruins of a synagogue, and gave research talks at the University of Algiers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and US Embassy.

Laurence says religious governance is a fascinating, and often under-appreciated, aspect of Muslim countries.

“Ministries in countries like Algeria and Morocco are dedicated to running mosques, appointing imams and sages, and generally guiding the spiritual life of their citizens,” he explains. “Because of serious threats posed by radical factions – including Salafist movements and even Al Qaeda – it is important to the governments to frame religious expression in a positive, open-minded fashion.”

That Algeria would grant an outsider like him such access to their ministry operations, says Laurence, reflects the delicacy of a political system in a transitional moment. Conflict with jihadists and subsequent civil war in the 1990s that killed more than 100,000 people left the government treading a line between openness and repression, and reluctant to enact political reforms. But while relatively quiet during the Arab Spring, Algeria of late is experiencing lively conflict over the prospect of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika – who amended the constitution in 2008 to eliminate the presidency’s two-term limit – seeking a fourth term.

“Granting me access to officials at these ministries was a way to show they have nothing to hide, and that their system will manage the peaceable transfer of power to the next generation,” he says. “While to us the idea of a religious ministry might be unusual, Algeria has been making an attempt to tap into its rich religious heritage and doing its best to keep politics out of it. That’s why they have created over a dozen imam training establishments and continue to build large public prayer spaces. When the winds of change are capable of blowing you off the deck, you have to be very careful of the steps you take.

“Getting this insight straight from the source was remarkable.”

Laurence lauds the assistance of Undergraduate Research Fellows Alexander Hayden ’15 and Aikaterina Katsouri ’15 and graduate student assistant Perin Gökçe ’18 in helping him prepare for the trip. In fact, he adds, their work seemed to have a profound effect on his Algerian hosts: Intrigued by the charts and other materials Laurence was using for one of his talks, a government minister precipitated a frank, candid discussion comparing Algeria’s domestic and foreign policies with those of its neighbors.

“Academic researchers are accustomed to laboring in obscurity,” he says, “but the notion that my research team could start a conversation like that is very gratifying.”