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Salafism Movements in Algeria: On the Rise or in Decline?

A new type of salafism, called purist or scientific salafism, is on the rise in Algeria
Members of the officially banned Islamic Salvation Front party hold banners, calling for a boycott of the 2014 presidential elections, 21 March 2014, Algiers, Algeria. Photo Corbis

Salafism has an obvious presence in Algeria. Modes of dress, comments on social-media pictures and videos, the reactions of some to cultural events, and the pamphlets and CDs sold by mosques are a few examples of the Salafists’ presence in the country. Moreover, Salafists have, throughout 2015, protested laws on domestic violence and the liberalization of alcohol sales, and the substitution in schools of classical Arabic by the Algerian Arabic dialect called “Darja” in an attempt to influence policies.

The influence of the media in spreading Salafism in Algeria is significant. Even for those without access to the Internet, the poorest Algerian households have digital TVs with a wide choice of Islamic channels. These broadcasters preach all sorts of ideas and issue fatwas, often picking and choosing those that serve best their particular agenda or interests. Relying on media alone, without appropriate education and literacy in such matters, has left many people vulnerable to misleading imams and muftis.

According to a 2011 police study, five per cent of Algiers’ mosques were affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, ten per cent had no explicit orientation, 20 per cent represented purist Salafism, 20 per cent followed the new Maliki current, and 45 per cent followed the traditional Maliki current. Independent observers, however, believe that Salafists control far more mosques in Algiers and urge the ministry to expand the investigation to the rest of the country, namely, in Blida, Boumerdes, Oran, Canstantine, and el Oued where, it is believed, Salafists are particularly influential.

Three types of Salafism predominate in Algeria: political, jihadi, and purist.

Political and Jihadi Salafism

Political and jihadi Salafism both reject the Algerian regime and seek its overthrow, by politics and violence, respectively. These groups prevailed during the 1990s but are currently in decline. A civil war between jihadi Salafists and the Algerian security forces cost the lives of 200,000 Algerians and caused severe socio-economic damages. One cannot dismiss the impact of the civil war on most Algerians today, who find it difficult to reconcile themselves with political and jihadi Salafism. In August 2015, an announcement by Medani Mezrag, former leader of Salvation Islamic Army (the military wing of the banned Font Islamic du Salut, Islamic Salvation Front party, FIS), that he was forming a political party encountered massive controversy and repudiation by both state and non-state actors. Both Algerian laws and public do not support Political Salafism today. Even non-Salafi Islamist political parties, such as the Mouvement de la Société pour la Paix (MSP, the Algerian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood), seem to have given up on their agenda of establishing an Islamic state in Algeria.

For Salafi jihadism, the picture is little different. Although Algeria is home to several Salafi jihadist organizations, including al-Qaeda in the Maghrib (AQIM) and an Islamic State affiliate, The Soldiers of the Caliphate in Algeria, terrorist activities declined significantly, especially considering the regional instability surrounding Libya and Mali in particular. In 2014, the Algerian army killed more than 100 armed Islamist insurgents. In May 2015, Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra announced that there were only “residues of terrorism remaining in Algeria.” Today, more than 150,000 troops are deployed to guard the 6,500-kilometre eastern and southern borders. According to the minister of religious affairs, 63 Algerians joined the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the lowest per capita figure in the Arab world.

Purist Salafism

As political and jihadi Salafism decline, another Salafist movement has flourished in Algeria—purist Salafism, also called “scientific Salafism.” Unlike the other two types, this movement does not oppose the government and does not publicly preach for an Islamic state. It does, however, preach an extreme form of Islam that believes in following strictly the way of life of the Prophet and his Companions. Compared to the traditional predominant school in Algeria (and the rest of the Maghrib countries), that of Imam Malik Ibn Anas (called the Maliki school), Salafists follow Imam Ibn Taymiya and his student Ibn al-Qayim al-Jawziyya in religious matters. In Algeria, this movement can be traced to Sheikh Abd al-Hamid Ibn Badis, who is considered an icon of Algeria’s knowledge and a leader in the non-violent resistance to French colonization. He founded Jamiyya al-Ulama al-Muslimin in 1931, along with several Algerian scholars who promoted Salafist reformation in Algeria. Purist Salafism, as we now know it, however, differs from that promoted by Sheikh Ibn Badis.

Today, there are variations in purist Salafism, making it difficult to study it as a whole. In fact, many trace the emergence of purist Salafism to the first American invasion of Iraq in 1990-91, when a group of Saudi clerics issued a fatwa supporting collaboration with the US army and the use of Kuwaiti soil to facilitate the invasion. Some Algerian scholars who travelled to Saudi Arabia to study Islamic Sharia in the 1980s were influenced by this school and helped export it to Algeria. The timing could not have been better for their purposes. With the Algerian regime struggling to curb the FIS and recruitment by armed groups in the 1990s, the purist Salafists provided an alternative to young Algerians who had not been won over by the other movements. Abdel Malik Ramdani was particularly influential in spreading the movement in Algeria, but many believe that the regime, which “exploited” purist Salafists for its own gains, helped it to spread.

Non-Salafist Algerians view purist Salafists in significantly different ways. Some think of them as fellow Muslims who have chosen a stricter life, while others see them as a threat to Algerian identity no less dangerous than violent Salafists. Moreover, a substantial fraction of Algerian youth aspire to follow them without necessarily committing themselves fully to their way of thinking.

In June 2015, Mohammed Aissa, the newly appointed minister of religious affairs, investigated the religious affiliations of mosques in Algiers, revealing that 55 voluntary imams were jihadi Salafists. They were soon banned. The ministry is also working closely with Algerian media to monitor the access of Salafi preachers to the public. In an attempt to “monitor” what has been branded as the “rising tide” of Salafism in Algeria, the government has appointed trained Maliki muftis in every Algeria wilaya (province).

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