Niqab ban triggers reactions from Algerian Salafists

Ministries said the need to check identities of veiled females and protect educational institutions from extremism led to the decision.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A veiled woman walks with a girl in central Algiers. (AFP)
At the heart of controversy. A veiled woman walks with a girl in central Algiers. (AFP)

ALGIERS - A ban on wearing the niqab took effect in Algerian schools and universities this academic year but Salafists are resisting the move, taking their fight against instructions from Algerian Minister of National Education Nouria Benghabrit and Minister of Higher Education Taher Hajjar to social media platforms.

Both ministries issued orders banning wearing the niqab — the full facial veil — by teachers, employees and students on school grounds. The ministries said the need to check identities of veiled females and to protect educational institutions from religious extremism led to the decision.

The ban was decided last year but its implementation was delayed because the Algerian government wished to spare the education sector the effects of controversy concerning the move. This time, however, authorities kept silent about the ban and it is expected that resistance to it will not be as strong and vociferous as is often the case in political decisions involving religion.

The reaction to the ministries’ decisions first came from Salafist pockets and what is known as the National Coordination for Teachers of Islamic Sciences.

Shortly after the start of the new academic year, the group issued a statement saying it had “removed the veil on the new (educational) reforms announced by the minister in her efforts to damage educational subjects related to our national identity and to symbols of Islam. Such reforms include removing the Basmala (saying ‘In the Name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful’ before quoting or reading the Quran) from textbooks, banning the niqab and qamis from educational institutions and reducing class hours allocated to teaching Islamic sciences.”

Boujemaa Mohamed Shihoub, the group’s secretary-general, accused Benghabrit of being “backed by secular France and trying to break the educational system.”

Other Islamist entities in Algeria, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the League of Algerian Muslim Scholars, have not issued responses to the ban.

Observers said Algeria’s educational and university institutions were centres for extremist currents and dogmas during Algeria’s civil war (1991-2002). This led successive governments to focus on introducing reforms in schools and universities as part of the fight against terrorism and extremism.

Educational psychologist Fatma az-Zahra Fassi said: “The plan for modernising the educational system in Algeria by favouring content over quantity requires adapting it to be in tune with the universal human values and insulating it from aspects and ideas of religious extremism.” That led to revising the content of certain subject matters and to banning wearing the niqab in educational institutions.

Educational authorities also issued administrative orders requiring students, teachers and administrative staff to observe what they have called a “respectful and modest dress code.” This perhaps headed off a potential argument from Islamists, who cannot accuse the government of

“encouraging secular orientations at the expense of the profound moral values of the Algerian society.”

Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs Mohamed Aissa expressed his ministry’s full support of the education ministries’ decisions. In an interview with Algeria’s National Radio, he said his department would “increase its monitoring of the activities of Quranic schools for the benefit of the learners and prayer halls inside universities will be monitored to put a stop to fanaticism and extremism.”

The Algerian government has increased efforts in recent years to examine contents and forms related to religious practices in education and religious affairs. The goal is to prevent extremist ideologies in the sectors and to promote what the government termed as the values of “middle ground and moderateness.” Thus, the government is promoting Sufi doctrines as the country’s official religious orientation.

The government has been backing Sufism since Abdelaziz Bouteflika became president in 1999. The government has provided moral support by protecting Sufi scholars and allowing them to make public appearances and offer material support by restoring Sufi mausoleums.

The niqab had already been banned by Algerian paramilitary institutions, such as customs and the police, before it was banned from educational institutions.