Salafists’ rise triggers concern in Algeria over cultural freedom

Secularists and human rights activists warned not to “underestimate the emerging Islamist trend,” which they say could erode secular values.
Sunday 12/08/2018
Under renewed threat. Algerian girls looks at graphic novels on display during the 10th Algiers  International Comic Festival, last October.   (AFP)
Under renewed threat. Algerian girls looks at graphic novels on display during the 10th Algiers International Comic Festival, last October. (AFP)

TUNIS - Salafists are gaining traction in Algeria, prompting concern among secularist and human rights activists that tolerance and free expression are under threat.

Salafist groups have mobilised to impose their views of public morality, including by ending cultural events they deem offensive. The trend reminds many of the country’s “Black Decade” of the 1990s when violent Islamists were a force to be reckoned with.

“We (defeated) Islamist terrorism militarily in Algeria but the social and economic conditions fostered the resurgence of the Islamists again,” said Sid Ahmed Ghozali, who was Algeria’s prime minister in 1991-92.

The Algerian government fought a blistering battle with Islamist extremists from 1991-2002, during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed. That fight turned the Algerian public against any form of political Islam.

However, a brand of Salafism dating from the early 1900s — Salafiya ’almia (“scientific Salafism”) — has re-emerged, finding a receptive audience in a country dealing with lingering social and economic problems.

The movement, careful to voice support for the government and stating opposition to jihadism, has spread its message through the internet and satellite television.

“The Islamists are taking advantage of the gap of mistrust and frustrations between the population and the government to attempt to impose themselves as the interlocutor of the authorities,” said Ghozali.

While “scientific” Salafists formally acknowledge the legitimacy of the state, they aim to transform the country’s social and cultural spheres.

Secularists and human rights activists warned not to “underestimate the emerging Islamist trend,” which they say could erode secular values and lead to radicalism.

“Concerts of Rai music were blocked by Islamists in the southern towns of Ouargla and Bechar in July and other cultural events in central towns of Saida and Tiaret,” said anti-Islamist writer M’Hammed Bouzid Mohand. “That underlined the renewed Islamist menace to the country’s stability and is more and more weighing on the country’s political balance. The mistake is to underestimate it.”

Analysts have called for Algerian authorities, including President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to do more to counter the spread of Islamism, arguing that a policy of appeasement does not work.

They pointed to Islamists’ influence during the tenure of former Algerian President Chadli Benjedid, when they stormed cultural events, including wedding, to enforce “moral Islamic values.” Police at the time called on firebrand Imam Ali Benhadj, co-founder of the Islamic Salvation Front, to rein in his followers when they turned violent.

“Could such nightmarish scenario be repeated anew?” wrote columnist Tayeb Belghiche in El Watan newspaper. “We had then Ali Benhadj. We have now [Muhammad] Ali Ferkous with the same fanatical energy,” he said, referencing a prominent Salafist leader.

“This Ferkous is paid from the state money as a university teacher. He makes his ambition publicly known. He wants to turn Algeria into a Taliban-styled republic. No authority bothered him until now as he and others like him continue to spread their poison deep into society,” Belghiche said, adding that Bouteflika has been too lenient on the movement.

While Religious Affairs Minister Mohamed Aissa has aggressively countered Salafists and other Islamist movements, pushing them out of the country’s 20,000 mosques, other officials have done little to challenge them. Even prominent politicians who once fiercely opposed Islamists, such as Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, have given them freedom to operate through charity associations, private schools and businesses as long as they voice support for the regime and oppose violence or organised Islamist parties.

Ouyahia, speaking to his National Rally for Democracy party, said: “We love Salafism. It is in our religion. Let us be Salafists in our nationalism.”

Analysts warned that mentality was dangerous for a country struggling to ensure political stability.

“The powerful coming back of fundamentalist Islamists in all cities of the county is a sure sign,” said writer Karim Belaidi. “As the presidential elections of 2019 draw closer, they aim to occupy the streets and return to the forefront of the political scene to take advantage of the political uncertainty of this moment.”

“The Islamists with a different veneer and message do not change their approach,” he added. “They seek to exploit the anger of the citizens about the crisis and build strength and impose themselves as vital and indispensable force.”

Writer Mesloub Khider said Islamist movements were gaining traction and have a significant effect on the country’s cultural landscape.

“In times past, terrorist Islamism turned the majority of Algerians against Islamism through its own weapons. Now, most Algerians are aligned with the terrorising Islamism and its rogue and distorted religious claims,” he said.

“A typical Algerian following this brand of extremism does not tolerate the diversity of opinions, cultural plurality, religious plurality, freedom of consciousness, critics of religion, political debate and philosophical controversies. He does not tolerate the tolerance.”

Khider and other analysts argued that the growth of new Islamist currents reflects the failure of the state and religious institutions to address the country’s social and economic concerns.

“The outcome is the Algerian republic that claims to have won against terrorism is turning itself into a de facto theocracy to please these Islamists,” said political analyst Mustapha Hammouche. “A republic with no written doctrinal reference to Islamism while it brandishes democracy as a window dressing.”