Home / Articles / Algeria’s Religious Landscape: “A Balancing Act”
Across the Middle East and North Africa, several governments today find themselves in contest with a diverse array of religious actors including various politically engaged Islamist parties and the piety movements, among others. Algeria is no exception. While the republic’s religious landscape has continuously changed since the nation’s independence, one constant is how myriad religio-political actors vie with the State over the country’s Arabo-Islamic identity and ownership of its religious character. Competition among these religious actors, as well as the state’s varying attempts to co-opt them, all seek to narrow the field and make lasting political gains at the expense of each competitor. This interview with Vish Sakthivel, a Fellow in the Program on the Middle East at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, seeks to shed light on the nexus of religion and state in Algeria and whether an Islamist equilibrium exists between the more formalized Islamist parties, the Salafist movements, the Sufi zaouïas, and the Algerian State.
What does the current religious landscape look like in Algeria and who are the main players?
The most obvious players are the state, the more formalized Islamist parties, the more nebulous “Quietist” or Da’wa Salafist movements (often called referred to broadly as salafiyya ‘ilmiyya), and the Sufi brotherhoods, or zaouïas.
The state has sought to control religious doctrine since shortly after independence in 1962, most significantly through the creation of a Ministry of Religious Affairs that monitors and oversees religious activities throughout the country. This Ministry serves as the official employer of imams, religious scholars, and religious affairs inspectors. Less officially, it weighs in on the appointment of court judges and university professors, all with the goal of deterring those Islamic practices and ideas outside the government-approved framework. Official state control of the Algerian religious space has been quite effective for most of the country’s modern history—even if suffering some interruptions such as the 1990s civil conflict. I can later get to what might constitute “the state” in the Algeria.
The main partisan Islamist strains are the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP) and Al-Nahda, and their now various splinters. These main groups, formalized in the late 1980s coinciding with the 1989 political opening, were originally intended as branches of the Muslim Brotherhood, but this identity is not all-encompassing, as they strategically downplay or emphasize links to the Brotherhood depending the political climate and audience. Even individual members vary in the extent to which they identify their organization as a part of the Muslim Brotherhood.
As for Salafist movements, most scholars more or less agree that they have coalesced into three main types. Two of these, jihadi Salafism and political Salafism, have become unappealing and largely waned in Algeria since the end of the 1990s civil conflict. But Da’wa Salafism, with its rejection of violence and of political rebellion, has become very mainstream. The word da’wa refers to preaching, proselytizing, literally “calling” people to faith, but in most Islamic movements, it involves community outreach and charity. The Da’wa Salafists consider modern political systems—such as the Algerian state—to be heretical innovations and a product of both the modernity and the Western values they expressly reject. These Salafists do not criticize or condemn the state, however, since they also preach against political rebellion.
Finally, Sufizaouïas (brotherhoods) were historically sidelined as being anti-modern and threatening to state-led religion, and are now given renewed attention for various relevant reasons I will get into.
What role has the State played in shaping this landscape?
A big one, even if it hasn’t been methodical or coherent.
As I’ve described elsewhere, the state’s religious history dates to the liberation struggle against the French occupation and the state-building that followed. The prevailing discourses of Algeria’s revolutionary vanguard—the National Liberation Front (FLN)—cast Islam as transcending other “identitarian” cleavages among Algerians, cleavages that could have threatened Algerian unity. Custodianship over Algeria’s Arabo-Islamic identity remained central to the state’s legitimacy in the years after independence, as the FLN consolidated its revolutionary credentials into single-party rule.
It was precisely on these terms that Islamist discourses beginning in the 1970s began to challenge the state’s legitimacy, disputing its exclusive ownership of religious symbolism and legitimacy. In the late 1970s, President Houari Boumediène also took an explicitly socialist direction, which put him at odds with the growing Islamist camp, and accelerated challenges to the state’s religious monopoly.
I’m skipping over a lot of important history here, but when economic and political protests in the late 1980s resulted in a political opening, Islamist proponents of these well-practiced religious grievances captured the moment. But after the Algerian military cancelled the 1991 electoral results that would have assured the victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) and dissolved the party, a bloody conflict ensued, lasting until 2002. It came to be called the Black Decade, among other names, as it was a traumatic period of confusion, tragedy, and violence perpetrated by both the state and the various Islamist factions.
The post-conflict period was a turning point on a number of accounts. After its victory, the state monopolized the conflict narrative, casting the Islamist insurgents as chiefly—if not entirely—responsible for the bloodshed. And today, in public discourse, people play along with this consensus, while alternative versions of the story are relatively quiet and anonymous. Because of this and other challenges, the remaining Islamist parties, MSP and Al-Nahda, survived by taking a more cooperative position, effectively becoming co-opted.
This cooptation was realized first through constitutional amendments made in 1996 stipulating that parties abandon “religious, ethnic, and linguistic” discourse. The amendments limited how much the historically Amazigh parties for instance could invoke Amazigh rights and nationalism, and similarly, curbed the extent to which Islamist parties could invoke religion in their official platforms. Moreover, challenger parties faced extra-institutional obstacles like gerrymandering, fraudulent lists, and a general lack of electoral fairness and transparency. At the national, state, and commune levels, the prerogatives of elected councils were significantly reduced through both legal and informal means. I found in my fieldwork that this is especially true if these councils had non-FLN majorities. In sum, if the trauma of the Dark Decade turned Algerians off of political subversion, then the politics that followed the post-conflict reconciliation turned them off politics altogether.
The subsequent retreat of most of the Algerian public from its stakes in electoral and political outcomes, and particularly its perception of Islamist parties’ complicity, has made Da’wa Salafism appealing. The latter has arisen as sort of a moral-religious agitation against perceived state inertia as well as the formal religious institutions and Islamist parties seen as abetting it. This strain of Salafism, with its emphasis on moral conduct, non-violence, and non-confrontation, thus presents itself an “apolitical” spiritual alternative.
Paradoxically, these developments help the state’s efforts to sustain the status quo. But religious movements are rarely totally apolitical. Since membership and recruitment into Salafist movements, which doesn’t necessarily happen in any official way, can dampen support for Islamist parties, the state has tacitly encouraged Da’wa Salafism since the late 1990s. As one of my interlocutors put it during my fieldwork, they’re a “hizb bla wraq,” a party without official papers. As the Salafist movements reject modern electoral politics (and therefore, elections) and have opted for non-contestation of Algerian authority and total absence from formal Algerian politics on grounds of dogma, the ruling elite have hoped this would contain anti-state discontent.
Is there an Islamist equilibrium in Algeria?
The State is looking to effect one. The general trend seems to be a rapid growth in Salafism, perhaps at the expense of partisan Islamists like the MSP or Al-Nahda parties. While there is some interesting, though limited, quantitative investigation corroborating this trend, the qualitative sense is that Salafist representation in Algerian political and social life has grown dramatically in recent years.
Even though sermons and Friday khutbas have been historically tightly controlled by the state, imams of Salafist leanings have gradually gained more independence, and have extended their presence in Algeria’s mosques. Their expansion would have been impossible without a nod from state authorities. The conventional wisdom is that the Algerian regime has tolerated this growth to prevent any single religious or political tendency from getting too strong.
This story, of Algeria’s “hyperpluralism,” is an old one. In the 1990s, Islamist parties like MSP and Al-Nahda were coopted on the grounds of their “moderation” and enlisted to participate in elections as a counterbalance to the FIS.
It’s not only characteristic of the party sphere, but also of the religious sphere. The logic is that in congesting the partisan and religious markets, parties/tendencies outstrip the number of actual political/religious cleavages. This arrangement creates not only confusion and saturation, but also enmity.
On some levels, it is working: Sufis are seen as “moderates,” as the symbol of Algerianness and Algerian Islam, and they cast the Islamist parties as opportunists, and the Salafists as inauthentic “importations” from the Arab East. The parties for their part acknowledge the importance of Sufi history, but cast it as backward and inconsistent with the Sunna. They also attack the Salafists as un-Algerian, as agents of Saudi Arabia. The Salafists on the other hand cast Sufism as alien to Islam, are dismissive of the Islamist parties’ piety on the grounds of their political character. As these factions are effectively left to manage and diffuse one another, the regime is absolved of the task of ensuring no one tendency gains disproportionate ascendance over others.
In talking about Islamist moderation, I’m using scare-quotes here because no one really agrees on what it means. It’s used more often as shorthand for any rejection of overt antisystem frames or deference to the incumbent state than as a useful analytic tool that helps our understanding of how the various Islamist tendencies relate to each other, or how and why their behaviors evolve. For instance, by most mainstream understandings of Islamist moderation, the Da’wa or ‘ilmiyya Salafist tendency would not be considered moderate at the level of tafsir, but are cast as such by some simply because they, for now at least, cooperate with the state. It’s also so often weaponized without any real consistency.
Are there strategic- or security-related concerns related to this cross section of religion and state?
Many wonder if the growth in Salafism can lead to radicalization or increasing cultural or political intolerance, about which I’m honestly torn. On the one hand, I empathize with Algerian leftists and secularists who are sounding the alarm regarding the growth in Salafism and seeing it as a threat to personal liberties, women’s rights, and religious and ethnic minorities. Indeed, many also see it through the prism of 1990s violence and fear its return.
On the other hand, it seems to me that the popularity of Salafism is a result of an already-progressing Algerian religiousness and not the other way around. I’ve talked before about how, according to widespread anecdote, the Islamization of public and quotidian life are more visible and pronounced today than a decade or two ago. Societal Islamization continues briskly to the extent that even members of the broader political class, who presumably don’t self-identify as necessarily Islamist, now engage in more conspicuous displays of piety. Most attribute this perceived shift to the pervasiveness of Salafist doctrine strengthened by the ubiquity of overseas religious channels and websites. But to me, it also has clear antecedents in the state-led Arabization and Islamic identity promotion projects of the 70s and 80s. And much like now, the FLN/state itself had its fair share of Islamists within its ranks, known as the Barbe-FLN (bearded FLN). So instead these developments seem like a rather inevitable continuation and expansion of these underlying spiritual leanings and religious dynamics. It could also be arising from the Da’wa undertakings of the Islamist parties themselves, which are proven to have a large presence in the influential national scouting organization and the university student unions, if not just another evolving mode of personal and group identity articulation.
I would also add to this discussion another qualification: we need to be careful about fretting over things like Salafist ideology without careful attention to the role it is playing within Algerian political space and history. As I mentioned, the types of political positions that look the most liberal to a Western audience are often also seen as the most corrupt or inept within Algeria. And so the alternatives often try to present themselves as the opposite—such as our various Islamists. And in the context of the contentious back and forth between the Algerian left and right, liberal voices in Algeria tend to reproduce colonial-era tropes about Islam, religiousness, and expressions of this religiosity, assigning a nefariousness where it may not be due.
Are there limits on what the state can do to control religion?
Certainly, as I just described, it’s all a delicate balancing act. When one religious/political trend gets too big, counter it with something else. It’s partly why the “moderated” Islamist parties are still kept around: to balance out Salafists’ religious interpretation and worldviews. This is an age-old tactic in no way to unique to Algeria.
But more noteworthy, to me at least, is how Salafist voices may become too empowered or amplified in a manner contrary to the intended social engineering effects. These concerns have been expressed by various elements of the Algerian left for some time.
Preachers like the popular Sheikh Ali Ferkous and Sheikh Chemseddine Al-Djazairi for a while did not broach politics while giving tacit support to the president, but it has recently become apparent that the bid to coopt and instrumentalize these currents may not be sustainable. Ferkous for instance has called for cancelling the nationally recognized Yennayer holiday, of great importance to the Amazigh community in Algeria and the broader Maghreb, calling it “pagan.” He also railed against supported and protected communities such as Sufi brotherhoods and the Ibadites of southern Algeria.
The Da’wa Salafists have minted themselves as quietist, as withdrawn from the political space, and as solely committed to da’wa, teaching, and charity. But, for the first time in decades, they pose a contest to the state’s monopoly on religion and religious codes. These developments make its quiet support from the state all the more baffling to various actors in the country that have long been concerned about such a turn.
Let’s also keep in mind that the “state” itself isn’t one consistent thing at any given time. It’s a changing, nebulous body more or less consisting of the triumvirate of the FLN party, the military, the security services, as well as the various business and other interests that attach themselves periodically to any one of these three. Sometimes known as Le Pouvoir, it doesn’t necessarily have a cohesive set of interests or a unified way of achieving them. There is a lot of internal jostling, and it’s never completely clear who’s running things. This fragmentation is playing out in the attempts to manage the religious sphere, and it’s why I said they aren’t methodical or predictable.
For example, Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia has advocated for allowing Salafists to be part of the national fabric, echoing a policy of appeasement and management, giving them latitude in their educational, charitable, and business operations as long as they continue to vocalize their recognition of the regime’s legitimacy and their opposition to the parties. And despite his increasingly intolerant rhetoric, Ferkous’ other claims, that rebels and protestors are agents of bida’ (heretical innovation) because the “Salaf” tradition as I mentioned requires deference to the ruler, meet Ouyahia’s stated requirement, and are further convenient for the state given the breadth of his following.
Mohammed Aissa, the Minister of Religious Affairs, on the other hand recently railed against supporters of Salafism saying it could not be a credible or authentic religious path for Algerians since it was incompatible with the “moderate Algerian Islam” being encouraged in more official policy. These discourses are all very much in line with those of Algerianness and the myth of a religious indigeneity, born of the War of Independence (1954-1962), and on which the state doubled down after the Black Decade. The state used its monopoly on the Black Decade narrative to further cast the Islamist insurgents as importations and as foreign interlopers, discourses still used to discredit opponents.
As an extension of this policy, some representatives within the state have, since the Black Decade period, sought to back and strengthen Sufism. These efforts were first intended as a stated antidote to the FIS’ pervasive popularity at the time, among other reasons, and later as an “indigenous” and thereby moderating balance to the “imported” schools of Salafism and to the Ikhwanism assigned to the Islamist parties—among other groups. And Mohamed Aissa has really taken this initiative into high gear.
Ultimately, that tacit support to Da’wa Salafism continues despite the fact that it’s considered by many as “imported” and external to important constructs of “Algerian Islam.” This support shows the chief aim isn’t precluding what they think drives extremism or radical thought, or controlling religious discourses toward this end. Instead, the aim is also to create a plurality of diverse, and necessarily opposing, Islamist/Islamic players that diffuse each other—in a way that precludes more overt interference—toward a religious landscape that bolsters, or at least doesn’t rock, the regime establishment. For now, that is.