On March 1, 2018, Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs and Waqf Mohamed Aïssa called on Algerian imams to “embrace new technologies and invest social media to fight extremism [and] sectarianism and promote the true precepts of Islam.”
State control of Algeria’s religious sphere is substantial and robust. Official Islam has a powerful voice through state institutions, including ministers, inspectors, judges, scholars, professors, imams, and spiritual guides who speak authoritatively on the subject of religion.
The beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011 saw an upsurge in violent, extremist ideologies in the region. The state has emphasized strengthening its grip on religion and asserting its role as the only sponsor, promoter, and broadcaster of Islam in Algeria in order to counter those more radical ideologies. State institutions control the management of property held by religious and charitable institutions (Habus), oversee mosques and clerical staff, administer almsgiving and pilgrimages, issue theological interpretations and fatwas, and apply some versions of Islamic sharia.
But that power is not absolute and the official line is no longer indisputable. The state’s monopoly on religion is being contested by unofficial voices and institutions of various orientations in a vehement political battle over who should speak about religion in Algeria.
Control of Habus Properties and Religious Staff
The role and place of religion in life has been contested in Algeria for decades. Both before and after Algeria gained independence from France in 1962, the national movement disputed whether the country should follow a secular or religious path.
When Algeria became independent, leaders adopted the latter approach and Islam became the state’s religion. Depending on the era and agenda, the ruling regime has used Islam to obtain support for its policies and ideologies and solidify its rule; to neutralize opponents, stave off challengers, and prevent them from exploiting religion; to rally populations; and, more recently, to counter violent extremism. Those efforts have not gone uncontested, especially during the early 1990s. The Islamic Salvation Front and later domestic jihadi groups considered the state and its apparatuses impious (tawaghit) and unlawful in the context of sharia. But since the end of the country’s civil war, the state has re-established its strict control of the religious realm.
The state monopoly on religion is manifested in a number of ways. Mosques are constructed, licensed, managed, and regulated by the state. They are public goods that belong to the Habus (known outside of the Maghreb as Waqf). The state oversees the management, integrity, and independence of mosques.
Mosques are constructed by the state, or by people or entities (that is, mosque communities) that are authorized by the ministry to raise funds for mosque construction. Those seeking to raise funds must submit a request for prior authorization to the Directorate of Public Liberty and Legal Affairs, which is part of the Ministry of the Interior.
After construction is completed, the state maintains control over many functional aspects, such as furnishing, maintaining, restoring, cleaning, guarding, and equipping (including the library books) the mosques.
Imams, inspectors, Habus property attendants, female spiritual guides (Murshida diniyya),masters of Quranic teaching, and agents of the mosques are all public servants of the administration. The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf determines the course and content of their training, while the Ministry of Labor regulates their salaries.
After these civil servants are installed, the ministry and other bodies in charge of religious affairs that are part of the public administration decide on the conditions of recruitment and promotion. Inspectors appointed by the state oversee the staff of the mosque and evaluate their activities. These inspectors are also responsible for monitoring the mosque’s religious and cultural events, the activity of associations and libraries (including specific reading material such as the Quran, religious books, and pamphlets). Likewise, they monitor the Habus property and manage its revenue, in addition to supervising the financial and administrative operations of the committees responsible for constructing mosques.
Only state-sanctioned mosques can lead Islamic services. And only government-authorized imams, hired and trained by the state, can lead prayers in mosques. State training stresses practices related to the Maliki School, which is based on the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, particularly the methods of reasoning by analogy (Qiyas) and the community’s general interests (Al-masâlih Al-mursala). As explained by Aïssa, “Algeria does not conceive the Maliki rite as an identity but as a way to serve society.”
Unauthorized imams are penalized and they risk fines and up to three years prison. More recently, the state regulated the volume and the timbre of the call to prayer (adhan) for weekly and Friday prayers because some were perceived to be overly zealous, especially during the morning prayers.
In the same vein, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf drafted a 200-page guide and revised the pedagogical technique for preaching. According to the penal code, authorized imams who act “against the noble nature of the mosque” or in a manner “likely to offend public cohesion” risk fines and up to five years in prison. The purpose of these regulations is to prevent Wahhabi lectures, to counter violent extremism, and, above all, to avoid what happened in the 1990s, when individuals used mosques to call for jihadism and violence and other jihadi groups used them as bases for their attacks.
The security apparatus is mobilized to surveil mosques and Quranic schools during sensitive periods (such as during electoral periods or after an attack in Algeria or even in neighboring countries) and in sensitive places (such as localities where there is a suspicion on the nature of the local mosque or where pockets of jihadi activity remain). In theory, the state enjoys almost complete control of these religious institutions.
But on the ground, the situation is more complicated. It is difficult to comprehensively monitor and surveil 17,000 mosques. Another layer of complexity is added when considering mosques that are outside state control and not necessarily loyal to the regime. For instance, many mosques have been constructed in a chaotic way without ministry approval, making it difficult for the state to track them and control what is being preached. In 2015, the Algerian government reportedly closed 900 illegal and unrecognized mosques, and some fifty-five others are being closely monitored because of security concerns about their Salafi nature.
The state further asserts its presence in the mosques by inviting them to echo government policies. During elections, it is typical for the minister of religious affairs to send official letters to preachers calling on them to “sensitize Algerians to the dangers that threaten the country,” and to remind Algerians about their “duty to vote” and to “remain behind the President of the Republic, in his capacity as Wali Al Amr [guardian of the believers].” During the 2017 legislative election campaign, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf addressed a letter to imams inviting them to call citizens to vote and to lecture about the “virtues of political stability” during Friday prayers.
Interpretation and Guidance
In addition to direct control over mosques, imams, and other civil servants, the state provides direction in several other areas.
The state offers guidance on family laws, and a version of sharia is applied to personal status. The family code that regulates marriage, divorce, and inheritance—among other matters—has been a source of contentious and public debate because it is based mainly on sharia.
The state uses a variety of means to offer religious interpretations and hence control the religious sphere. One of these tools is the High Islamic Council, which is responsible for all questions related to Islam, revising erroneous perceptions, and interpretation of Islamic principles (ijtihad). The president appoints the members of the council and oversees their work. The council can also issue fatwas if need be.
In May 2017, the National Scientific Council of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf—composed of imams, theologians, scholars, and scientists from Algeria’s forty-eight districts—was set up to be the official institution that issues fatwas. The council has already issued three fatwas. The ministry also established the Bank al-Fatwa, an online platform with fatwas on various topics such as Ramadan, prayers, trade, divorce, marriage, and clothing.
Continuing its efforts to curb the multitude of voices outside its authority, the Ministry of Religious Affairs announced the creation of a commission to audit and verify versions of the Holy Quran. This council is also responsible for overseeing other religious books and approving their display and sale at book fairs. In 2014, the ministry banned some 250 books from book fairs because of “apology of Shiism, extremism, and terrorism.”
Similarly, through the ministry, the state fixes the value of alms (nisab el-zakat) that people have to give to their mosque. The ministry instructs the imams of all mosques, in collaboration with the mosques’ religious committees, to collect alms. In parallel, other funds can be received from people via a state bank account accessible to all districts. The state then redistributes the money to poor families, widows, and divorced women with children. Sometimes the redistribution takes the form of zero-interest microloans to farmers and unemployed youth, among others.
The state also controls the pilgrimage process through the National Office of Hajj and Umrah (ONHO). The ONHO determines the burdensome administrative hoops that people must jump through to undertake this sacred ritual, and it participates in the selection and evaluation of the officers in charge of the pilgrimage.
To maintain its monopoly on the interpretation of religion, the state broadcasts religious programming on national television and radio stations. It also organizes national religious lectures, such as the Seminar of Islamic Thought and the yearly Quran recitation.
However, this monopoly is difficult to maintain when Algerians can access a legion of preachers, advisers, and fatwa providers on both satellite channels and the internet. According to a 2018 study, conducted in Algeria by Interface Media, Algerians are particularly interested in foreign preachers—especially Egyptians and Saudis. The latter are followed more by Algerians than by the Saudis themselves. Some 2 million Algerians follow the Facebook page of the Saudi extremist Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe compared to 1.3 million Saudis. In other words, 16.3 percent of al-Arefe’s fans are Algerian while only 8 percent are Saudi.
However, some local Algerian personalities remain popular despite being nonsensical, like so-called Sheikh Chamseddine. When asked by a viewer about the right to divorce after she discovered that her husband was married to two other women—a Tunisian and a Moroccan—Chamseddine notoriously responded that her “husband believes in the Union of the Arab Maghreb. . . . He should now marry a Libyan, so he will succeed in uniting the Arab Maghreb as a whole.” More recently, Chamseddine justified pedophilia on national radio. Another preacher, Abdelfattah Hamadache, issued a so-called fatwa on his Facebook page in 2014 calling for the death of a journalist who he deemed to be “an apostate.” The court of the city of Oran sentenced Hamadache to six months in prison and a fine of $400.
On several occasions, the Ministry of Communication has called on private television channels to comply with their rules on religious references and programs. Yet the state, despite its legal and technical arsenal, cannot guarantee people will rely on official bodies and figures for their religious guidance.
Another sector that the state uses to speak authoritatively on religion is education, which was nationalized in the 1976 constitution (Article 66). Since then, Islamic education (tarbiya Islamiyya) classes have been taught in all schools. Private schools must use curricula that are in line with national standards, particularly regarding the teaching of Islam. In 1999 and 2003, the Ministry of Education removed passages from textbooks that called for intolerance, jihad, and violence.
Even though the system is highly centralized, and the Ministry of Education must approve books, there is an informal network through which study groups and Quranic schools can offer classes that are not necessarily in line with the state’s official version of Islam. In 2016, 139 Quranic schools were believed to be outside of the state’s control and supervision, according to Aïssa.
Additionally, the state’s manuals for teaching religion in school are inconsistent. Even as the state claims to fight Salafism, the discourse in Algerian religious education textbooks remains faithful to the Salafist spirit. While the state fights what it deems intolerance, its textbooks do not examine diverse theological schools—such as Sufism, which the state has been extensively using to tackle intolerance and violent extremism. Since Abdelaziz Bouteflika became Algeria’s president in 1999, the authorities have been promoting a more traditional version of Islam and encouraging Sufism. Several conferences have been organized to support this version of Islam. In 2011, for instance, under the framework of “Tlemcen as Capital of Islamic Culture,” eleven national and international colloquia took place in the country to bolster Sufism. More recently, in 2016, an international Sufi conference was organized in the city of Mostaghanem to promote Sufism as an alternative to Salafi-jihadi ideology. Nonetheless, there is no mention of Sufism or any other theological school in textbooks, which remain selective and ambiguous in their interpretation of Islam.
The state, which is trying to fight the ideological instrumentalization of religion, is reinforcing what it means to combat by putting forward an ideological religious discourse. As a result, state religious teaching is creating individuals who, as explained by sociologist Djilali el-Mesatri, “are not able to distinguish between religion as faith and its ideological instrumentalization.”
The Cacophony of Fatwas
Despite the state’s mechanisms for control, these institutions are “vast bureaucracies whose size and complexity allow them some autonomy,” as Carnegie Nonresident Senior Fellow Nathan J. Brown wrote about the Arab world. Official religious institutions are multifaceted and, at times, have opposing agendas.
A good example of this unwieldiness is the state’s failure to appoint the Grand Mufti de la République, the state’s highest official on Islamic law. This failure was the result of ongoing battles and conflicting agendas among the High Islamic Council, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Waqf, and the Association of Ulemas, which had a crucial political and religious role when Algeria was under French colonization and continues to have an important impact on the religious realm. Their inability to appoint a “consensus personality” opened the door to the multiplication of unofficial scholars’ voices and therefore fatwas.
As a result, state-authorized fatwas are countered by “imported” fatwas coming from outside of Algeria or by fatwas that are issued by so-called sheikhs who have become local celebrities despite their lack of credentials and knowledge. This has caused a cacophony of voices as well as bigotry. A good example of this is the controversy regarding state loans to youth via the National Support Agency for Youth Employment. Self-proclaimed imams with growing notoriety who appear on television, such as Chamseddine and others, denounced the state’s decision to provide the youth with loans. They decried the move as religiously illegal because it can be categorized as usury (riba).
Despite the state’s efforts to maintain complete control over religion in Algeria, official voices are not the only ones in the conversation. State-owned Islam faces stiff competition from unofficial individuals and institutions with varied orientations that are growing in popularity.
Comprehensive control of mosques and religious associations is almost impossible for the Algerian state to achieve. The organizations themselves are unwieldy and difficult to wrangle. And while the state can offer theological interpretations and guidance to curb other voices and to impose its own perspective, it is impossible to ensure that the public will listen to official bodies and their civil servants.
The state’s efforts to use Sufism as the model for a healthy Muslim religion and to tackle violent extremism is not working. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the University of Algiers and the University of Binghamton to assess the youth’s view of Suﬁsm and governmental policy toward it, 63 percent perceived Sufism asan immoral innovation (bidah), 54 percent as obscurantism, and 39 percent as fanaticism. Furthermore, the promotion of Sufism by the government led people to perceive these religious institutions as being functionaries and regime mouthpieces. According to the same survey, even if 63 percent of youth associate Sufism with peace and 50 percent with tolerance, “there is considerable public distrust of this sudden marriage between the State and Suﬁsm. Many respondents believe that the State is supporting Suﬁsm only in an instrumentalist attempt to legitimise its rule.”
In addition, all these state attempts to maintain control do not belie strong negative undercurrents. A 2011 survey and other reports show that Algerian youth—like other Arab youth—are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions and in the state’s ability to deliver. While it is true that hateful religious rhetoric can play a role in violent radicalization, it is also true that the drivers of violent radicalization are not exclusively religious. As such, controlling mosques and theological discourse, promoting a more tolerant religious tradition, and training competent Algerian clerics are only tools to curb radical voices and fight extremism. Even if radicalization remains an unanswered riddle, it is safe to say that as long as people worldwide suffer from social alienation, political marginalization, economic inequalities, lack of opportunities, oppression, and indiscriminate violence, some of them will yield to the temptation of violent extremism.