Nearly three decades after the beginning of Algeria’s civil war, which was precipitated by the military’s cancellation in January 1992 of elections won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), Salafi ideology and activism are again at the center of social contention and political controversy.
Secular voices in Algeria are becoming louder, warning of the “creeping Salafization” of society. Newspapers, especially Francophone ones such as El Watan, have run alarming stories about the Salafists’ purported “war plan” to undermine Algerian state Islam. Since taking office in May 2014, Minister of Religious Affairs Mohamed Aïssa has joined those speaking against the preaching of rogue imams and the proliferation of supposedly subversive ideas that distort and disrupt religious thought and practice.
The steady expansion of Salafism in Algeria, particularly “quietist” Salafism that eschews political activism, is a manifestation of the decay of state religious institutions and political parties, especially Islamist ones. Neighborhood imams, who once played an important role in molding the worldviews of ordinary Algerians, have been increasingly contested by Salafi preachers. Algerian Islamists have sunk into a form of intellectual lethargy and are largely disconnected from their constituencies. The same fate has befallen Sufi organizations, whose practices are viewed by an appreciable number of Algerians as being beyond acceptable Islamic jurisprudence.
The state has played a non-negligible role in the surge of quietist Salafism. Given the quietists’ loyalty to the regime and staunch opposition to politicized and violent Salafism, it is not surprising that the regime has allowed apolitical Salafists to operate their own private schools and businesses. Several Salafists who renounced violent extremism have become actors in the informal economic sector. The Algerian press has extensively covered former jihadists who have thrived thanks to the facilities awarded to them by the authorities and the connections they have established with business counterparts in the Gulf.
The onset of the 2011 Arab uprisings only increased the utility of quietist Salafists to the state. All the main quietist figures issued calls for Algerians to resist the wave of political contestation rocking the Arab world. Their fatwas and sermons emphasized the existence of foreign schemes to manipulate local agitators and naive idealists into fomenting political upheaval and violent decay. They warned that disbelievers had embellished the virtues of democratic revolutions and fueled hatred through social media. This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption.
Abdelmalek Ramdani, an Algerian cleric who lives in Saudi Arabia, issued a 48-page fatwa urging Algerians not to fall into the trap of sedition. Echoing the often repeated admonition of stalwarts of global quietist Salafism, he asserted that “as long as the commander of the nation is a Muslim, you must obey and listen to him.” If the ruler fell short in his worldly duties, he advised “prayer and patience.”
Mohammed Ali Ferkous, another Algerian cleric whom the quietist Saudi cleric Rabi‘ al-Madkhali designated in January 2018, alongside Abdelmadjid Djem‘a and Lazhar Snigra, as a representative of Salafism in Algeria, also opposed the Arab uprisings. He used his online pulpit to urge Algerians not to join the protests. He also issued a fatwa condemning acts of self-immolation as transgressions of God’s will. As for public demonstrations, marches, and sit-ins, Ferkous denounced them as modern ideas and methods that were inspired by the French Revolution.
Ferkous’ attacks on partisanship and factionalism (hizbiyyah) earned him a strong rebuke from Abdel-Fattah Hamadache, a prominent activist Salafist. In 2013, Hamadache launched the Islamic Sahwa Front, which is not recognized by the state. He belittled Ferkous’ religious authority, dismissing him as lacking the experience and knowledge to render judgments on contemporary issues.
In 2014, Ali Belhadj, the cofounder of FIS, who was released from prison in 2006, faced the same difficulties as Hamadache in securing state recognition for a political party. The same applied to the former emir of the Islamic Salvation Army, Madani Mezrag, who had fought the state during the war. Mezrag has access to media outlets and is allowed to preach and organize gatherings. In June 2014, current Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia, at the time a minister of state and chief of staff to the president, consulted him on the revision of the constitution. But despite Mezrag’s treatment as a “national figure,” the regime is still determined to keep political Salafists and former members of the FIS outside the political fold.
This prohibition and the absence of credible public opinion surveys make it difficult to assess the degree of support that political Salafism has among the population. Hamadache and Mezrag claim that the youthful Salafi base is yearning for representation in the established order. But keen observers of the phenomenon doubt that activist Salafists will be able to re-create the political and electoral tsunami that the FIS pulled off in 1990–1991.
The Algerian regime has struggled to develop a coherent strategy to contain the gradual expansion of Salafism in society. On the one hand, Aïssa, the minister of religious affairs, has warned about the rigid teachings and insubordination of self-proclaimed clerics influenced by Wahhabism. On the other, some factions within the regime continue to regard quietist Salafism as a useful tool against the regional, tribal, sectarian, and jihadi threats that Algeria faces. In March 2017, Ouyahia seemed to confirm the suspicions of critics, who blame his government for using Salafism to divide and rule the political landscape. In a speech to party activists in Tamanrasset, he portrayed Salafism as a model to follow. “We love Salafism, it is in our religion. Let us be Salafists in our nationalism,” the prime minister exhorted.
Whatever the truth about the regime’s policy towards Salafism, the steady expansion of quietist Salafism reveals the deep crisis of state religious institutions. The rehabilitation of these institutions, as Aïssa has recommended, can be crucial in building a credible counter-narrative to the intolerant ideas and practices of some Salafi clerics. Ultimately, this remains only one tool in discrediting radical ideas. As long as economic stagnation, political paralysis, and a lack of opportunity persist, there will always be a reservoir of angry and disgruntled youths tempted by the theological arguments and methods that the different strands of Salafism offer.