Algeria sanctions imam union to stem Salafist influence

31 March 2013 - 10:39 By Sapa-AFP
Algerian people walk wearing their traditional islamic outfits as they arrive for for a rally marking the start of spring. File photo.
Algerian people walk wearing their traditional islamic outfits as they arrive for for a rally marking the start of spring. File photo.

Algerian authorities have given the all-clear for a union of imams to protect the country's traditionally moderate form of Islam from the teachings of hardline Salafists whose influence is on the rise in north Africa.

The move comes two months after an Al-Qaeda-linked attack on a desert gas plant, where 37 foreign hostages were killed during a siege and army rescue operation, and amid fears of jihadist groups gaining ground in neighbouring Tunisia.

The union's "mission will be to defend the material and moral rights of the imams and to act as a bulwark against imported religious ideas, Salafist or other," its secretary general Sheikh Djelloul Hadjimi told AFP.

The preacher of El Ouarthilani mosque, in the Telemly district of the capital Algiers, welcomes his followers over tea and dates, some of them seeking a fatwa, or religious edict, others asking for advice or material assistance.

He says he is used to receiving people suffering from psychological afflictions, including young people who have tried to commit suicide.

But since the union was officially announced in mid-March, he has struggled to cope with his daily agenda and the phone hasn't stopped ringing.

Sheikh Hadjimi has said that the bulk of the union's work must be focused on Algiers, "where a large majority of the mosques are hostage to Salafist imams."

Algeria is no stranger to radical Muslim trends, having battled Islamist insurgents since its devastating civil war in the 1990s, some of whom formed Al-Qaeda's regional franchise in 2007, after the conflict formally ended.

But while it has attracted less media attention, the spread of extremist ideology has also been a cause of concern, with up to 80 percent of Algerian mosques prey to Salafist-style teachings, according to some estimates.

"We first created a union in 1999, the Algerian league of imams and ulamas, but we did not get approval," said Hadjimi.

The authorities at the time feared the mosques would become political forums, as they did in the early 1990s when they fell under the control of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), which won Algeria's first democratic elections in 1991.

The army's decision to cancel the elections sparked a civil war with Islamist militants that cost up to 200,000 lives.

"We waited until 2012 and decided to create a union affiliated to the national Algerian General Workers Union (UGTA)," Hadjimi said.

"Algerians observe the Malekite doctrine. The imam must conform to it. He does not have the right to propagate ideas coming from elsewhere, Salafist, Wahhabi or Shiite," he insisted.

Shifting sands

The hardline Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam from which Salafist ideas originated is practised in Saudi Arabia, while Shiite Islam is prevalent in Iran and Iraq.

But most of Muslim north Africa observes the moderate Sunni Malekite form of the religion, although hardline Islamists have become increasingly assertive since Arab Spring uprisings toppled dictators across the region.

In Tunisia, jihadists were blamed for a deadly attack on the US embassy last September and the assassination of leftist politician Chokri Belaid in February.

And in Libya, the US ambassador and three other Americans were killed when Al-Qaeda-linked militants overran the US consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi in September.

Members of Algeria's Salafist movement now complain of being prevented from expressing their ideas.

Their imams "are forbidden from preaching in the mosques," said Abdelfatah Hemdash Ziraoui, a former FIS militant and leader of the Free Awakening Front, Algeria's main Salafist group, who was jailed in the 1990s.

A number of Salafist leaders have criticised the exclusive reference to the Malikite school, and argue that they should have the right to preach their hardline views.

"We are in favour of fatwas preserving the unity of the country, even if they contradict the Malekite doctrine," said Sheikh Djamal Foughal, an imam in the poor neighbourhood of Bachadjarrah, in southern Algiers.