ALGIERS (Reuters) - In a bookshop in an eastern suburb of the Algerian capital, visitors can stroll in off the street and pick up titles such as “Our fight against the West,” and “Jihad according to Salafist principles.”
After years of keeping a low public profile, Algerian Salafists — followers of an ultra-conservative brand of Islam — are becoming bolder, laying down a challenge to a state that is firmly secular and fighting a lingering Islamist insurgency.
Most Salafists in Algeria have never been involved in the violent conflict that convulsed the country from the early 1990s, and in fact many cooperated with the government to persuade the insurgents to lay down their arms.
They do not seek overt political influence, partly because their beliefs forbid it. But they are starting to exert a growing influence over society and how people dress, deal with the state and do business.
“They are mobilizing and influencing the whole of society in a very negative way ... the movement acts in parallel to the state and the society,” political analyst Mahmoud Belhimer told Reuters.
The Salafist movement — which is strongly influenced by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi school of Islam — has been growing more assertive in subtle yet tangible ways.
Earlier this year, the Salafists protested against a government plan to make women remove their headscarves for passport photographs.
Salafists, with their trademark beards and white gowns, dominate hundreds of street markets and they have put pressure on shopkeepers to stop selling tobacco and alcohol, both considered forbidden by Islam.
In the most visible sign of their growing assertiveness, a group of Salafist clerics attending an official function along with the minister of religious affairs two months ago refused to stand for the national anthem.
“I have never heard of such disrespect of the state by Salafis elsewhere in the Arab world, not even among Saudi Salafis,” said David Ottaway, a specialist on Islamic movements at the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
A paradox of the Salafists’ rise is that it has, some observers say, been helped by the government.
Security forces, seeking support in their fight against al Qaeda-linked insurgents, tolerated the Salafists who in return agreed to back a government plan to persuade rebel fighters to lay down their arms.
The authorities are more tolerant toward Salafists than in many other Arab countries, with people in beards and long robes often seen in the street. “If this was Egypt, these people would be picked up by the police,” said a Western diplomat.
An estimated 200,000 people were killed in the violence between Islamist rebels and government security forces which began in the early 1990s.
The government’s decision to reach out to the Salafists has been successful to date, helping dramatically reduce the violence in the past few years.
But critics say it risks back-firing.
“This current got strong support from the government during the past decade. It has been empowered to the extent that it could now pose a threat to the whole the society,” Mohamed Mouloudi, an independent expert on Islamic issues, told Reuters.
One prominent Salafist imam cleric said the movement wanted to have a positive influence on society, but that its aims were being distorted by its opponents.
“The West has shown it is against Islam, and it is putting tough pressure on Muslim governments to crack down on the Salafi current because it represents the pure Islam, the Islam of our ancestors,” said Sheikh Abdelfettah Zeraoui.
“Our objective is not to achieve political goals but rather to transform society, which has been negatively influenced by Western values, into a genuine Muslim society,” he said.
Salafists are a minority in Algeria, where most believers follow more mainstream currents of Islam.
The Salafist faith emphasizes religious purity and adherents act out the daily rituals, known as “Sunn’a”, of Islam’s earliest followers.
One book on sale in the bookshop attached to a Salafist mosque and education center in the Algiers suburb of Rouiba was published in Saudi Arabia and has 500 pages of religious guidance on “how to maintain your beard”.
Devotees reject any kind of political participation, considering modern political systems as an illegitimate innovation or “bid’a” — which is why some refused to stand for the national anthem.
Akli, a former insurgent who surrendered in 2001 under a government amnesty, is a Salafist who follows the teachings of Sheikh Ali Ferkous, a prominent preacher.
Akli farms a small parcel of land in the region of Bouira, 100 km (60 miles) east of Algiers. He is poor but refuses to deal with banks or accept an interest-free loan from the government to improve his crops.
“No, it is not licit. Ferkous said so in one of his fatwas (religious edicts),” the farmer, who did not want to be identified by his family name, told Reuters.
Much of that thinking has its roots in Saudi Arabia.
During the row earlier this year over passport photographs, Saudi Arabia’s officially endorsed Grand Mufti, Sheikh Abdul-Aziz al-Sheikh, issued a fatwa saying women should be allowed to keep their veils on.
Algeria’s most prominent Salafist imam, Abdelmalek Ramdani, lives in Saudi Arabia. Other prominent preachers, including Ali Ferkous, Azzedine Ramdani and Al Eid Cherifi, received religious training in Saudi Arabia.
Almost all the books on sale in the Salafist bookshop were published in Saudi Arabia.
It is this growing influence of a foreign state on Algeria’s society and way of life that is the most alarming aspect for many critics of Salafism.
“Some of the Algerian Salafi are closer to Saudi Arabia than to Algeria. This is a big problem that needs to be tackled,” said Mouloudi, the religion expert.
Editing by Giles Elgood