State control over Islam in Algeria remains strong, while Salafism spreads

Secular-leaning newspapers in Algeria have expressed concerns about the expansion of Salafism in the country, reports Anouar Boukhars in Diwan: Middle East Insights from Carnegie (April 18). Due to its predominantly quietist stance and to successful instances of Salafism being a religious exit strategy for previous jihadists, Algerian authorities had often considered the spread of Salafism as a potentially helpful factor for national stability, while keeping an eye on Salafi mosques, too. During the 2011 Arab Spring and its uprisings, Algerian Salafists kept quiet. The regime remains determined anyway to keep political Salafists outside of the political field. Some public figures, such as Mohamed Aïssa, the Minister of Religious Affairs since 2014, have been critical of Salafism, which propagates rigid teachings influenced by Saudi Wahhabism. But other members of the government continue to see quietist Salafism as a useful tool. However, Boukhars writes that the spread of Salafism “reveals the deep crisis of state religious institutions,” with religious functionaries on the government’s payroll increasingly becoming discredited.

In an interview with Diwan’s Michael Young (April 20), scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck (Carnegie Center, Beirut) remarks that state control of religion in Algeria is robust, including a control over textbooks, the authorization of religious books at book fairs, and the broadcasting of religious programming on national television and radio. But this control is not total and is facing competition—e.g., from Quranic schools outside the state’s control and illegal mosques (900 of which were closed in 2015). Commenting on those developments, James Dorsey, in International Policy Digest (April 26), points out that a policy of allowing the spread of Salafism in the hope of countering militants will ultimately experience difficulties in containing such streams “within the limits of the government’s agenda” at a time when Algerians—especially youth—have lost confidence in national religious institutions.

Dorsey quotes a recent study showing “that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.” Algerian newspaper El Watan remarked that Saudi Arabia, while currently attempting to improve its image, was sending abroad “the most radical of its doctrines,” in the form of a supremacist and anti-pluralistic kind of Islam. In the long term, the spread of Salafism may have consequences which governments will have to face, and not only in Algeria. Algerian authorities have also attempted to promote Sufism as a model of healthy religion, but those attempts have not been successful, due both to the rejection of Sufi practices by a majority of Algerian Muslims (according to a 2011 scholarly survey) and to suspicions about its state instrumentalization, Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck observes in another recent article (Diwan, March 13).
(Diwan,; International Policy Digest,