Why you should care
Because Islamist fervor sometimes leads to trouble.
When one of Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck’s friends suggested they meet “after the prayer of dohr,” the Algerian scholar was startled. Since when do we talk like this? she wondered, surprised that her acquaintances in Algiers presumed she knew when certain Muslim prayers were recited, and shocked by their wish to show off their devoutness. It’s like announcing, “Listen, we’re doing our duty,” she says.
Setting the social clock around prayer times is just one reflection of the rise of Islamism in the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, in North Africa — just 14 years after the country endured a civil war, from 1991 to 2002, and the deadly cycle of extremism known as the “Black Decade.” Rather than fighting for political upheaval as they once did, Islamists today push society to “behave” while upholding the country’s collective morality. Moderate Islamists have accepted the political status quo and the impossibility of creating an Islamic state or caliphate in Algeria.
But that doesn’t mean they’re welcoming plurality or equal rights in the public space. Instead, says Ghanem-Yazbeck, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, they’re simply reformulating their approach, focusing more on society’s adherence to Islam in their role as “guardians of morality.” This re-Islamization can be seen in the jump in the number of mosques — from 15,000 in 2012 to 17,000 in 2013 — and the observation that Algiers is now a ghost town on Fridays, because some locals say everybody is praying.
Taking refuge in religion, as Algerians did in the ’90s, could foster more radicalization down the road.
The religious fervor has taken hold of women’s fashions, too, with the Islamic headscarf — as opposed to the traditional Algerian haik — being much more commonly seen. “Now you see women wearing the whole burqa, and that’s a new phenomenon,” says Assia Sabi, a political risk analyst for Global Risks Insights. There seems to have been even more of a change in rural areas, where Ghanem-Yazbeck estimates that more than 80 percent of women now wear the veil. “Women feel that by wearing it they can play a much more active role in public life,” says Michael Willis, a professor of Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University. But to Ghanem-Yazbeck, this also means that “in the public space, you cannot be free, and you cannot practice the religion that you want.”
As Algerians are increasingly judged by their peers for how they practice the Muslim faith, the Islamists are becoming more adept and deliberate at playing the game of the state. The Movement of Society for Peace, for example, is the main Islamist party, and it’s working alongside President Bouteflika’s government, which has been criticized in the past for making concessions to the ultra-conservatives. When the government tried to liberalize the wholesale alcohol trade last year, for example, Islamists threatened to protest in the streets. Media reports were harsh on Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal, saying he catered to the opponents by freezing the proposal. During Ramadan, moreover, people who are caught eating get fined or sent to jail. In recent years, these crackdowns have led to “picnic protests” in places like Kabylie, where demonstrators insist all religions must be respected. Trying to convert a Muslim is a major no-no, and “there’s been a real operation against Christianity and evangelicalism in Algeria,” Ghanem-Yazbeck says.
Islamists have also opposed revisions to the family code that would give more legal freedoms to women. So the 1984 code that makes women des mineurs pour la vie — minors for life — still stands. “There are still huge obstacles to women’s equality in Algeria,” Ghanem-Yazbeck says, noting how the government is scared to change the code for fear of Islamists taking to the streets. Last year the Islamists also pushed back against a law criminalizing violence against women. “Fortunately, the government didn’t concede,” Ghanem-Yazbeck says.
Taking refuge in religion, as Algerians did in the ’90s, could foster more radicalization down the road. Islamists are targeting the new generation, says Sabi, referring to the 20-somethings who are battling close to a 30 percent unemployment rate and the resulting poverty. “They were not the most impacted by the civil war. But it is this new generation that’s being affected by Islam.” It’s a fine line, in other words, and the government is doing what it can to remain legitimate in the face of religious foment, Ghanem-Yazbeck explains. That’s why Bouteflika, before falling ill, was often seen visiting mosques and attending Friday prayers. It sprang from a desire to show that “we are as Muslim as you, and you don’t have a lesson to give us,” she says, noting how it’s no coincidence that one of Bouteflika’s biggest achievements is building Africa’s largest mosque just outside Algiers. The message? “I’m the president of the Algerians … and the one who reconciled Algerians with their religion,” Ghanem-Yazbeck says.
An increase in religious adherence, of course, is not a bad thing per se, as long as it is rooted in spirituality. But analysts remain unsure whether Algerians are being driven by true religiosity or fear. And for people like Ghanem-Yazbeck, the bottom line is “we need to think about minorities and women who cannot have rights in such an environment.” It’s the non-acceptance of diversity in the public space that worries her most. “There’s no place for criticism for a different mindset,” she warns.