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Algerian controversy over Salafism puts government control of religion on the spot

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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photo: Wikimedia Commons

A controversy in Algeria over the growing popularity of Saudi-inspired Salafi scholars spotlights the risk governments run in a region in which they strive to control religion in a bid to counter militant strands of Islam, often by touting apolitical, ultra-conservative trends.  These efforts are proving difficult to contain within the limits of the government’s agenda.

The controversy over Saudi support of Salafi scholars highlights how state control, frequently exercised through degrees of micro-management of weekly Friday prayer sermons, and/or putting clerics on the government payroll as well as supervision of mosques and school textbooks, often backfires.  For one, the credibility of government-sponsored Islamic scholars is undermined as they become increasingly viewed as functionaries and parrots of regimes.

It also thrusts into the limelight the slippery slope on which governments play politics with conservative and ultra-conservative religion for opportunistic reasons or as in the case of Turkey in a bid to establish state-controlled Turkish Islam as a global force.

Ultra-conservatism’s increasing attractiveness is magnified by the inability of governments to comprehensively police alternative expressions of religion on the Internet and social media as well as halt the popping up of unlicensed mosques and informal study groups.

As a result, Saudi-inspired ultra-conservative as well as militant strands of Islam emerge as the only alternative release valve, particularly in countries that restrict freedom of expression, the media and religion and have failed in their delivery of public goods and services

“Whatever the state does to control the religious realm, it cannot oblige or guarantee that people will rely on official bodies and individuals for their religious guidance. In fact, Algerian youths in particular are disillusioned and have lost confidence in their religious institutions. As such, they may be attracted to other religious voices, especially those offering ‘grab and go’ solutions to complex issues or a Manichean view of the world,” said Algeria scholar Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck.

The controversy in Algeria further raises questions about definitions of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s declared effort to return the kingdom to what he termed ‘moderate Islam’ given that Saudi Arabia played a key role in globally promoting Sunni Muslim ultra-conservatism for almost half a century.

In Saudi Arabia, the jury is still out on Prince Mohammed’s approach to moderation. In an ultra-conservative country in which religious leaders were not only popular, but government employees who shared power with the ruling Al Saud family, Prince Mohammed has whipped the religious establishment into subservience and kowtowing to his reforms with little indication that they have had a true change of heart.

Algeria has long seen Saudi-inspired quietist strands of Salafism that preach unreserved obedience to a Muslim ruler as a way of countering expressions of popular discontent and more militant strands of Islam.

“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… This drove a wedge between rulers and ruled, exacerbating social divisions, which would inevitably lead to a rise in insecurity and worsening corruption,” said international relations scholar Anouar Boukhars.

A recent study showed that many Algerians were turning on social media to Saudi and Egyptian rather than Algerian religious scholars.

Some Saudi scholars like Sheikh Mohamed al-Arefe, a controversial ultra-conservative, known for his misogynist and anti-Shiite tirades, who ranks among the top 100 global and top 10 Arab social media personalities with 21.6 million followers on Twitter and 24.3 million on Facebook boast a larger following in Algeria than in the kingdom itself.

The study concluded that Mr. Al-Arefe had two million Algerian followers as opposed to 1.3 million Saudis.

Algerian media reports, echoing secular concerns, detailed earlier this year Saudi propagation of a quietist, apolitical yet supremacist and anti-pluralistic form of Islam in the North African country. The media published a letter by a prominent Saudi scholar that appointed three ultra-conservative Algerian clerics as representatives of Salafism.

“While Saudi Arabia tries to promote the image of a country that is ridding itself of its fanatics, it sends to other countries the most radical of its doctrines,” asserted independent Algerian newspaper El Watan.

El Watan and other media reproduced a letter written by Saudi Sheikh Hadi Ben Ali Al-Madkhali, a scion of Sheikh Rabia Al-Madkhali, the intellectual father of what French Islam scholar Stephane Lacroix terms a loyalist strand of Salafism that projects the kingdom as the ideal place for those who seek a pure Islam that has not been compromised by non-Muslim cultural practices and secularism.

The letter appoints three prominent Algerian scholars, including Mohamed Ali Ferkous, widely viewed as the spiritual guide of Algerian Madkhalists, as Salafism’s representatives in Algeria.

“Madkhalism…(is) perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse,” quipped North Africa scholar George Joffe. “State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs,” Mr. Joffe added.

The mixed results of the Algerian government’s effort to control and use religion are replicated across the Muslim world.

Pakistan, a country in which ultra-conservatism and militancy has over decades been woven into the fabric of the state and society and that is struggling with political violence against the state as well as minorities, serves as an example of the risks involved in playing politics with religion and state support for non-pluralistic, intolerant and supremacist interpretations of Islam.

Attempting to rollback the fallout of such policies is proving to be a gargantuan task. The Pakistani government earlier this year launched a pilot project in Islamabad to regulate Friday prayer sermons. The problem is that it controls a mere 86 of the city’s 1,003 mosques.

Some critics warn that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may be taking his country down a road like that of Pakistan. They compare the Turkish leader to former Pakistani ruler General Zia ul-Haq who in the 1980s accelerated Islamization of Pakistani society.

Former Pakistani ambassador to the United States and director of South and Central Asia for the Washington-based Hudson Institute Husain Haqqani asserted that Mr. Erdogan was adopting the “Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity” and pouring money into Islamic schools.

“Erdogan has taken the Pakistani formula of mixing hard-line nationalism with religiosity. Zia imposed Islamic laws by decree, amended the constitution, marginalized secular scholars and leaders, and created institutions for Islamization that have outlasted him. Erdogan is trying to do the same in Turkey,” Mr. Haqqani told journalist and columnist Eli Lake.

Mr. Lake argued that Turkey, despite having tacitly supported the Islamic State at one point during the Syrian civil war, Turkey had not yet “sunk” to Pakistan’s level of cooperation with Islamic militants in its dispute with India and manoeuvring in Afghanistan.

However, suggesting that Turkey risked becoming another Pakistan, Mr. Lake quoted former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman as saying: “Turkey is not Pakistan yet, but if it continues the trajectory that Erdogan has put it on, there is a prospect it could become like Pakistan.”

At the other extreme, Chinese authorities in the north-western province of Xinjiang, home to China’s Uyghur Muslim minority, were several months ago shutting down some 100 illegal, underground religious seminaries a month despite creating in the region the world’s most repressive surveillance state, according to a Chinese communist party official.

The crackdown involves the banning of religious practices and the teaching of the Uyghur language in schools and the detention of thousands in political re-education camps.

The controversy in Algeria, Mr. Erdogan’s embrace of Islam, Pakistan’s struggle to come to grips with the fallout of ultra-conservatism, China’s efforts to crackdown on religion, anti-government and anti-clergy protests in Iran earlier this year, and examples of societies elsewhere in Asia turning towards intolerance and conservatism as governments employ or repress religion for opportunistic political purposes, suggest that political leaders have learnt little, if anything.

Yet, the lesson is that government control and/or playing with religion seldom produces sustainable results. The lesson is also that repression, including restricting freedoms of expression, media and religion, aggravates problems and benefits ultra-conservatives and militants.

Finally, the lesson is that the solution likely lies in inclusive rather than exclusionary policies and transparent and accountable governments capable of delivering pubic goods and services that ensure that all segments of the population have a stake in society. That lesson is one that governments in Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China seemingly prefer to overlook.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title, Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario and three forthcoming books, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africaas well as Creating Frankenstein: The Saudi Export of Ultra-conservatism and China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom.

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Middle East

Saudi oil attacks put US commitments to the test

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States is rushing to retaliate for a brazen, allegedly Iranian attack that severely damaged two of the kingdom’s key oil facilities.

That is not to say that Saudi Arabia and/or the United States will not retaliate in what could prove to be a game changer in the geopolitics of the Middle East.

Yet, reading the tea leaves of various US and Saudi statements lifts the veil on the constituent elements that could change the region’s dynamics.

They also shine a spotlight on the pressures on both countries and shifts in the US-Saudi relationship that could have long lasting consequences.

With US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting the kingdom to coordinate what his office described as efforts to combat “Iranian aggression in the region,” Saudi Arabia and the United States will be seeking to resolve multiple issues.

These include collecting sufficient evidence to convincingly apportion blame; calibrating a response that would be appropriate but not drag the United States and the Middle East into a war that few want; deciding who takes the lead in any military response and managing the long-term impact of that  decision on Saudi-US relations and the US commitment to the region.

A careful reading of Saudi and US responses to the attacks so far suggests subtle differences between the two. They mask fundamental issues that have emerged in the aftermath of the attacks.

For starters, Mr. Pompeo and President Donald J. Trump have explicitly pointed the finger at Iran as being directly responsible, while Saudi Arabia stopped short of blaming the Islamic republic, saying that its preliminary findings show that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has denied any involvement.

The discrepancy in the initial apportioning of blame raises the question whether Saudi Arabia is seeking to avoid being manoeuvred into a situation in which it would be forced to take the lead in retaliating against the Islamic republic with strikes against targets in Iran rather than Yemen.

Political scientist Austin Carson suggests that Saudi Arabia may have an interest in at least partially playing along with Iranian insistence that it was not responsible. “Allowing Iran’s role to remain ambiguous could reduce Saudi leaders’ need to appear strong… The Saudis are reportedly unconvinced by shared US intelligence that attempts to link the attacks to Iran’s territory. Some experts suggest this may reflect a more cautious approach to escalation,” Mr. Carson wrote in The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia’s initial reluctance to unambiguously blame Iran may have a lot to do with Mr. Trump’s America First-driven response to the attacks that appeared to contradict the Carter Doctrine proclaimed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter.

The doctrine, a cornerstone of the Saudi-US relationship, stated that the United States would use military force, if necessary, to defend its national interests in the Gulf.

Mr. Trump’s apparent weakening of the United States’ commitment to the defense of the kingdom, encapsuled in the doctrine, risks fundamentally altering the relationship, already troubled by Saudi conduct of the more than four-year long war in Yemen and last year’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Signalling a break with the Carter doctrine, Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the attacks were on Saudi Arabia, not on the United States, and suggested that it was for the Saudis to respond.

“I haven’t promised Saudis that. We have to sit down with the Saudis and work something out. That was an attack on Saudi Arabia, and that wasn’t an attack on us. But we would certainly help them,” Mr. Trump said without identifying what kind of support the US would be willing to provide.

Despite blustering that the United States was “locked and loaded,” Mr. Trump insisted that “we have a lot of options but I’m not looking at options right now.”

Mr. Trump’s response to a tweet by US Senator Lindsey Graham, a friend of the president who favours a US military strike against Iran, that “the measured response by President @realDonaldTrump…was clearly seen by the Iranian regime as a sign of weakness” was equally telling.

No Lindsey, it was a sign of strength that some people just don’t understand.” Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump further called into question the nature of the US-Saudi defense relationship by declaring that “If we decide to do something, they’ll be very much involved, and that includes payment. And they understand that fully.”

The Saudi foreign ministry maintained, with the attacks casting doubt on the Saudi military’s ability to defend the kingdom’s oil assets and Mr. Trump seemingly putting the onus of a response on Saudi Arabia, that “the kingdom is capable of defending its land and people and responding forcefully to those attacks.”  

Only indisputable evidence that the drones were launched from Iranian territory would incontrovertibly point the finger at Iran.

So far, the Saudis have stopped short of that while US officials have suggested that the drones were launched either from Iran or by pro-Iranian militias in southern Iraq.

Holding Iran responsible for the actions of a militia, whether in Iraq or Yemen, could prove more tricky given long-standing questions about the degree of control that Iran has over various groups that it supports, and particularly regarding the Houthis.

The argument could turn out to be a slippery slope given that by the same logic, the United States would be responsible for massive human casualties in the Yemen war resulting from Saudi use of American weaponry.

Military retaliation may not be immediate even if the United States and Saudi Arabia can produce convincing evidence that Iran was directly responsible.

No knee jerk reactions to this – it’s very systematic – what happens with patience is it prevents stupid moves,” a US official said.

The United States is likely to attempt to first leverage that evidence in meetings on the sidelines of next week’s United Nations General Assembly to convince the international community, and particularly the Europeans, to drop opposition to last year’s US withdrawal from the international nuclear accord with Iran and the harsh economic sanctions that the Trump administration has since imposed on Iran.

Both the United States and Saudi Arabia will also want to use the opportunity of the UN gathering to try to ensure that the fallout of any military response is limited and does not escalate into a full-fledged war that could change the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

Said foreign policy analyst Steven A. Cook: “How the Trump administration responds will indicate whether U.S. elites still consider energy resources a core national interest and whether the United States truly is on its way out of the Middle East entirely, as so many in the region suspect.”

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Growing Tensions on the Road to Persian Gulf Security

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The 14 September 2019 drone attacks on oil installations in eastern Saudi Arabia have dimmed hope for U.S. – Iranian discussions aimed to reduce tensions and potentially end the armed conflict in Yemen.  Tensions have increased, and oil prices have risen. Certain hopes created by the initiatives of the French President during the G7 meeting in Biarritz, France and the forced departure of John Bolton as U.S. National Security Advisor have lessened.  In fact, the aim of the attacks may have been to lessen the possibility of Iran – U.S. discussions which might have taken place during the start of the U.N. General Assembly in New York later in September.

There is a good deal of speculation as to who fired the drones and from where.  The Ansar Allah Movement (often called the Houthis) has taken credit, but some specialists doubt that they have  the technical knowhow to send drones from Yemen to the targets in Saudi Arabia.  Some speculate that the drones were sent from southern Iraq, possibly by Iranian-backed militias such as the Popular Mobilization Forces or by units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed in Iraq.  The Revolutionary Guards are nearly “a state within the state” and could take initiatives without orders from the Iranian President or the Foreign Minister.  The Revolutionary Guards could have motivations to prevent fruitful U.S. – Iranian talks at the U.N.  There is also speculation that the drone attacks could be linked to increased tensions between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates concerning the future of south Yemen where the two countries support different factions.

Whatever the locations from which the drones were launched and whomever pulled the switch, the consequences are clear.  At a time when governments were speaking of a possible path to reduce tensions a “No Exit” sign has been put up near the start of the road.  The road leads to ever-greater tensions which may slip out of the control of governments.  Thus, in addition to the French proposal at the G7, there was an earlier Russian government proposal.

On 23 July 2019, the Russian Government’s “Collective Security for the Persian Gulf Region” was presented in Moscow by the Deputy Foreign Minister, Mikhail Bogdanov.  The Russian proposal for Collective Security for the Persian Gulf follows closely the procedures which led to the 1975 Helsinki Final Act and the creation of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.  Bogdanov stressed multilateral ism as a mechanism for all involved in the assessment of situations, the decision-making process, and  the implementation of decisions.

It is not clear how the Russian proposal for a Helsinki-type conference will progress.  Russia does not play a leading role in the Middle East today as the USSR did in Europe in the 1970s.  In the lead up to the Helsinki Accords of 1975, non-governmental organizations had played an active role in informal East-West discussions to see what issues were open to negotiations and on what issues progress might be made.  There is a need for such non-governmental efforts today as the Persian Gulf and the wider Middle East are growing ever-more tense.

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Algeria’s political impasse: What is next?

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Seven months after a wave of protests began in Algeria; people are still pilling onto the streets of the Algerian capital “Algiers” and other cities nationwide every Friday, reiterating their main demands: the departure of the regime and its symbols and the application of Articles 7 and 8 of the Constitution stating that the constituent power belongs to the people.

The demonstrations have gained a familiar rhythm and worldwide admiration since tens of thousands of Algerians first took, peacefully, to the streets on 22 February. Thousands of students turn out on Tuesdays and there are larger protests each Friday revolting against former opaque group of power-brokers that have run the country for decades.
After weeks of mass demonstrations, President of the Republic Abdelaziz Bouteflika stepped down, ceding power after 20 years of rule and abandoning his re-election bid. The protesters pressured the authorities, again, to cancel presidential elections originally scheduled for April.
Despite the postponement of the election, the public anger continued to mount. Thus, Army chief Gaid Salah emerged as the key powerbroker positioning himself in favor of El Hirak “Popular movement”. He publicly disavowed the former leader and called for his impeachment, winning legitimacy in the streets.

Purging Corruption

Gaid Salah responded favorably to protesters’ demands, launching a sweeping anti-graft campaign targeting high-ranked officials that have served the Bouteflika government as well as influential tycoons and businessman.

Two Prime Ministers, namely; Ahmed Ouyahia and Abdelmalek Sellal, the deposed President’s brother Said Bouteflika, tens of ministers, leading industrialists, tycoons, key businessmen, Governors,  and two former Intelligence chiefs, have been remanded in custody for accusations ranging from money laundering, embezzlement, misuse of public money to using officials posts to influence industrial and commercial contracts and granting undue privileges, affiliation to suspicious parties that plot to destabilize the country, plotting against the army, and instigating the opposition to call for a transitional phase before holding any election.

Bouteflika’s resignation puts Abdelkader Bensalah, Speaker of the upper house of parliament, in charge as caretaker Head of State for 90 days until elections are held. However, elections (scheduled for July 4th) have been postponed for a second time and protesters are demanding his departure.

For his part, Bensalah, and in a bid to calm them, set a Panel of Dialogue and Mediation, composed of political actors, the civil society, the representatives of the trade union organizations and many citizens, with the aim to mediate between public authorities and people  and hold a “serious and responsible” dialogue to reach a national consensus which would help resolve the political crisis in Algeria, through the organization of a fair and transparent presidential election, as soon as possible.”

However, the Panel itself is facing rejection by protesters who are taking into the streets denouncing its formation, saying it does not represent them along other claims, such as the departure of Bensalah, a former head of the upper house of parliament, and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui, who are regarded by them as part of the old guard.

Despite all these arrangements, Algeria is still at an impasse, with two camps facing each other in seemingly irreconcilable positions.

To resolve this stalemate, Lieutenant General Ahmed Gaïd Salah, Deputy Minister of  National Defence, Chief of Staff of the People’s National Army (ANP), launched, last week, a call, saying that it would be “appropriate” to convene the electorate on the 15th of September, and that the elections could be held within the deadlines set by law.

In my previous speech, “I have spoken about the priority to seriously launch the preparation of the presidential elections within the coming weeks, and today, based on our missions, prerogatives and our compliance with the Constitution and the laws of the Republic as well, I confirm that we regard as appropriate to summon the Electorate on September 15th and the elections can be held within the deadlines provided for by the law. Reasonable and acceptable deadlines which respond to the insistent demand of the people,” said Lieutenant General.

Theoretically, if the head of state, Abdelkader Bensalah, summons the electorate on September 15, 2019, as desired by the head of the army, the presidential election should take place before the end of the current year (mid-December).  The Organic Law No. 12-01 2012 (Electoral Code) provides in article 25 that “Subject to the other provisions of this organic law, the electorate shall be convened by presidential decree within three (3) months preceding the date of the elections “.

As a response, Algerian street has expressed its rejection of elections in the current political conditions. According to demonstrators, no election should take place as long as Bouteflika-era officials remain in positions of power.

For their parts, the opposition parties and civil society groups have also demanded the resignation of the government which constitutes “a popular demand”, voicing rejection of the holding of the elections.

The people are determined to pursue the hirak until the establishment of a state of institutions, widening gap between them and the power constrained, for lack of serious candidates, to cancel the vote twice.

According to observers, these presidential elections are unachievable for the moment because the approach advocated by Ahmed Gaid Salah ” requires the revision of some texts of the electoral law to adapt to the requirements of the current situation, and not a total and profound revision that would affect all texts, as claimed by the demonstrators. The partial amendment means the holding of elections basing on the same mode of organization. This is likely to trigger the street again as the popular movement with its magnitude unparalleled in the contemporary history of the country will, likely, sabotage the preparations for this election. The political climate also does not allow the organization of such an election with the absence of total trust between voters and the political class.

However, it is imperative to go quickly to a presidential election provided that it is transparent, where the mediation initiatives of the Panel or other organizations, can lead to a consensual platform far from the occult practices of the past which saw the majority of the population sulking the ballot boxes, reflecting the state-citizen divorce, noting that an independent election monitoring commission and the departure of the Bedoui government are two prerequisites for a transparent presidential election.

This necessarily implies the cleaning up of the electoral file, the creation of an independent election supervision body where neither the executive (the government – especially the Ministry of the Interior and the Walis) nor the deputies/senators and representatives of the current APCs denounced by Al Hirak, will be stakeholders. 

Only a democratically elected legitimate president, elected on the basis of a transparent agenda, pledging to include the legitimate demands of Al Hirak including a new balance of power and the moralization of management (fight against corruption and embezzlement), can amend the constitution and carry out the profound political and economic reforms to bring Algeria to the new world and make it an emerging country: a pivotal country regionally and internationally.

Economically, it is imperative to quickly resolve the political crisis before the end of 2019 or at most the first quarter of 2020, to avoid towards a cessation of payments at the end of 2021 and beginning of 2022, and prevent Algeria the depletion of its foreign exchange reserves which would culminated in the economic, social, political insecurity.

From our partner Tehran Times

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