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Algeria, Sufi Mysticism Against Extremism

After the excesses of Salafi and Jihadist Islam, an ancient Muslim spiritual movement, rooted in tradition, regains space in Algerian society

In recent years, the Islamist movement in Algerian society has strengthened, despite the authorities’ attempts to contain its dissemination after the bloody conflict in the 1990s. The behavior of the majority of Muslims in Algeria today testifies to the role played by new beliefs or religious obligations coming from the Middle East known as “Salafism”. Many cultural or ethical traditions of the past are now again part of daily life, at least as a reference point to which one should submit to if he wants to live as a true Muslim, even though, for the time being, this submission is not complete yet.



Furthermore, the birth of the self-proclaimed Caliphate in the Middle East, with its followers in Africa, Asia and Europe, has highlighted an “extreme Islamism.” For the way these streams use terrorism, in the West they flooded the press and the editorial field, and captured the attention of the public. These movements conceal the development of other realities in Islam including, above all, spiritual Islam, which is Sufism.



After the attempt of the FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) and the GIA (Armed Islamic Group) to seize power by force from 1990 to 2000, Algerian society became aware of the dangers of political readings of Islam. In almost all the regions of the country, perhaps to a greater extent in Western Algeria, groups that revived the old Sufi Islam institutions formed. In the past, these movements had spread through the network of zāwiya, the places where Sufis gathered. In the first thirty years of independence of the country (1962-1992), the State and the single-party almost erased the presence of zāwiyas, since they envied the influence they had on the population, especially in rural areas. However, the excesses of the FIS and its armed movements, and the advancement of the Salafi reading of Islam made the Algerian state allow the Sufi streams to retake their place in society.



Since the 1990s, and even during the civil war, these movements have developed fairly well, despite the violence perpetrated against them by armed groups (destruction of tombs - qubba – of founding saints, murders ...). Despite this opposition (or perhaps precisely because of this opposition), religious brotherhoods present in the country reacquired influence, sometimes building new facilities in the vicinity of large cities and gaining ground in urban areas, even among university students. Two national federations of zāwiyas were born, who even nominated their president for Head of State.



Traditionally, the majority of these zāwiyas (but not all of them) is related to one of the great spiritual movements of Sufism: the Qādiriyya (which go back to Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī of Baghdad), to various groups linked to Shādhiliyya – the Aissawa, a mystical religious brotherhood founded in Meknes by Muhammad b. ‘Issā, the Darqawiyya, Sufi brotherhood founded by Moulay Larbi Derkaoui – and other more recent groups (18th and 19th centuries), such as the Tijaniyya of ‘Ayn Mādī and Tamacine, or the Rahmaniya of El-Hamel with its important ramifications in Kabylia, and let us not forget the Hebriyya/Qaydiyya of Western Algeria (Tlemcen and Oran). Some movements shifted the center of their activities to Europe, such as the ‘Alawiyya of the shaykh Khaled Bentounes, who by the way is also the founder of the Muslim Scout movement that spread to France and Western Europe. Two years ago, the shaykh and his movement have launched a campaign for an international day of “Living together” that they would want the United Nations to proclaim. Recently, they even proposed to link this initiative to the World Day of Peace on September 21st, which would thus become the day of Peace and Living together.



This international dimension, however, does not prevent the ‘Alawiyya from maintaining a considerable influence in Algeria. Last September, the leaders of this Sufi movement organized a meeting in Mostaganem – Northwestern Algeria – bringing together more than three thousand people around some personalities known for their commitment to peace. Among them, Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations representative in Syria during the early years of the Syrian crisis, and Federico Major Zaragoza, former general director general of Unesco. Other structures were born from individual initiatives and draw on the spiritual heritage of Islam without referring to any specific brotherhood. This is the case, for example, of the spiritual study group that meets in Tlemcen, in the ancient Khaloua Sidi Sennousi (XVI century). Sometimes it is simply a local tradition that perpetuates the memory of a great personality of the past, as Si M’barek Ben Allal at Kolea; other times they are popular traditions spread in a region that attract thousands of visitors from all over Algeria, as it is the case for the week of the Mawlid al-Nabawi – the celebrations for the birth of the Prophet of Islam – in Timimoun.



Moreover, at a university level, this return of Sufism feeds a lot of research on the sources of this movement. Sidi Boumedienne, venerated in Tlemcen but of Andalusian origins, has just been the subject of an international conference in Béjaïa, where he had taught, while another university conference – organized as part of annual initiatives of the structure “The ways of faith” linked to the Research Center of the Ministry of Culture – focused on Ibn ‘Arabī. One of the most significant advances in this area is the recent discovery by the Algerian society of the Kitāb al-Mawāqif, the mystical manual of the Emir ‘Abd al-Qādir. The Emir Foundation has just released the first Algerian edition of ‘Abd al-Qadir’s 372 stations, edited by ‘Abd al-Baqi Meftah. The mystical treatise collects the spiritual teachings that the Emir offered at a mosque in Damascus until 1882, the year of his death. A century later, in 1982, the publication of the Emir’s “spiritual writings” by Michel Chodkiewicz made his spiritual teaching still relevant today. The Emir has now become in Algeria the most important element of the rediscovery of the immense spiritual heritage left by Ibn ‘Arabī to the entire Muslim community.



In the spiritual stream of Islam, but outside of the properly Sufi movements, we begin to encounter initiatives proposing a very strong message, even though with other references. Two examples are explicative. One is Karima Berger, writer of Algerian origin living in France, recently named president of the movement of spiritual writers in Paris, and author of several books in which she proposes her spiritual meditation in a definitively new form for a Muslim believer. Particularly touching is her meditation on the message left by Etty Hillesum – a Dutch writer of Jewish origin who died in Auschwitz – with whom she corresponds, beyond the barrier of death, on her search for God and the meaning of life in response to the message that this young Jewish woman left us. And then Zerrai Farida, who has just published a beautiful spiritual book examining the family of Mohamed, the man who gave his life to save that of Christian de Chergé during the Algerian war.



In this school of thought, one could also place the many statements of the Algerian minister of religious Affairs, Mohamed Aissa. He has repeatedly stated that the Algerian crisis of the 1990s arose from the readings of Islam coming from the Middle East, and that Algeria should return to its true sources, those of '”Islam of Cordoba” – the period in which Islam developed openness of thought, culture, philosophy and respect for other religious traditions. In this school of thought, one could also place some new interpreters of Islam such as Azzedine Gaci, imam of Villeurbanne in Lyon, whose teachings deepen and renew the reflection on traditional spirituality.



The tradition of discretion of Sufi experiences does not allow these new experiences to gain an important position in Algerian society like that of other initiatives that the media systematically report. However, it is clear that after the excesses of Salafi Islam or, even worst, Jihadist Islam, a new Muslim spiritual stream, rooted in tradition in an authentic way, has taken its place in the Algerian society and must be regarded as a living element of the universal heritage, available to anyone who wishes to make a spiritual quest.