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The Original Against the Popular: the Case of Algeria

The Islamic tradition /2. Over the last thirty years the religious landscape has been profoundly shaken at the level of practices and customs, and even certain dogmatic beliefs. The practices of life in common are contested and accused of being a deformation of early orthodoxy.

Over the last thirty years or so an Islamist reading of the lives of Muslims has had a broad penetration into Algerian society. This reading was expressed in violent forms during the Islamist crisis which took place between 1992 and 2000. The popular resistance to the excesses of that time and the reaction of the security forces broadly prevailed over these forms of violence, even though isolated acts continue to produce victims every week.



But the problem of violent Islamism is not the only question to present itself to the consciousness of Algerians. Over the last thirty years the religious landscape has been profoundly modified and this transformation of practices, customs, and even of certain dogmatic beliefs, is today the subject of a very lively debate in numerous spheres of Algerian society. The traditional life of Algerian Muslims has been called into question in the name, it is said, of the tradition of the origins of religion. I will try to understand and contextualise this debate, with the regret that I will have to confine myself to Algerian society, not being able at the same time to address similar and at the same time different developments in other Islamic societies in the Maghreb, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania.



The tradition of popular Islam in Algeria is contested by the new forms of behaviour that are becoming established with a return to early Islam and which have the aim of going beyond a popular Islam which is seen as having been steadily deformed by negative tendencies that are contrary to early orthodoxy. This movement accelerated after the 1980s under the influence of currents from the Middle East. But in fact the clash between popular Islam in Algeria and the Islam of the ‘ulamâ’ goes back to the 1920s. It is thus necessary to describe this dual movement of the ‘return to the origins’: the movement from the 1920s to the 1950s and the movement that took place of the end of the last century.



The first of these movements is well known: it termed itself the movement of the ‘ulamâ’ (Jâm‘iyat al-‘Ulamâ’). Conceived as early as 1925, it was finally established in the form of an association at the beginning of the 1930s. It was based upon the great names of Algerian reformist Islam, today known by the whole of the population through the mass media, street names and commemorations: Abdelhamid Ben Badis (1889-1940), Bachir Brahimi (1889-1965) Larbi Tebessi (1891-1956), Moubarak al-Mili (1898-1945), Tawfik Al-Madani etc. The movement at the time gave itself a dual purpose. First of all, that of restoring to the people of Algeria knowledge of literary Arabic through the creation of primary schools and collèges. Then that of obstructing popular Islam which was held to be corrupt because of the religious brotherhoods and the actions of their representatives, the marabouts. This movement, called the ‘reformist’ movement, was to be taken on board and continued by the new power structure that arose with the independence of Algeria. Indeed, the teaching of the ‘ulamâ’ provided a primary theoretical base for the personnel entrusted with representing official Islam both in public teaching and in the mosques or in the mass media. With this reformist current we can see a first contrast between the Islam of popular traditions and reformism. But from the 1980s onwards Algerian Islam experienced the influence of another movement, something which was full of consequences, with the intrusion of new currents of thought that came from the Middle East. They channelled into Algeria visions of Islam that were largely based upon the Muslim brothers and the new trends of Egyptian Islam or directly taken from the Wahabite Islam of Saudi Arabia.



Cassettes and Preaching



The new currents of the 1980s in Algeria profoundly changed the traditional forms of behaviour of Algerian Islam. In order to grasp this one need only observe the new practices in women’s clothing (with the abandonment of the traditional hâik) or the dress of many men who now wear a long beard and the kamîs and skullcap. But these changes in external behaviour reflect more important internal changes. A new vision of Islam is offered, first and foremost on the basis of the beliefs of Sayyed Qutb and his movement, channelled by the cassettes of Imam Kish (an Egyptian) or the preaching of Shaykh Ghozali, a doctor in Islam brought forward by the media in Algeria in the 1980s. Centuries-old customs were called into question on the basis of certain old hadîth that were understood differently by these new teachers of Islam. Thus, for example, the fasting of the month of Ramadan was prolonged by a supplementary week after the ‘aid (1). Similar extensions of fasting now take place at the time of the ‘âshûrâ’ (2). What is important is not the appeal to a greater generosity launched in this way, beginning with the Middle East, but the ability of these eastern teachers to introduce new forms of behaviour. Beyond forms of behaviour connected with worship, there are clearly all the consequences of a ‘return to tradition’ in social behaviour. In the daily lives of women the veil is a very visible symbol of this change in mentality. A survey of the Centre d’Information et de Documentation sur les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme (C.I.D.D.E.F.) of Algiers, which was published at the beginning of 2009, made the following observations, which were presented by Imane Nayef Ighilariz (El Watan, 8 March 2009):



‘The girls with modern styles of dress who wear the foulard make up 38% of the female population, followed by those who prefer the (rigorous) hijâb multazim numbering 34%, and those who remain loyal to traditional forms of dress (only 2%). They abandoned the hâik or the m’lâya during the 1980s and 1990s and moved directly to the jallâba or the gandura with a foulard. This is a recent trend because the generation of women who are now in their fifties lived through the 1970s and 1980s when in the streets one could see women dressed both in a hâik and in modern clothes’.



But the same survey also reveals a debate between tradition and modernity in relation to other subjects, for example inheritance. ‘Society has taken a great step forward: a half of Algerians think that brothers and sisters should have the right to the same inheritance. It is the reality of daily life that has generated this change. Algerians who approve equality in the distribution of an inheritance daily come into contact with a reality of the twenty-first century where families undergo dramas to which solutions have to be found. They reflect on matters according to their experience’.



Lastly, to take a third example, this survey also addresses the subject of equality between men and women in these terms and also observes regressive developments in this sphere: ‘In 2008, 2 Algerians in every 10 declared that they were in favour of the values of equality. For that matter, another 2 Algerians in every 10 expressed themselves against equality between the sexes. In the middle there is a mass divided into two sub-groups of the same percentages, one nearer to those favourable and the other inclined to the contrary. An oscillation in the population has taken place here since 2000 within the category of the favourable, with a move towards those against’.



The recent developments in Algeria Islam were pointed out by the Algerian sociologist Abderrahman Moussaoui in a paper given at the CEMA (Centre d’Études maghrébins en Algérie) of Oran. Here is an important passage from that paper: ‘in Algeria Malikism, the principal source as regards fiqh (religious law) was shaken by the wave of sahwa, the Islamic reawakening that hit the country in the 1980s. With the salafiyya’, observed this sociologist, ‘we witness a refoundation of the ‘interpretation of the early period’’. ‘Outside the foundations (al-usûl) everything is seen as purely historical’, observes the author, echoing a rule dear to this current. Going over the initial journey of Wahabism, he dwells upon the work of the al-Albânî, the vulgate par excellence of the Salafists. His followers referred exclusively to the Kitâb (the Koran) and to the Sunna (the tradition of the Prophet), clearing out at one blow the entire exegetic and jurisprudential output of the great schools of theology. Abderrahmane Moussaoui subsequently spoke at length about the role of internet and the sites of the muftî in the lives of contemporary Muslims. The high-tech shuyûkh appear to have understood the extent of the effectiveness of the internet networks in the action of the ‘da‘wa’; they threw themselves into the technological battle without any inhibitions, just as they did with the satellite systems and the ‘digital fiqh’. ‘Today one can enter into contact with muftî of one’s own choosing through the internet and have an à la carte Islam. With globalisation we are in the epoch of the global village’, observed Moussaoui (press conference, n. 515, January-February, 24, 25).



A Generation of Researchers



In 1990, Rédha Malek, an important Algerian politician (previously a negotiator at Évian, a former Prime Minister, etc.), stigmatised in a work which deserved to receive more attention in Algeria and elsewhere ‘abhorrent ideas in which Islam tends to be reduced to wearing traditional clothing and growing one’s beard, to be scandalised by modern progress, and to be pleased by unhealthy examples of the survival of feudalism and the patriarchal spirit’ (3). ‘Being authentic is something else than resting in the identical, a typical feature of sclerotic civilisations. It means making an effort in relation to oneself in order to integrate the diverse’ (4). ‘The sought-after adulation of the past is an invention of the obscurantists. It is their only response to the challenges of modernity: it is through the arrogant denial of the new that civilisations die. Humility, in this case, far from constituting a lowering, is a sign of superiority and it is through this that the spirit advances in history’ (5). This reaction on the part of a Muslim intellectual who is at the same time a politician did not have, as I have already pointed out, the influence that it deserved.



The same has happened in Tunisia – which we may take as an example – where the notable efforts of a new generation of researchers has not managed to move out of the university world. I am thinking here, for example, of Abdelmajid Charfi (L’Islam entre le message et l’histoire, Albin Michel, 2004), Mohamed Charfi (Islam et liberté. Le malentendu historique, Albin Michel, 1998), Abdelwahab Meddeb (La maladie de l’Islam, Seuil, 2002), Hamadi Redissi (L’exception islamique, Seuil, 2004), Youssef Seddik (Nous n’avons jamais lu le Coran, l’Aube, 2004); or Mohamed Cherif Ferdjani (Islamisme, laïcité et droits de l’homme, L’Harmattan, 1991). Similar positions can be found, for example, in Morocco with Abdou Filali-Ansary (Réformer l’Islam? Une introduction aux debats contemporains, La Découverte, 2002) or Fatima Mernissi (Le Harem politique, le prophète et les femmes, Albin Michel, 1987). The Franco-Moroccan Rachid Benzine sought to present these new currents in his book Les nouveaux penseurs de l’Islam (Albin Michel, 2004).



One should add to this reaction of contemporary Muslim figures – often, it should be acknowledged, francophone in terms of their formation – another trend that today in Algeria has to face the increasingly rigid approach of traditionalist or fundamentalist currents. I am referring to the current rooted in the Muslim spiritual tradition – Sufism. In Algeria, after a period of the denial of the right to exist of these tendencies (first by the FLN state and then by the Islamists), a new freedom is now granted to these movements. A specific study would be required to bring out the place that this movement occupies in the contemporary renewal of Islam in Algeria, as elsewhere in the Maghreb.



The return to tradition, as it is interpreted by fundamentalists, is defeated in the breach by this other traditional current – Sufism. The struggles of the ‘ulamâ’ at the beginning of the last century against the brotherhoods and the new struggles of fundamentalism by now clash with the spiritual needs expressed and adopted by the movements of the brotherhoods.



Lastly, I would like to observe that this folding back on tradition is not specific to Islam. It is also to be found in many Christian contexts. This is perhaps a reaction at the level of identity to globalisation. In order to escape the new rules that traverse all cultural and religious frontiers, defences are strengthened by turning inwards to the so-called religion of the origins.



(1) The feast of the end of Ramadan (translator’s note).



(2) The commemoration of the murder of Husein, the nephew of the Prophet of Islam (translator’s note).



(3) Rédha Malek, Tradition et Révolution, le véritable enjeu (Bouchène, Alger 1991), p. 40.



(4) Ibid, p. 38.



(5) Ibid, p. 35.

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