ALGIERS, July 8 (Reuters) - After using police raids, arrests and gun battles in its fight against Islamist insurgents, Algeria is now deploying a new, more subtle weapon: a branch of Islam associated with contemplation, not combat.
The government of this North African oil and gas producer is promoting Sufism, an Islamic movement that it sees as a gentler alternative to the ultra-conservative Salafism espoused by many of the militants behind Algeria’s insurgency.
The authorities have created a television and radio station to promote Sufism and the “zaouias” or religious confraternities that preach and practise it, in addition to regular appearances by Sufi sheikhs on other stations. All are tightly controlled by the state.
Sufism, found in many parts of the Muslim world, places a greater focus on prayer and recitation and its followers have tended to stay out of politics.
In Algeria it has a low profile, with most mosques closer to Salafism -- though not the violent connotations that sometimes carries.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but George Joffe, a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, estimates there are 1-1.5 million Sufis in Algeria, out of a total population of 34 million.
Salafism has its roots in Saudi Arabia and emphasises religious purity. Adherents act out the daily rituals of Islam’s earliest followers, for example by picking up food with three fingers and using a “Siwak” -- a toothbrush made out of a twig.
Officials believe Sufism could help bring peace to Algeria, a country still emerging from a conflict in the 1990s between government forces and Islamist rebels that, according to some estimates, killed 200,000 people.
“I disagree with the Salafi ideology because it doesn’t take into consideration the particular nature of Algeria,” said Mohamed Idir Mechnane, an official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“We are doing a lot to encourage people to come back to our traditional Islam: a peaceful, tolerant and open-minded Islam. And thanks to God, people are much more attracted by our message than by the Salafi message,” he told Reuters.
To give the Sufi “zaouias” a more central role in society, they are encouraged to arrange marriages, help take care of orphans, teach the Koran and distribute charitable donations.
Followers of Sufism focus on the rituals of “Dhikr” or “Hadra” -- “invocation” or “remembrance” -- which feature sermons, reciting the Koran, praising the Prophet Mohammed, requests for intercession and rhythmic invocations of Allah.
During one “Dhikr” ritual at a Sufi zaoui just outside Algiers last month, about 60 men sat in a circle in a large room and began chanting. After a few minutes, some of the elders rocked from side to side, deep in what appeared to be a trance.
“For over 14 centuries, Islam has been present in this country,” said Hadj Lakhdar Ghania, a member of the influential confraternity, Tidjania Zaouia.
“We used to live ... in peace and in harmony. But the day the Salafists said we should implement a new Islam in Algeria, problems and troubles started,” he told Reuters.
Though the violence has tailed off sharply, insurgents affiliated with al Qaeda still mount sporadic attacks on government targets, posing a challenge to stability in a country that is the world’s fourth biggest exporter of natural gas.
Deploying Sufism against radical Islam is not a new idea. A 2007 report by the U.S.-based Rand Corporation think tank, said Sufism could be harnessed to help promote moderate Islam.
“Traditionalists and Sufis are natural allies of the West to the extent that common ground can be found with them,” it said.
Algeria’s promotion of Sufism could also have implications for countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, which also have Sufi traditions and where Western governments are struggling to counter the influence of Islamist radicals.
FOLLOW THE RULES
“A Sufi should connect with Allah through invocation and prayer. For example, on Fridays we spend several hours ... chanting and reciting the Koran. We repeat 1,200 times the name of Allah, and 1,200 times the name of his Prophet Muhammad,” Hadj Lakhdar Ghania said.
The Salafists are a more visible presence in Algeria because while the Sufis do not wear any distinguishing dress, most Salafists have beards and in the street wear the “Kamiss”, a long white robe, and white skullcaps.
For some militants, the Salafi puritanism leads to a strict interpretation of religion that justifies violence against non-Salafis.
Many leading Salafis reject violence, and others have renounced it since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. But some militant groups still claim Salafism as their ideology.
Hard-line Islamists say Sufi practices such as visiting the tombs of Sufi saints to seek benediction amount to idolatry.
“Sufism is negative. It doesn’t seek change. It promotes charlatanism,” said Sheikh Abdelfatah, an influential Salafist imam based in Algiers.
“Salafism is good and combats harmful ideas. We encourage our youth to follow the rules of Islam and get away from the western way of life,” said the bearded imam dressed in a Kamiss.
The predecessor organisation to al Qaeda’s North African wing was influenced by the movement, calling itself the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat.
Since 2001 however, several Salafist clerics have issued religious decrees condemning violence.
The influential Algerian Salafist cleric Abdelmalek Ramdani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, called on his followers a year ago to keep away from politics and stop using violence.
But to Mouloudi Mohamed, an independent Algerian expert on Islamic issues, the best way to combat extremism is by going back to traditional Islam, not the Salafism that was imported from Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t believe we should import solutions but rather use the Islam of our fathers to live in peace,” he said. (Additional reporting by Catherine Bosley; Editing by Tom Heneghan, Dominic Evans and Sara Ledwith)
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