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Algerian government curbs extreme religious practices

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  • Algerian government curbs extreme religious practices

    Algeria has been trying to curb certain religious practices deemed subversive or out of line with mainstream Islam and the state's law. Qur'an forgeries, unlawful marriages and the spread of exorcism have the religious affairs ministry trying to consolidate its control over mosques and train new Imams.

    On December 16th, the ministry said it was setting up committees across the country to ensure that Qur'an copies in circulation are authentic. This decision was taken due to the appearance on the Algerian market of copies of the Qur'an with "serious and malicious alterations to its verses", according to the ministry's information officer, Abdelmajid Tamine.

    The ministry blames members of the fundamentalist Salafi movement for the alterations. The changes reportedly included additions and deletions in a subtle manner that no ordinary reader would be able to notice.

    The movement, which originated in Saudi Arabia, was brought to Algeria during the 1980s by young Algerians who studied in Saudi Arabia. Their spiritual leader, Abdelmalek Ramdani, created the "La Colonne Cell", named after a district of Hydra on the hills of Algiers. He is now an imam in a mosque in Saudi Arabia after receiving death threats in Algeria because of his views.

    The Salafi movement has three strands. One is scientific Salafism, supported by Ramdani, which forbids all political activity as heresy and teaches that people should obey those with religious insight. Another is active Salafism, championed by founders of the former Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) including Ali Benhadj, Abdelkader Moghni (the imam of Bab El Oued in Algiers) and also Kamal Guemmazi, one of the most active members of the former FIS. The third is "Jihadi" (combat) Salafism, which advocates taking power by means of armed force and is supported by the Salafi Combat Group (GSPC).

    Algerian religious authorities have been increasingly facing a challenge from the Salafi movement, prompting Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs Bouabdallah Ghlamallah to declare that the country is going through a "severe cultural and religious crisis".

    Ghlamallah vowed that any work "of a subversive nature, putting forward ideas which are incompatible with our principles and values", imported from abroad, will be checked and possibly banned if necessary.

    From now on, all Qur'an copies in circulation will have to be stamped by the relevant religious authority after being approved by a local book committee.

    Adherents of the Salafist movement constantly try to challenge the way Islam is practised in Algeria through altering activities in mosques.

    During the holy month of Ramadan, a controversy erupted regarding mosques which did not adhere to the times for the end of daily fasting set by the ministry of religious affairs. "Some muezzins are signalling the end of the day's fast ten minutes before the time set by law," said Goulamallah, whose ministry runs mosques and is in charge of all their expenditures, including imams' salaries.

    Other new trends observed in some mosques include the overuse of loudspeakers at full volume and the reciting of Tarawih prayers during the month of Ramadan, which is mostly a Wahabi practice.

    The deployment of Salafi elements in Algerian mosques is worrying the government, which, via the ministry of religious affairs, has given instructions to help mosques guard against the movement's efforts to take them over.

    According to the daily newspaper El Khabar, police are conducting a nationwide investigation into the movement's spread and its appearance in mosques. The order from the ministry of religious affairs stipulates that mosques are strictly forbidden to engage in unauthorised teaching.

    In addition to curbing extremist Islam, the authorities are trying to put an end to unlawful religious marriages.

    The religious affairs ministry has issued an order forbidding imams from conducting "fatiha" ceremonies before a civil marriage contract has been signed. This order is intended to bring an end to the problems caused by wedding ceremonies consisting solely of readings from the fatiha without the signature of a civil contract, which makes them null and void, according to Algerian law.

    Solicitor Nadia Ait-Zai, a women's rights activist, welcomed the decision. "We're consolidating civil marriage, which involves the mutual consent of both spouses as stipulated by the family code as amended in 2005. This measure will prevent traditional marriages not registered by the state and which used to leave the mother and her children on their own with no means of legal remedy."

    Many women have fallen victim to these marriages, which give them no legal protection.

    The minister of religious affairs has also issued a fatwa outlawing the practices of roquia (exorcism) and hijamah (bleeding or branding) in mosques. Over the last few years, Algerians have begun choosing these new improvised "cures", which are seen as a way of dealing with their anxieties, in preference to modern medicine.

    Roquia has become so widespread that a large number of families are now using it for one reason or another. A kind of psychotherapy which is carried out by anyone able to recite verses from the Qur'an, it is a form of exorcism which sometimes involves flogging, purportedly to drive out demons and evil spirits.

    Hijamah is carried out by people with no medical training, which increases the risk of infection since supposedly, the "patient" must bleed in order to allow bad blood to pass out of the body. The practice, which dates from the Middle Ages and originated in China, is intended to replenish the blood in one's body to ward off illness.

    The religious affairs ministry will be organizing training courses for Imams to stop these practices, and limit the spread of extremist Islam. According to the minister, new Imams will be recruited competitively "to select the most able". He vowed that "commissions and specialists [would] supervise this operation in an objective manner".

    Algerian government curbs extreme religious practices

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