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Algeria Questions Religion’s Role In Campaigns

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By Fidet Mansour

With just days to go before Algeria’s May 10th legislative poll, the use of religion in political speeches is causing controversy.

Critics accuse Algeria’s Islamist parties of bringing religion into political matters in order to grab attention. The National Legislative Election Monitoring Committee (CNSEL) issued a warning to Islamist groups about the use of Islam in their election campaigns.

“The law on political parties bans the use of religion for political ends,” committee chair Mohamed Seddiki told reporters April 30th. Committee members alleged Islamists slipped religious points into their speeches when they attended public meetings.

The situation is also causing the government some concern. Religious Affairs Minister Bouabdellah Ghlamallah called on imams not to get involved in political arguments.

“We would warn them against any such behaviour, which exploits the office of imam,” he said. The minister has also called for daily reports of any recorded wrongdoing, whether committed by political parties or imams.

The imams’ union, meanwhile, gave its first reaction in an April 20th statement, calling upon religious leaders to remain “neutral”, keeping holy places free from political debate.

But the parties concerned have rejected such accusations. During a May 2nd press conference in Algiers, Abdelmadjid Menasra, who chairs the Front for Change, an Islamist party, spoke out against those using alarmist language: “Politicians are warning the people about victory for Islamist parties. A victory which, they say, will plunge the country into a bloodbath like the one we saw in the 1990s,” said Menasra.

He reassured his audience that “Islam is not a threat. Anyway, the Constitution and national law do not ban parties from talking about Islam in their manifestos. It is the use of religion for political ends which is outlawed.”

Menasra claimed that Islamists were being “targeted by a smear campaign to discredit them publicly”.

Bouguerra Soltani, who chairs the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), struck a similar chord. He rejected comments made by the election committee about the use of religious language in their campaign meetings.

“The views we express are based on the three fundamentals: nationalism, Islam and development,” he stressed in a press conference on April 24th.

Mounting a defence against the criticisms made by the monitoring committee about Islam being used for political ends, Abdellah Djaballah, who heads up the Front for Justice and Development (FJD), spoke out against the non-religious parties on April 29th. “They have ruined and impoverished the Algerian people. Algerians have the right to a better life based on the justice and development my [party] seeks to establish,” he said at a meeting in Oran.

Djaballah continued that “it was Islam which gave Medina and the world its first constitution more than 14 centuries ago.”

He also noted that imams were involved in the anti-boycott campaign promoting the election. However, there are sanctions for imams who give instructions on which party to support.

On the streets of Algeria, many agreed on the need to keep religious speech out of politics.

“We paid a very high price in the 1990s,” commented Adam Houdri, a medical student. “The extreme religious views put forward by the Islamic Salvation Front plunged the country into a bloodbath. We cannot live through that nightmare again.”

Karima Soltani, a public sector worker, said Algeria is a Muslim country, so the use of religious messages to win over the electorate will achieve nothing.

“The people want concrete proposals resulting in greater spending power and the improvement of their daily lives,” Soltani added.

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