Promoting The “Good Islam”: The Regime And Sufi-Brotherhoods In Algeria – Analysis


By Isabelle Werenfels

In the run up to the presidential elections in 2004 and 2009, Algerian newspapers repeatedly ran headlines such as “the President courts the Sufi-brotherhoods”. A few decades ago, this would have been inconceivable. Up to the late 1980s, the post-colonial elites sought to economically marginalize, politically repress and socially stigmatize the brotherhoods.

In stark contrast, regime elites from 1990 onwards engaged in their top-down promotion. both approaches, repression and revival of the brotherhoods, have been a function of power-ensuring strategies of the authoritarian regime. The reasons for marginalization of the brotherhoods up to the late 1980s and early 1990s were manifold. They were seen as a threat to the state’s claim to speak for Islam, and as a potentially strong organizing social force outside the framework of the parti unique and its satellites. Indeed, in colonial and pre-colonial times the brotherhoods had not only been spiritual and cultural movements, but political, social, economic and, at times, military key players on the local and regional levels.

The modernizers within the post-colonial elite viewed the brotherhoods as backward and out-dated, while the conservative elite and the scholars of the ‘ulama‘ considered them as “charlatans” and “heretics”. The fact that a number of sheikhs of zaouias (religious lodges, some of which belonged to large transnational brotherhoods while some others worshipped “independent” local saints) had collaborated with the French colonial power served to discredit the brotherhoods in toto and to justify the state’s repressive policies toward them. These policies ranged from nationalization of territories, the closing of religious and worldly schools run by the zaouias, prevention of pilgrimages to intimidation of members and the imprisonment of sheikhs.

From repression to instrumentalization


The turnaround in regime policies toward the brotherhoods has been gradual, but radical. It began with a certain easing of pressure in the 1980s under President Chadli Bendjedid, whose wife belonged to a zaouia. The brotherhoods’ full rehabilitation began a decade later when the government in 1991 organized a national seminar on the zaouias (used as a synonym for brotherhoods in colloquial Algerian) which was attended by several hundred sheikhs. This seminar took place against the backdrop of the FIS’ (Front Islamique du Salut) growing popularity and reach for power. it aimed at rehabilitating and promoting the brotherhoods with the goal of creating a social and spiritual counter-force to the “imported” political Islam of the FIS.

Now the brotherhoods were no longer portrayed as backward, but framed as the embodiment of the “tolerant, peaceful, apolitical, traditional real Algerian Islam”. However, the real boost for the brotherhoods came with the arrival to the presidency in 1999 of Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is said to have a personal affinity with them. Ever since, the state has accelerated renovation and restitution of their properties, and granted several zaouias licenses for the (re-)opening of educational institutions.

Figures providing an overview of direct state subsidies are difficult to obtain – sheikhs of large zaouias do claim however that these are minimal. But the state has been sponsoring numerous conferences and events involving Sufi brotherhoods (among them a huge international gathering of the Tidjaniya in 2007 as well as numerous scholarly colloquies on the brotherhoods). Also, state television, radio and the print media, both private and governmental, have increasingly featured zaouias. The official portrayal is remarkably simplistic and essentialist: the zaouias are portrayed as “sanctuaries of peace”, allegedly “unchanged for centuries”, “remote from worldly affairs” and “profoundly apolitical”. however, both the state’s instrumentalization of the zaouias as well as the zaouias’ proper interests and activities stand in stark contrast to such ascriptions.

Simplistic framing, complex realities

In the era of bouteflika, zaouïas have not only been objects of political maneuvering and targets for co-optation, but have actively engaged in the do-ut-des rituals of election campaigns. With the overall number of their adherents estimated to be roughly at 1.5 million, they constitute an important pool for voter mobilization. In 2004 and 2009 most presidential candidates, including Islamists, visited important zaouias and courted their sheikhs.

These in turn – and in contradiction to claims of their being apolitical – endorsed the president or (in rare cases) voiced opposition to him. In some cases, public endorsements appeared to be directly linked to material benefits, again testifying to the zaouias’ pursuit of “worldly” (economic) interests. The existence of two competing umbrella organizations of zaouias may be a result of both the uneven distribution of funds to some but not all zaouias and the power struggles within Algeria’s ruling elite.

The extent to which the brotherhoods are actually fulfilling regime expectations and becoming a spiritual and social alternative to political Islam is difficult to assess in the absence of broad sociological data on their followers. Rare articles – academic and journalistic – on the social embeddedness of zaouias in the 2000s indicate that they are not just receiving support from above but also experiencing a revival from below. Yet, the causal link between the two is by no means evident: The growing social demand for “traditional” spirituality may just as well be a reaction to the violence and insecurity of the 1990s.

However, there is evidence that the constructed dichotomy between mystical spiritual movements on the one hand and political Islam on the other hand is not mirrored on the ground. for Instance, the Alawiya Brotherhood prides itself of having followers belonging to Islamist parties, and some members of Islamist parties are known to have close ties to a zaouia.

Whether the brotherhoods are actually appealing to those in danger of being radicalized and attracted to jihadi milieus, namely young men with a lack of perspectives, remains an open question – there are indications that the zaouias, at least in urban contexts, are particularly attractive to middle class females.

Yet, even if the zaouias are not fulfilling (all) the functions ascribed to them top-down they serve the regime. being a polymorphous and internally fragmented phenomenon that is partly co-opted and featuring a broad spectrum of agendas, the zaouias present a fertile ground for the social and political fragmentation strategies that have contributed to the long-lividness of Algeria’s liberalized autocracy.

Isabelle Werenfels, Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Germany

This article ran in the IPRIS Maghreb Bulletin Summer 2011, pages 2-3, which can be accessed here (PDF).


The Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security (IPRIS) is a non-profit and independent NGO, based in Lisbon. IPRIS is an institution dedicated to research on issues of International Relations, with particular interest regarding Portuguese foreign and defense policies.

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