"The Taliban are among us!"
The recent headline in one of Algeria's leading newspapers was designed to shock. It also spoke volumes about fears that an austere, conservative strain of Islam is gaining ground in this North African nation, prized by the West for its oil and gas wealth and its help in fighting Al Qaeda-linked terror.
Algeria is worried about Salafism, an extreme branch of Islam that is a concern for authorities across North Africa. Imported from Saudi Arabia and backed by Saudi oil money, Salafism has gained a significant following not only in Algeria but in neighboring Morocco, and has grown dramatically across the Middle East in recent years.
The latest alarm came when authorities in a Sahara Desert town, Biskra, rounded up people who failed to fast during the holy month of Ramadan and sentenced six of them to four years each in prison.
The arrests caused an outcry — and El Watan's headline — because Algeria has traditionally taken a more relaxed attitude to religious observance than places like Saudi Arabia. No law in Algeria explicitly bars people from drinking, smoking or otherwise breaking the daytime fast during the holy month, which this year fell in September.
The Biskra arrests were carried out in the namound and grow into another potential threat to its power. While Salafism is not always violent, in Algeria some Salafist groups have indeed turned to jihad — or holy war. The Algerian Salafi Group for Call and Combat has allied itself with Al Qaeda and is blamed for bombings and other attacks.
Algeria's government, supposedly committed to secularism, is fighting back. The Biskra verdicts were so exceptional that they embarrassed authorities in the capital and resulted in a government rebuke. The men were quickly released on appeal.
The religious affairs minister, Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, told the LibertDe newspaper that police were right to admonish the men but not to prosecute. "It's a problem between these men and God," he said. He also promised to create a national council to ensure that religious rulings, or fatwas, from clerics conform with Algerian law.
The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said in September it would reinforce controls on mosques so that "foreign rites are not inappropriately imported." LibertDe reported that 53 imams were banned from preaching in government-controlled mosques and 42 mosques were closed last year for following such rites. Local imams were also required to highlight the danger of being recruited into terrorist groups.
Morocco faces a similar problem. There, the Ministry for Religious Affairs last month banned a Salafist cleric from teaching or issuing fatwas after he argued it was lawful to marry a 9-year-old girl.