Algeria targets books in battle with hardline Islam

Algiers, Algeria - Algeria is cracking down on imports of books preaching the ultra-conservative Salafist branch of Islam, officials and industry insiders say, in a step aimed at reining in the ideology's growing influence.

Salafism is a school of Islam that has its roots in Saudi Arabia and emphasises religious purity. Its followers reject the trappings of modern life, including music, Western styles of dress and taking part in politics.

Algeria has for years turned a blind eye to Salafism, but recent shows of strength by its followers -- including some Salafist clerics refusing to stand for the national anthem -- have focussed official attention on the group.

Customs officers and officials from the ministries of religious affairs and culture have been given instructions to enforce more tightly an existing list of banned literature, and have been policing industry events where books are on sale.

"This year, instructions to pay attention to Salafist literature were tough," Mohamed Mouloudi, a publisher and importer of religious books who opposes the Salafist school of Islam, told Reuters.

Hundreds of Salafists, with their trademark beards and white "khamis," or gowns, visited the annual Algiers International Book Fair earlier this month. They usually use the event to buy up religious literature in bulk to re-sell.

But customs officers present in large numbers at the fair prevented them from doing business as usual. Groups of uniformed officers patrolled vendors' stands checking the books on sale against their list of banned literature.

The officers also intercepted any buyers who had bought several large plastic bags of books. Ninety percent of the people stopped had beards and were wearing khamis gowns, according to a Reuters reporter there.

"Those who resell are visible because they carry heavy bags full of books. Our job is to seize the books and give them one copy of each," a customs officer, who asked not to be named, told Reuters at the book fair.

An official from the ministry of culture said that 50 foreign publishers of Salafist literature -- most of them from Egypt -- who usually attend the fair had not been invited.

"They used to invade us with thousands of books dedicated to this category of people and this is not what we want," the official, who did not want to be identified, told Reuters.

Algeria's authorities also try to intercept blacklisted religious books at ports and airports. Religious Affairs Ministry officials said these checks had also been tightened over the past year.


Despite the restrictions, Salafist book shops still exist in Algeria, particularly in poor neighbourhoods.

One typical title, by Saudi cleric Sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibn Nada El Otaibi, explains why all forms of music, including religious songs are considered "bid'a". This is an Arabic word for innovation, which is forbidden under Salafist rules.

Salafists -- often associated with the Saudi Arabian Wahhabi school of religious thought -- are a minority in energy exporter Algeria, where most of the 35 million population adhere to more mainstream forms of Islamic thought.

But Salafism has grown in influence over the past two decades, when the state was fighting an Islamist insurgency that killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Most of the Salafists were not involved in the violence, and the security services co-opted their religious leaders over the past 10 years to issue "fatwas", or religious instructions, telling the insurgents to lay down their arms.

Salafists came under closer government scrutiny after they raised their profile this year by protesting against a plan to make women remove headscarves for passport photos, and by snubbing the national anthem.

"The government will implement the law against any attempt to introduce into our country practices or religious speeches from abroad," Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia said in a speech in October, in an apparent reference to Salafism.

His remarks, made in parliament, were the first time in years a high-level official had publicly expressed concern about Islamic ideas being imported into Algeria.

Algerian opponents of Salafism say it divides society, introduces values which are alien to Algeria and gives enormous power to a handful of clerics based in Saudi Arabia.

"Algerian Salafists are tools in Saudi Arabia's hands," said Sheikh Chemseddine Bouroubi, a well-known imam who follows a traditional Algerian school of Islam.

"Their goal is to spread Wahhabism in Algeria and elsewhere. We must stop them," he told Reuters in an interview at the Algiers book fair.

Ibrahim Bergougui, an Algerian Salafist with beard and white gown, was standing nearby and listening to Chemseddine speak.

"It is not fair to say that we are a danger for our country. Algerians must acknowledge that we have done a lot to put an end to the Islamic strife," he said.

"We have issued the fatwas that convinced the rebels to lay down arms. Chemseddine is a clown not an imam."