Read this Liberte interview (from Sunday) with Bouabdellah Ghlamallah, the Algerian Minister for Religious Affairs and Waqfs. He discusses the merits of arresting individuals for violating such mores as eating during Ramadan, the issuing of fatwas, and a variety of issues relating to religious authority in the country. Interestingly, he says that gobblers are not arrested during Ramadan for violating religion, but rather for “disrupting social organization.” He says that he does not favor forcing individuals to practice religion (which should not really be a surprise), and talks about strengthening faith among young people. He predictably avoids answering questions about limiting the proliferation of frivolous fatwas, even as he speaks of centralizing their authoring process. There is little discussion of the influence of Islamist law makers and officials in the policy making process in Ghlamallah’s Ministry, but this is to be expected.
That the state is talking about taking more responsibility for the country’s religious identity should be surprising, especially given the increase in the intensity and sensationalism of GSPC/AQIM attacks, and the persistence the country’s youth unemployment problems, which increases the appeal of criminal and terrorist networks. It must also be remembered that the Algerian state has little legitimacy whatsoever when it comes to religion (or most other things), dating back to the end of the 1970’s. This is what led to the popularity of the FIS in the 1980’s, and what leads to apathy and despondence in many of the areas where GSPC/AQIM operates. It is doubtful that such efforts to bolster the government’s religious authority will succeed in the short term. Most Muslim countries’ governments attempt to control the flow of religious ideas within theirborders, with varying levels of success. Totalitarian and more authoritarian regimes have greater success. Countries on the geographic periphery with strong local traditions (like Malaysia, Indonesia, Mauritania, etc.) have a little more facility (though as much due to governmental efforts). Algeria failed to do this from the late 1970’s to the 1990’s. At present it is co-opting much of the Islamist agenda, but has not improved the quality of life of its people. No matter how hard it tries, it will not regain the full confidence of the population until it can end the violence and improve the country’s overall standard of living to meet the bare minimum of its citizens’ expectations.