By Aomar Ouali,
ALGIERS, Algeria — Aug 20, 2016, 6:40 AM ET
Mosques are going up, women are covering up, and shops selling alcoholic beverages are shutting down in a changing Algeria where, slowly but surely, Muslim fundamentalists are gaining ground.
The North African country won its civil war with extremists who brought Algeria to its knees in the name of Islam during the 1990s. Yet authorities show little overt concern about the growing grip of Salafis, who apply a strict brand of the Muslim faith.
Algerians favoring the trend see it as a benediction, while critics worry that the rise of Salafism, a form of Islam that interprets the Quran literally, may seep deeper into social mores and diminish the chances for a modern Algeria that values freedom of choice.
More than a decade after putting down an insurgency by Islamist extremists, Algerian security forces still combat sporadic incursions by al-Qaida’s North African branch. The conflict started in 1991 after the army canceled elections that an Islamist party was poised to win. The violence left an estimated 200,000 dead and divided society.
But authorities are treading lightly in their dealings today with "quietist" Salafis, who eschew politics but are making their mark on this North African nation buffeted by high unemployment — and a far higher lack of confidence in the powers-that-be.
"Thanks to God, Algerian society is returning to its source of identity," commented Said Bahmed, a philosophy professor at the University of Algiers. Bahmed, who is close to the moderate Islamist party Movement for a Peaceful Society, described the growing number of women in Islamic dress as a "benediction."
Algeria’s North African neighbors also have been grappling with a new assertiveness from those seeking a greater role for Islam in society, and have folded Islamist parties into their power structures.
In Morocco, where a moderate Islamist party runs the government, women increasingly don veils, especially in working-class neighborhoods.
Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Ennahda party headed the country’s first government after the 2011 revolution and remains strong in parliament, but rebranded itself this year to separate religion from politics. Ennahda’s influence did not stop deadly attacks on tourist targets last year claimed by the Islamic State group.
In today’s Algeria, the vestiges of 130 years of French colonial rule are falling away, with ardent help from Salafis. Their influence visibly marks the lively capital of Algiers, where alcoholic beverages once were served on terraces, in bars and at restaurants and women dressed as they liked.
Approximately 100 bars and restaurants around Algiers have been shut down over the past decade, 37 of them in the city center, according to the Direction of Commerce of the Wilaya, or region, of Algiers.
Dead leaves are piled up at the locked Claridge bar, a writers’ haunt that folded in May.
Expiring rental contracts and problems linked to an inheritance are among the reasons officially cited for closing alcohol-serving establishments. Journalist Mohamed Arezki called those pretexts that officials use so they will "be in the good graces of Islamists."
"Authorities’ message is to tell the population that ... defense of values of Islam isn’t the monopoly of Islamists," Arezki said. "But in this bidding game between the state and Islamists, it is the project of society, of a plural, tolerant Algeria, that is threatened."
Mohamed Ait Oussaid’s bar-restaurant in the colonial-style fishing port of La Perouse, on the edge of Algiers, was ordered closed in 2005. The directive ended a business that had been in his family for three generations.
Ait Oussaid said an ex-local chief of the disbanded Islamic Salvation Army campaigned to close the restaurant for the sake of public order.
"I found myself with three children and their families all out of work," Ait Oussaid said, condemning "the cowardliness of the state in the face of Islamists."
Political scientist Mohamed Saidj of the University of Algiers agrees, accusing authorities of "backing down under Islamist pressure."
"These bars and shops are commerces that create jobs, pay taxes and are part of a balanced society," Saidj said.
President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, an infirm 79-year-old in his fourth term, is leaving his mark with the construction of the billion-dollar Grand Mosque of Algiers. With its soaring 267-meter- (867 foot-) high minaret, the mosque is being portrayed as a testament to a tolerant Islam.
When completed as expected next year, the mosque will become the world’s third largest by area, after those in Mecca, which encloses Islam’s holiest shrine, and Medina.
While Chinese workers toil on the Grand Mosque, modest places of worship have been sprouting across Algeria, some financed by the state, others by private donors.
Rachid Rezouali, a former police chief, said private funders want "to appear like God’s servants in the eyes of the people." He called the changing social landscape "a sign that an Algeria of tolerance and modernity is disappearing."
The U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report for 2015 says volunteer imams at 55 mosques in Algiers were replaced for "spreading Salafism." But the report also noted a social media campaign ahead of last year’s Ramadan urging men to avoid retribution by forcing their wives, daughters and sisters to dress according to conservative Islamic values.
No dress-related reprisals happened, perhaps because fashion already has become so prevalent.
For sociologist Nacer Djabi, the growing number of women in traditional Muslim garb is a sign that Algeria is reclaiming an identity subverted by more than a century of French rule. But, he added, "Most women suffer it because of pressure from society."
Meziane Ourad, a journalist who fled Algeria after the Armed Islamic Group killed his friend, celebrated writer Tahar Djaout, in 1993, barely recognizes the homeland he left.
"It’s more than three months I’m back in Algeria, and I haven’t seen a bare leg," Ourad said.
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed to this report.