Tue, Oct 31, 2017 - Page 9 News List

In Sunni North Africa, fears of Iran’s Shiite shadow

Many North African governments feel caught in a battle of two ideologies, with Iran gaining ground as IS is pushed from Iraq and Syria

By Jonathan Laurence  /  Reuters

Illustration: Yusha

These are challenging times for North Africa’s Muslim governments. Even as the Islamic State (IS) group is ousted from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, it is continuing its battle against authorities in nations like Morocco, Algeria and Egypt.

On Oct. 16, the Egyptian military announced that six soldiers and at least 24 IS militants were killed in attacks on military outposts in North Sinai. That same weekend, Moroccan police arrested 11 members of an “extremely dangerous” IS-linked cell and seized chemical products used to make bombs. Meanwhile, Algerian forces have killed at least 71 militants so far this year — the most since 2014.

The list of arrests, shootouts and seizure of passports from citizens who want to be foreign fighters goes on, but North African leaders have to navigate a particularly tortuous sectarian path.

To avoid the perception that fighting extremism amounts to the persecution of the defenders of the faith, their governments have to be seen to be making visible gestures of Muslim piety — while also cracking down on Shiite proselytizing so as to rebut IS claims that authorities are complicit with Iran’s “plots and schemes” to carve up the region and spread Shiite Islam.

The Muslim Justice and Development Party in Morocco warned of a “sectarian Shiite invasion,” while the Grand Mufti of Mauritania called on his nation’s leaders to resist the “rising Shiite tide.”

One North African government minister I interviewed denounced “the intrusion of Shiism through social media, university dormitories, high schools and even quranic schools,” adding: “I ask myself whether the Persians want to dominate the Arab world.”

After Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrein, is North Africa the next realm of a more assertive Iranian foreign policy? These fears come from Iran’s attempt to expand its influence in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia — and its “backyard”: Senegal, Niger, Guinea and Mali.

Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif toured the region in June, meeting with heads of government in Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia in search of improved ties.

Iran might simply be looking for new economic partnerships to offset sanctions, but its outreach is enough to make some local powers nervous.

Around the same time, Iran launched satellites beaming Arabic-language Shiite religious programming into North African homes.

There are thought to be fewer than 20,000 Shiites in Algeria, and the government mandated the registration of all of them. The Algerian minister of religious affairs has said that Shiites have no right to spread their faith in Algeria, “because that causes sedition and other problems.”

“Algeria cannot play host to a sectarian war that does not concern it,” he said in an interview. “Neither Shiism, nor Wahhabism nor any of the other sects are the product of Algerians, nor do they come from Algeria. We refuse to be the battleground for two external and foreign ideologies.”

However, diplomatic relations resist easy categories. Algeria is one of only a handful of nations, along with Iran, to maintain good relations with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are Shiite. Algiers was Zarif’s first stop in North Africa in June.

Given the tiny number of Shiites living in North Africa and the tight control over mosques in the region, widespread Shiite religious influence on the ground is unrealistic.

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