After using police raids, arrests and gunbattles in its fight against Islamist insurgents, Algeria is now deploying a new, more subtle weapon: a branch of Islam associated with contemplation, not combat.
The government of the North African oil and gas producer is promoting Sufism, an Islamic movement that it sees as a gentler alternative to the ultraconservative Salafism espoused by many of the militants behind the insurgency.
The authorities have created a TV and radio station to promote Sufism and the zaouias or religious confraternities that preach and practice it, in addition to regular appearances by Sufi sheikhs on other stations. All are tightly controlled by the state.
Sufism, found in many parts of the Muslim world, places a greater focus on prayer and recitation and its followers have tended to stay out of politics.
In Algeria it has a low profile, with most mosques closer to Salafism — though not the violent connotations that sometimes carries.
Exact numbers are hard to come by, but George Joffe, a research fellow at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, estimates there are between 1 million and 1.5 million Sufis in Algeria, out of a total population of 34 million.
Salafism has its roots in Saudi Arabia and emphasizes religious purity. Adherents act out the daily rituals of Islam’s earliest followers, for example by picking up food with three fingers and using a siwak, a toothbrush made out of twig.
Officials believe Sufism could help bring peace to Algeria, a country still emerging from a conflict in the 1990s between government forces and Islamist rebels that, according to some estimates, killed 200,000 people.
“I disagree with the Salafi ideology because it doesn’t take into consideration the particular nature of Algeria,” said Mohamed Idir Mechnane, an official at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
“We are doing a lot to encourage people to come back to our traditional Islam: a peaceful, tolerant and open-minded Islam. And thanks to God, people are much more attracted by our message than by the Salafi message,” he said.
To give the Sufi zaouias a more central role in society, they are encouraged to arrange marriages, help take care of orphans, teach the Koran and distribute charitable donations.
Followers of Sufism focus on the rituals of Dhikr or Hadra — invocation or remembrance — which feature sermons, reciting the Koran, praising the Prophet Mohammed, requests for intercession and rhythmic invocations of Allah.
During one Dhikr ritual at a Sufi zaoui just outside Algiers last month, about 60 men sat in a circle in a large room and began chanting. After a few minutes, some of the elders rocked from side to side, deep in what appeared to be a trance.
“For over 14 centuries, Islam has been present in this country,” said Hadj Lakhdar Ghania, a member of the influential confraternity, Tidjania Zaouia.
“We used to live ... in peace and in harmony. But the day the Salafists said we should implement a new Islam in Algeria, problems and troubles started,” he said.
Though the violence has tailed off sharply, insurgents affiliated with al-Qaeda still mount sporadic attacks on government targets, posing a challenge to stability in a country that is the world’s fourth biggest exporter of natural gas.
Deploying Sufism against radical Islam is not a new idea. A 2007 report by the US-based Rand Corporation think tank said Sufism could be harnessed to help promote moderate Islam.