Algeria, in the grand scheme of things, is not an old country. Liberated from French colonial power after almost a decade of war between the French government and the Algerian National Liberation Front, the new country was born in 1962, after great turmoil and strife.
Young though it is, Algeria rapidly developed into a relatively tolerant democracy. The Algerian constitution enshrines freedom of religion and opinion, regarding it as “inviolable” (Article 36). Those of other faiths and no faith have thus enjoyed a high degree of freedom, with the constitution prohibiting religious discrimination of others (Article 29).
Despite such a worthy constitution, successive Algerian governments have been involved with discrimination of religious minorities in recent years. The latest target of the government seems to be the Ahmadi Algerian community, numbering several thousand.
According to Algerian newspaper EnNahar, the crackdown against Ahmadis began in June 2015, with a raid of the community’s headquarters. In November, 20 Ahmadis from the Skikda area were sentenced to prison, with 33 arrested in Sétif the following month. In March, a further 15 Ahmadis were arrested, including the leader of the local community. As detailed by the worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, the caliph Mirza Masroor Ahmad, around 200 Ahmadis have been imprisoned or placed into police custody simply for their faith in the last year. Arrested Ahmadis, dragged into court, are given the opportunity to recant from their faith. When they refuse, they are granted decades-long sentences in prison.
The government’s crackdown on Ahmadis has been matched by its divisive rhetoric. According to CNN Arabic, Algeria’s minister for Religious Affairs, Mohammed Aissa, has spoken of how he intends to ‘uproot’ this ‘deviant’ group and how he was working hard to have Ahmadis prosecuted for saying Friday prayers at a private residence. Such rhetoric however, is not confined to the governmental authorities.
“Conflict: Cause & Consequences” (CCC) have particularly highlighted how such vitriol has been parroted by even so-called Human Rights organisations like the Algerian Human Rights League, which released statements referring to Ahmadis as societal “necrosis,” as reported by El-Khabar in an article entitled “The Ahmadis Make Algeria Rot”.
The Algerian authorities claim that the few thousand strong Ahmadiyya Muslim community are a threat to societal stability, like Wahhabism and Salafism. Ignoring the fact that the Ahmadiyya Muslim community is a purely apolitical, peaceful, spiritual movement, and acknowledged as such by the world’s leading countries, we must ask: where has all this come from, and why now? Remarkably, the Algerian minister for Religious Affairs has told us himself.
Aissa has decried how Algerian youth are “affected by this doctrine.” His “battle,” against Ahmadis, he says, is to bring such youth “back to our national beliefs.” But what is it that Aissa finds so troubling about Ahmadi views?
Ahmadiyya Islam was founded in 1889 by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Ahmad claimed that Jesus Christ, being a human prophet, had died a natural death after surviving the crucifixion. He even identified Jesus’ tomb in Kashmir. He further claimed that he himself was the second coming of Jesus promised in Islam and Christianity, explaining that the concept of the “second coming” was not literal, but referred to the advent of a new person bearing the same role as the prototype. Just as Jesus came to divest Judaism of fanaticism, so too was Ahmad’s role in Islam.
Today, the Ahmadiyya Muslim community, headed by its fifth Khalifa, his holiness Mirza Masroor Ahmad, is flourishing. The Khalifa, based in London, has garnered international acclaim for his parliamentary addresses across the world on the urgent and dire need for justice and peace. The Khalifa, like the founder of the community, forbids Ahmadis from the Jihad of warfare, and instead calls them to a Jihad of the Pen, so that through reasoned dialogue, truth should be expounded. As a result of such effective religious leadership, there has never been a single example of extremism or terrorism by Ahmadis in its 128-year history, despite Ahmadis being subjected to apartheid conditions in Pakistan and other countries.
Sadly, it is precisely because of such a peaceful message that conspiratorial accusations, characterising Ahmadis as British and Zionist agents, are made. These allegations originally stem from 19th century misrepresentation of Ahmad as a British agent, on account of his clear prohibition against fighting the British in India under the pretext of “Jihad”, instead calling it un-Islamic to rebel against any government that permits freedom of religion.
It is in this history that we can see why Aissa and the Algerian government regard Ahmadiyya Islam as a threat: the Algerian government has a well-documented history of appeasing hard-line radical Muslims, according to Middle-East scholar Ray Takeyh. It originally did so to co-opt the rise of political Islamic ideologies – some moderate, some radical – that were sweeping through the middle classes in the 1980’s, leading to large electoral gains in 1991, triggering the Algerian civil war as a result of a military coup. Since then, the Algerian government has toed a thin line between placating political Islamic factions and suppressing them, in a bid to occupy the centre-ground.
It seems that the Algerian government have kept this card in their pocket since 2013, when Pakistan’s Algerian Embassy “warned” the Algerian government of the spread of Ahmadiyya Islam in North Africa. Given the elections of May 2017, the Algerian authorities most likely saw this apolitical, non-violent group as a soft-target, attacking which would draw votes from hard-line radical Muslims, who favour proscribing Ahmadis.
But Algeria is not Pakistan. In Pakistan, it was a constitutional amendment in 1974 that laid the foundation for destroying the rights of Ahmadis, as enacted in the now infamous Ordinance XX. Algeria however, has a constitution free from such perversions.
The Algerian government must fulfil their constitution, now more than ever. They would do well to remember that it was under the United Nations’ presidency of an Ahmadi, Chaudhury Zafarullah Khan, that Algeria won its independence from France in 1962. He was in fact instrumental in the independence of several North African states throughout that period, such that Algeria’s first president, Ben Bella invited him to visit, and King Hasan II of Morocco granted him the highest Moroccan honour.
In his memoirs, Khan relates his emotions at the time of Algeria’s independence. It was, in his words, a moment of “great joy” for him (Khan: Servant of God, p.182). If, as the Algerian proverb goes, “a friend is someone who shares your happiness and your pain,” then Ahmadis are friends of the Algerian government and the Algerian people.
It is time that friendship was recognised.