In Morocco and Algeria, Sufism is increasingly seen as an alternative to political Islam, either because it plays that card, such as the Alawiyya in Algeria, or because Sufi orders are politically instrumentalized by the regimes in power, as it is by the Moroccan monarchy and the Bushishiya order.
But such hopes could prove to be misplaced. The celebration of the centenary of the Alawiyya Brotherhood, which took place in late July 2009 in Mostaganem (Algeria), which RW attended, drew more than 5,000 followers or sympathizers of Shaykh Khaled Bentounes, current head of the order. The event provided an opportunity to clarify why betting on Sufism as an alternative to political Islam is a miscalculation. Firstly, despite a highly favorable political context (the end of the pressure on reformist movements, the end of the civil war and a political flirtation with the Algerian presidency), the Alawiyya order is not able to recruit beyond its traditional constituency (i.e. family ties networks of the Bentounes in rural areas and urban cosmopolitan people who joined to the Alawiyya under the influence of René Guénon’s esoteric works).
One of the leaders of the order in France suggests that it is now in a phase of weakness due to the rise of Salafism, among other things. Moreover, a sociological study conducted at Oran University revealed that less than 1 percent of the students declared being affiliated to a Sufi order and that more than 90 percent of them had a negative opinion of Sufism, equating it with superstitions and obscurantism. Secondly, the strategy of radical modernization of Khaled Bentounes, pushing the order from traditional marabutism into religious post-modernity (religious ecumenism, philosophical humanism and cultural syncretism) has led to strong reactions.
Actually, all religious actors in Algeria—except for the Muslim Brethren, but they now play a purely political role in Algeria—reacted negatively to the orientations chosen by Bentounes during the celebration of the centenary and seized the opportunity to stress the basics of the Sunni Muslim orthodoxy during a one-month controversy following the centenary ceremonies. Instead of benefiting from the political opening to the Sufi orders decided by President Bouteflika in order to boost his own support, the Alawiyya seems to have no other choice but to become sect-like (not as a deliberate choice, but as a result of external perceptions, with the group now being denounced as religiously deviant, as well as suspected of brainwashing and links with freemasonry).
Sectarianism here would be a product of an excess of modernization. This also leads to other suspicions being spread in Algeria: it is claimed that the path followed by the shaykh is serving the interest of the Rand Corporation in search of Western-friendly Islam and relying for that purpose on “deviant orders,” as was stated by a leader of the Association of the Muslim Algerian Ulemas. Thirdly, the virulence of the reactions of other Sufi orders showed that the conflict is not between moderate, open-minded Sufism and radical Salafism (as depicted by some journalists), but between the Alawiyya and all other forces in the religious field.
According to a shaykh from a dissident branch of the Alawiyya, the excess of modernity as a response to the previous excess of traditionalism is like “washing blood with blood.” More crucial is the criticism that Bentounes’ Alawiyya is neglecting the sharia, a widely shared view by most of the Sufi shaykhs, with one of them considering it as “the only path leading to Truth”. This emphasis on sharia shows that, at the ideological level as well, Sufism is far from being an obvious alternative to political Islam, since members of the latter grouping seem to adhere to a Sunni orthodoxy characterized by the pre-eminence of sharia.
—By Patrick Haenni, a researcher at the Religioscope Institute