In various places across the Muslim world over the past ten years, Sunni circles have expressed misgivings about the preaching of Shiite beliefs and the conversion of Sunni Muslims to Shiite Islam.
Among recent reports, in Indonesia, Muslim leaders from West Java have issued a declaration alerting the faithful about Shiite teachings and their spread (Jakarta Post, May 2). In Nigeria, the Shiite movement that appeared after the Iranian Revolution of 1979 has been rapidly increasing its membership and is actively translating material into the Hausa language and distributing it, with hopes of reaching beyond Nigeria—but it is seen as a threat by some other Muslims in the country (BBC News, May 8).
Often, however, it is quite difficult to sort out facts from rumors on such an issue. Religioscope Institute has just published a report in French on conversions to Shiite Islam in the North African country of Algeria. The report is based on field research conducted by Algerian scholar Abdelhafidh Ghersallah (University of Oran), who interviewed some 40 Algerian converts. According to Ghersallah’s estimates, there might currently be between 25,000 and 30,000 converts to Shiite Islam in Algeria.
Such conversions should be put in a context that has seen trends toward growing religious diversity, including the rise of Salafism and a significant current of conversions to Christianity, especially in ethnic Berber (Kabyle) areas. Conversions to Shiite Islam have been taking place over the past 30 years, following the Islamic Revolution in Iran. There are a number of reasons behind such conversions. Fascination with the Iranian religious and political model originally played a significant role. Moreover, faced with the rise of Salafism and its literalist understanding of normative Islam, converts find in Shiite doctrines philosophical depth and mystical religiosity. Among Algerians belonging to Kabyle and Amazigh minorities, Shiite affiliation allows them to reinforce a separate identity, linked to the (Shiite) Fatimid legacy of North Africa in the 10th century.
According to Ghersallah’s observations, the appeal of a political model and of a religious faith tend to be intertwined in the motivations of converts, who usually express a loyalty toward Iran, seen as the country of the only successful Islamic revolution: the Iranian Embassy plays an important role, providing books, information and invitations to Iran (e.g. for studies). There tends also to be a clear intellectual dimension, involving a comparison between Sunni and Shiite beliefs and dogmas. Originally, Shiites in Algeria tended to be a group of intellectuals fascinated with the Islamic Revolution.
Today, this has evolved into a religious community with some nascent institutions (associations, libraries, training centers, etc.).
(The report in French by Abdelhafidh Ghersallah can be downloaded from Religioscope website (PDF, 455 Ko): http://www.religion.info/pdf/2012_05_Ghersallah.pdf)