By George Joffé
The vast majority of comment on the role of political Islam in North Africa focuses on the activities of extremist groups there, particularly with respect to Libya, the Sahara and the Sahel.
There is, however, another reality which may, in the final analysis, have greater significance for the future of the region.
This is the growth of quietist Salafism and its plans for the reconditioning of society in its own austere image, particularly in Libya and, to a lesser extent, Algeria.
This is especially the case with the role of one particular movement – Madkhalism or the Madakhala, perhaps Saudi Arabia’s own Trojan Horse in the region.
In essence, Madkhalism is a typical example of quietest Salafism, developed by Rabi al-Madkhali, an expert on hadith at the Islamic University of Medina, supported by his younger brother, Muhammad al-Madkhali, who is also an academic at the same university.
However, it differs from most other branches of quietist Salafism in its unwavering commitment to the principle of ‘Wali al-Amr’ – the unquestioned and unquestionable authority of a ruling power, however repressive it might be, provided it does not engage in acts of religious infidelity or heresy.
Whilst respect and acceptance of temporal authority (and thus a rejection of political action) is a commonplace amongst quietist Salafi movements, most withdraw such allegiance if Muslims are subjected to what they may consider unjustified violence.
The movement is also characterised by its unyielding antagonism towards other Islamist movements, whether quietist, jihadist or connected with the sahwa tradition, and particularly the Ikhwan Muslimun (Muslim Brotherhood) because of its links to Sayid Qutb whom Madkhalism considers the primeval jihadist.
It regards all those who oppose its views – and they include Ms May’s bête noire, Abu Qatada al-Filistini – as khawarij in emulation of the early Muslim movement that rejected as takfir (apostates) both the followers of Ali and those who had supported Mu’awiya at the end of the era of the rashidun (‘rightly-guided’) caliphates in the late seventh century.
Given this intellectual background, it is hardly surprising that the Madakhala has been patronised by the Saudi establishment, particularly after 1990 when the movement rejected the sahwa opposition to the American military presence inside Saudi Arabia as part of the initiative to expel Iraq from Kuwait.
It received encouragement and financial support in the 1990s as a result, although the Saudi religious establishment increasingly isolated it. Yet, as its influence inside Saudi Arabia declined, its support abroad – in Kuwait, Egypt, Central Asia, Europe and North Africa began to grow.
In North Africa, in particular, it was tolerated and even encouraged by established regimes because of its endorsement of ‘Wali al-Amr’. This has been particularly the case in Libya.(1)
The Madakhala in North Africa
The movement is also present, of course, in Morocco and Tunisia but in neither case has it been able to exercise the same degree of influence as it has done in Libya.
It achieved a foothold in both for the same reasons as elsewhere; its unyielding respect for established authority for the fact of its established status is, by definition, a confirmation of the legitimacy of that authority – a reflection of the European tradition of the ‘divine rights of kings’, as it were.
In any case, Madkhalists, also by definition, are far more interested in transforming social circumstance into alignment with their view of Islamic order than with political realities.
In Morocco, however, it has been confronted by the normative reality of Maliki Sunni Islam, as embodied in the country’s monarchy, with its claim to calipha status and its hegemonic influence throughout North-Western Africa, as well as by widespread popular support for Sufi Islam that permeates the country’s tariqas and the wider region.
In Tunisia, the Madakhala were just one quietist Salafi strand amongst many and, in any case, salafi-jihadis seem to have captured the attention of susceptible Tunisian youth for at least 1,500 of them are said to have joined up with extremist groups in Libya, such as Da’ish, Ansar al-Shari’a or al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghrib and its associated groups. (2)
The role of quietist Salafism and of the Madakhala in Algeria is surprising in view of the country’s horrendous experiences during the civil war in the 1990s. It is, however, a testament to the fact that forms of Islam that did not challenge established political authority or which did not endorse political violence were never banned in the country, even at the height of the civil war.
Thus the Ikhwan tradition was able to survive and even play a formal role in political life, provided it accepted secular political structure of the state.
The Front Islamique du Salut, of course, has never been allowed to reform after its dissolution in March 1992 for it, after all, had challenged the state and was accused of direct responsibility for the civil war which followed.
Against that background, perhaps, it is not surprising that the authorities have, over the last two decades, tolerated the growth of Salafi Islam.
Nonetheless, the growth of Salafi influence in recent years has been spectacular and has begun to alarm Algeria’s mainstream media, even if government has not yet reacted.
Salafis are accused of encroaching into Algerian religious life by insinuating themselves into the control of mosques, in a pattern reminiscent of what happened in Morocco; in Marrakesh in particular, twenty years ago.
State-approved imams in Algeria now find themselves under considerable pressure, in mosques that have been targeted, to adapt their teachings and doctrines to Salafi precept, even if this challenges the authority of the ministry of religious affairs.
Mosques that have been infiltrated are also encouraged to provide facilities for instruction in Salafi doctrine which seems to be tolerated by the authorities because it does not touch upon political issues, being only concerned with daw’a (social and religious comportment), even if it implicitly challenges Islamic traditions of Sufism and Maliki Islam in the country. (3)
Nor are, in practice, these developments totally devoid of political significance; last year they were, in part, responsible for a series of violent clashes in the country’s Ibadi redoubt in the M’zab. So far, however, the authorities do not seem to have been too disturbed by the potential threat to public order.
Despite their lack of concern, however, the media have taken a much more alarmist view. In mid-January 2018, Mohammed Al-Madkhali who is now the effective head of the Madakhala movement, wrote an open letter which called on Algerians to accept and embrace three Salafist preachers, presumably his acolytes – Mohamed Ali Ferkous, Abdelmajid Djemaa and Lazhar Snigra – as the authentic purveyors of Salafism in Algeria. (4)
For the media, this has been to highlight the role of what they regard as the most obscurantist current of Salafism in penetrating Algeria with the support of the Saudi state which is also accused of deluging the country in ‘salafi and wahhabi ideas’ through the diffusion of brochures, books and copies of the Qur’an, including a translation of it into Tamazight to encourage the spread of Salafism in Kabylia where, they claim, it enjoys a particularly sympathetic audience.
For the Algerian media, Mohammed bin Salman’s vision of a more tolerant and less oppressive vision of Islam than the current Wahhabi version seems to be no more than a distant and probably hypocritical dream!
It is, however, in Libya that the potential of Madkhalism for determining the future of Islamic practice in North Africa seems to be written most clearly.
The Madakhala began to accelerate its expansion into the wider Muslim world at the beginning of the current decade, as the movement lost influence inside Saudi Arabia itself, although it had appeared in Libya in the 1990s, having been encouraged by the Qadhafi regime as a counterweight to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.
It initially reacted to the revolution there in 2011 as an example of unacceptable fitnah (disorder), as it did in Syria as well, since the demonstrations and revolutionary movements in both countries challenged existing state authority.
Under the leadership of Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id Raslan, a former member of the Ikhwan, it also opposed the Morsi regime in Egypt as well, given the regime’s roots inside the Ikhwan. With a year, however, its attitude towards the established regimes in all three countries had changed as it considered in Syria and Libya that the state had breached its obligations to the Muslim communities there.
By 2012, the Madakhali attitude towards the Libyan revolution had significantly changed, given the Qadhafi’s regime collapse, and it was at the forefront of the attacks on Sufi shrines in Zliten and Tripoli as an indication of the role it intended to play inside post-regime Libya.
Although the movement initially stood back from the militia-driven chaos throughout Libya in the early years after the revolution and, in February 2015, Al-Madkhali himself had banned his followers from becoming involved in the Libyan Dawn-Libyan Dignity (5) confrontation as Khalifa Haftar began to lay claim to political and military power after May 2014, a year later this had radically changed.
In July 2016, Al-Madkhali issued a new fatwa urging all Salafists in Libya to join Haftar’s coalition in order to destroy the Banghazi Defence Brigades (BDB) which he saw as a deliberate threat to Salafi influence in Libya and as intimately influenced by Libya’s moderate, pro-Ikhwan Islamists led by the Salabi brothers.
This decision, in turn, set the Madakhala against Libya’s Tripoli-based grand mufti, Sadiq Al-Ghariyani, to whom the BDB was loyal. That led in late 2016 to the assassination of Shaykh Nadir Al-Omrani, a member of Al-Ghariyani’s Dar al-Ifta Council and to the growing marginalisation of the grand mufti himself.
In fact, the Madakhala had already infiltrated into two militias – the Al-Tawhid Brigade in Cyrenaica, founded by Izzadin Al-Tarhuni and RADA (the Special Deterrence Force) in Tripoli under Abdelraouf Al-Kara and based at Mitiga Airport in the city.
In February 2015, after the Al-Tawhid Brigade founder was killed, the Brigade was broken up and distributed amongst Haftar’s coalition forces instead. Its members were, therefore, ideally set up to exploit Al-Madkhali’s 2016 fatwa.
Ironically enough, members of the Madakhala were also to be involved in Bunyan Marsous in Misurata, given their profound distaste for Dai’sh as a Salafi-Jihadi movement, despite the links between Misurata and moderate Islamist forces in Libya.
Indeed, by mid-2016, the Madakhala was present in three of the four major militia coalitions in Libya – Haftar’s Cyrenaica-based Libyan National Army (LNA), RADA in Tripoli and Bunyan Marsous in Misurata.
In two of them – the LNA and RADA – its members played prominent roles. It is currently only absent from the now-isolated and secularist-leaning Zintan coalition in the Jabal Nafusa.
Despite the apparent contradictions that these engagements may involve, the success of the Madakhala policy of entryism has been spectacular and spectacularly swift.
It does not seem to have been accidental, either. Given their locations, Haftar’s LNA and Al-Kara’s RADA could be regarded as being formally opposed to each other since, whilst the Madkhalists inside the LNA recognise Haftar’s authority as legitimate on the basis of ‘Wali al-Amr’, RADA supports the United Nations-endorsed Presidency Council in Tripoli on the same basis, despite the tensions between the LNA and the Presidency Council.
Yet, in both Banghazi and Tripoli, Madakhala units now act as local police forces and are generally accepted as such despite the austere Islamic morality they impose because they are not corrupt.
In Cyrenaica, furthermore, the movement also controls the ministry of awqaf and religious affairs and can thus directly influence the practice of Islam in Libya – despite the country’s Sufi and Maliki traditions.
Fatwas have already been issued in Cyrenaica demanding that women should only travel with a male guardian present and that male-female mixed audiences should in future be segregated.
A fatwa condemning Ibadism (widespread in the Amazigh regions of the Jabal Nafusa) has also recently been emitted, perhaps a harbinger of future religious intolerance too!
Public protest, so far has been sufficient to negate their effect but the stronger the movement’s hold over public order, the more popular protest will be muted in future.
In Tripoli, the marginalisation of Al-Ghariyani has led to speculation as to whether his role will be discharged soon by a Salafist-leaning local preacher from Yffren or even by Al-Kara, the leader of RADA himself!
Of course, such edicts of moral principle reflect the underlying quietist policy of conditioning society within the context of the rashidun tradition whilst accepting without question existing political authority.
It underlines the fact that political obedience does not neutralise the quietist Salafi agenda and could presage profound changes in Libya’s social scene despite Libyan preferences for local and tribal identities, if the Madakhali agenda succeeds in the short-to-medium term.
In any case, the apparent contradictions will, no doubt, be resolved by the elections forthcoming this year, if indeed they actually take place, even though the Madakhala reject the idea of democratic choice!
Nonetheless, the vision of social conformity that such aspirations provoke suggests a frightening loss of the richness of the North African tradition of what Islam should be.
(1) McGregor A. (2017), “Radical loyalty and the Libya crisis: a profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ bin Hadi al-Madkhali,” Jamestown Foundation: Militant Leadership Foundation (January 19, 2017)
(2) This is the Tunisian government figure for those who have gone to Libya; other global estimates have placed the number far higher at between 5,000 and even 8,000. See Zelin A.Y. (2018), The others: foreign fighters in Libya, Policy Notes No 45, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (Washington DC); 3-4. Compared to this figure, Zelin estimates Algerian jihadists in Libya to number 130, Moroccans 300 and Egyptians 112.
(3) A.M. (2017), “Enquête sur la Wahhabisme en Algérie; au Coeur dela nébuleuse salafiste,” (December 25, 2017) Rabia S. (2018), “Au coeur de la nébuleuse salafiste,” El Watan (December 25, 2017)
(4) Boukhlef A. (2018), “Quand l’Arabie Saoudite désigne les représentants salafistes algériens,” El Watan (January 16, 2018)
(5) Libyan Dignity (Karama Libia) was the name bestowed on Khalifa Haftar’s anti-Islamist coalition of militias from Cyrenaica and the remnants of the Libyan army which sought to challenge the militia coalition led from Misurata (Libyan Dawn – Fajr Libia) that, in 2016, gave birth to Bunyan Marsous, the Misuratan-based coalition that successfully challenged Da’ish in Sirte in December 2016.
George Joffé – Research Associate at the London Middle East Institute in SOAS and Research Director at Kings College, London University and Director of Studies at Royal Institute for International Affairs.