Supposed 'Islamic extremists' spark panic in Kabylie


Photos and videos of a group of men wearing white scarves have spread panic in the northern Algerian region of Kabylie , home to the country’s Berber population. The images show the men preaching to a crowd of onlookers in front of a mosque in the centre of Bejaïa. Internet users and local media outlets have seized on the story to accuse the men of trying to spread radical Islam in Kabylie.

For three days, a small group of religious men took over a square in Bejaïa, in front of the Ibn Badis mosque. The local press leapt at the story and immediately began referring to the men as salafists, Islamic extremists, or even “bearded men preaching obscurantism”.

According to one of our Observers in Algeria, the men actually belong to an apolitical group of itinerant preachers called 'Tablighi Jamaat' founded in India back in 1920. While FRANCE 24 was unable to verify this information, the clothes worn by the men are consistent with this claim.

Either way, the videos being shared give little evidence of the group's supposed 'extremism'. In the above clip, a man explains the importance of submitting oneself to God and encouraging acts of goodwill and virtue. Nothing in the video suggests that the men are preaching extremist or political ideas.

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"The incident brought back bad memories of attempts to erase Berber identity by imposing Arabic culture and Islam"

I live 20 metres away from the mosque that the five men preached in front of for three days with their prayer mats.

They recited prayers and passers-by often stopped, whether by curiosity or by genuine interest in what they were saying. A couple days ago, they slept in the square just next to the mosque. It's true that this kind of gathering is pretty surprising to see, especially in Bejaïa. We're not used to seeing religious gatherings here.

The group gathered in front of the Ibn Badis mosque. Photo sent by a correspondent for the volunteer-run internet radio station Radio Gouraya.

I went to take a quick listen to what they were saying. They presented themselves as being a Sufi group [Editor's note: an esoteric branch of Islam that deals with the purification of the inner-self]. They explained that the Islam taught by our ancestors had been forgotten, that the Prophet's message had been lost and that we had to learn it again. They also explained that they'd been travelling across Algeria for several weeks.

The group gathered in front of the Ibn Badis mosque. Photo sent by a correspondent for the volunteer-run internet radio station Radio Gouraya.

Many people reacted swiftly to news of the gathering, shocked that they were preaching in Arabic and that a group of Muslims was apparently trying to 'convert' the population. But one mustn't forget recent history in Kabylie. During the 1980s, the Berber region was the scene of violent clashes between local people and the government, who tried to impose the Arabic language as well as Islam. This incident brought back bad memories of those times.

On top of that, Kabylie is turning itself into a stronghold in the fight against Islamic terrorism. So naturally, lots of residents here look unfavourably on these types of gatherings that, at first glance, may come across as fishy.

"The fact that the police didn't intervene led to widespread anger"

But I also think that the population is fed up. It's very difficult to organise any kind of gathering in Bejaïa. As soon as there are more than a dozen or so people in the streets, the police turn up and disperse everyone. On March 1, public transport fares went up in the city, so a group of people organised a small protest. But the police quickly took everyone away for questioning. It's the same at the university, where even trying to organise a conference can lead to problems.

The group camped in front of the mosque. Photo sent by a correspondent for the volunteer-run internet radio station Radio Gouraya

So the fact that these people were allowed to preach and attract a crowd of onlookers right in the heart of town, without being bothered by the police, obviously didn't go down well with the local residents. All the more so given that they stayed for three days and slept on the spot. They left Wednesday morning."

France 24 tried to contact the Bejaïa police for comment but has not yet obtained a reply. We will publish their response if and when we receive one.