Isabelle Werenfels, "Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-Emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics." The Journal of North African Studies 19.3 (2014).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?
Isabelle Werenfels (IW): It is a mélange of reasons. First and foremost, I was struck by how little research has been done by political scientists on the contemporary relationship between Sufi orders, the state, and politics in Algeria and Tunisia. Even in Morocco, this relationship has not received the scholarly attention it deserves. There is some excellent work by anthropologists touching upon the political dimension of Sufism, but very little by political scientists. Particularly among Western political scientists, there is a tendency to reduce Sufi orders to modeling clay in authoritarian regime schemes for countering Political Islam. This produces an essentialist and homogenizing portrayal of what in fact constitutes a vast and dynamic spectrum of spiritual actors, which only in rare cases are truly removed from worldly issues. They simply cannot afford to be so. They have strong interests and agendas of their own—and these are very diverse. For instance, in southern Tunisia, I encountered Sufi sheikhs that supported the Nahdha party but were disappointed that it had not implemented the sharia. In Algeria and Morocco, I met Sufi sheikhs who argued against the headscarf and sided with left-wing or liberal parties. Sufis entanglement with politics and politicians has many reasons, ranging from the pursuit of a better framework and conditions for spiritual and social activities to business interests.
Also, I wanted to challenge the argument that elite support for Sufi orders is all about building up a counter-weight to Islamists. This is an important aspect, but elites seek to employ Sufi orders for many reasons. On the one hand, there are the personal interests of politicians and officials. These include voter mobilization, provision of religious legitimacy, or the sheikhs’ intervention for a career move. On the other hand, there are national interests such as promoting tourism, mediation in domestic and regional conflicts, economic diplomacy in Africa, and so on. Sufi sheikhs thus acquire quite a bit of bargaining power, and their interests may not coincide with those of elites, and thus at times may alter, elude, or even foil regime intentions.
J: How does the article approach the topic, and what issues and literatures does it address?
IW: In a nutshell: the article employs an agency-oriented approach that takes into account the key structural constraints and opportunities linked to the social and economic rules of the political games in the contemporary Maghreb. It identifies key factors leading to the top-down revival of Sufi orders and highlights regime policies, their variance, and their contradictions. It then moves beyond authoritarian upgrading strategies by tracing Sufi actors’ interests and motivations for engaging in politics. Finally, it discusses how the dynamics produced by the interplay of top-down policies with Sufi orders’ bottom-up interests correspond with regime intentions and their possible broader implications for the authoritarian or transitional systems. Literatures addressed range from Maghrebi and Western historic and contemporary anthropological literature on Sufi orders, and literature on Maghrebi regimes’ religious politics, to the more theoretical literature on authoritarianism. It also draws on the notions of “inventing tradition” (Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger) and “social non-movements” (Asef Bayat). The analytical framework thus is multidisciplinary.
J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous research?
IW: My previous work had a strong focus on political elites, on national politics, and on explaining authoritarian resilience, namely in Algeria (for example, in my book Managing Instability in Algeria: Elites and Political Change since 1995). I had always been aware that choices of national political actors could only be understood by analyzing the social and local context these actors are embedded in, as this context shapes their preferences and defines constraints and opportunities for their actions. But I never looked into these backward links of national elites in depth. The prism of Sufi orders was one way through which to better understand these backward links. Obviously, only a small part of the political elite is deeply involved with a zawiya. But I would argue that the patterns of interaction between a sheikh and a politician are similar to those between a tribal leader or a local notable and a politician. Obviously these patterns evolve with changes in the context and they vary, given different local socio-political settings and arrangements. Last year, I traveled more than two thousand kilometers in Algeria to visit sheikhs, some of them in remote rural areas—and every day was an eye-opener with regard to the plurality of Algerian realities and, to speak with Catherine Boone, the political topographies of the country.
J: How might a different understanding of Sufi orders change our understanding of contemporary Maghrebi politics?
IW: Let me take it from a different angle: I believe that in order to fully understand political dynamics we need to have an idea of the deep structures of Maghrebi societies. Sufism is part of these deep structures, and studying Sufi actors comparatively reveals parallels and differences in these deep structures across the Maghreb. Studying politics through the prism of Sufi orders inevitably places politics in their larger social, economic, and cultural context. It furthers a more comprehensive understanding of politics. I have seen high state functionaries visit their sheikh before they take an important decision in the office, and I have seen secular politicians visiting a zawiya not because they believe in the powers of the sheikh, but from simple superstition, that is, fear of the sheikh’s curse or, conversely, the hope that his baraka works—even if one does not really believe in it. Also, in Algeria and Tunisia, the number of high-ranking politicians, functionaries, and diplomats who had hidden links or sympathies for Sufism or a specific zawiya struck me. In interviews, they came out with it after I told them that I had visited Sufi orders. But they would have never advertised this publicly. In some Westernized or strongly nationalist circles in Algeria and Tunisia, Sufism is still a taboo, as it is viewed as backward and Sufi orders are remembered as collaborators with the colonial power.
The discrepancy or contradiction between discourse and practice of course is not new to scholars working on the Maghreb. But I believe keeping in mind that there is a co-existence between different systems of meaning even among apparently like-minded groups or within individuals (the German scholar Thomas Bauer has called it a culture of ambiguity) is something to keep in mind if we want to better understand Maghrebi politics. I have to admit that after having studied Maghrebi politics from the Sufi angle, a political science approach without a strong dose of political economy and underpinnings of sociology and anthropology seems even more sterile to me than it did before.
J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
IW: I would hope that it inspires young political scientists, those that can still do ample field work, to study the relationship between Sufi orders and politics. I would be thrilled if the article helped to trigger more research on the political dimension of Sufism, particularly comparative work. Some Maghrebi political scientists, usually with a personal affiliation with a specific order, have begun to look into this question. It would be interesting to also have young Maghrebi political scientists with a less normative approach study Sufis. There are so many aspects that deserve more research: for instance, local, national, and transnational networks of Sufi actors, or Sufi sheikhs or entire orders as (religious) entrepreneurs, or the influence of Sufis actors in specific local or national political debates and decision-making processes—to name but a few topics.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
IW: For one, I am writing a monograph that delves deeper and more historically and anthropologically into the relationship between Sufis and politics, that is, also looking at how this relationship evolved in the first state-building decades, both in rhetoric and practice. As someone working at a think tank, most of my other research is policy oriented and by nature has to cover a pretty broad spectrum. Currently, I am working on papers on the security context of the Tunisian transition, on Algerian domestic politics, and on Jihadi movements in Tunisia and Algeria.
Excerpts from "Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-Emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics"
The Contradictions of Policies Towards Sufis: Support, Containment, and “Invented Tradition”
The policies vis-a-vis Sufi actors resulting from the new constellations of top-down interests have entailed variances across the Maghrebi states as well as within the states themselves. How they have been designed, communicated, and implemented relate to specific national and local power structures, to authoritarian upgrading schemes, and to national imaginaries. Implementation of the policies reflects inner elite divergences and conflicting interests along with variances in social structure and attitudes towards Sufism. Yet, the policies, both symbolically and in terms of content, display remarkable parallels in some of their broader contexts.
First, these policies have become part of the ruling elites’ strategy to project and promote distinct national (or Maghrebi) religious and cultural traits to insulate official and lived Islam from the Islamism, Salafism, or Wahhabism “imported from the Arab East”—though typically not clearly defined—and also to rally the population around a distinct identity serving the leadership on a more general level. Thus, Sufism has been advanced as a key component of the “true” Maghrebi Islam, or the “true” Algerian, Moroccan, or Tunisian Islam. To a certain extent, the new top-down representations of Sufism and Sufi actors belong to the realm of “invented tradition” (Hobsbawm 2012). The “invented Sufis” emerging from the official and public discourse, for instance, have a “cleaner” past and have largely been reframed as spearheads of anti-colonial nationalism. At the same time and in contradiction to this, the new (invented) official presentations depict Sufis as “apolitical” and “peaceful,” thereby obliterating that these ascriptions may hold for Sufi theological writings but not for Sufi actors’ historic record of activities (Clancy- Smith 1994; Colonna 1988; Cornell 1998). These new framings have been promoted in the print media and on state television through a notable rise in stories on Sufis and a growing media presence by them.
Second, the policies towards Sufi actors have been distributive and selective. Since the early 1990s, and in some earlier individual instances, substantial state funds have flowed towards affiliated and independent zawaya for infrastructure renovation, reopening of Quranic schools, creation of Islamic higher education centers, Sufi music festivals, historic and theological conferences on Sufism, and transnational gatherings of Sufi sheikhs. In Algeria, properties and endowments nationalized in the 1970s began to be restituted already from the mid-1980s. Reliable quantitative data on direct or indirect financial support for zawaya are difficult to come by and is scattered among a number of state agencies, including ministries of culture, religious affairs, education, tourism, as well as the “présidences” in Algeria and Tunisia and the palace in Morocco. The figures they disclose are patchy at best. The steadily growing number of state-funded renovations, festivals and Quranic schools in zawaya point to financial support having increased substantially. Beyond such material support, Sufi actors have been nominated to official functions of symbolic importance or have an impact on shaping policies. In 2013, the ministers of religious affairs in Algeria and Morocco were known Sufis. Sufi sheikhs sit or have sat on Algeria and Tunisia’s higher Islamic councils, and personalities known to be Sufi adepts have been appointed to leading functions in ministries ranging from finance to interior to defense in all three states.
However, the state gestures towards Sufi orders have been selective, building zawaya and providing state media coverage for certain sheikhs or orders while ignoring others. Select Sufi orders have also been given different functions, ranging from facilitating foreign relations to promoting folklore for purposes of tourism. These policies of selective patronage constitute part of the regime strategies in Algeria and Morocco. Driving wedges between potentially weighty social and political actors and co-opting some to marginalize others have been the name of the power game in Algeria since the military coup in 1992. In Morocco, the King uses divisions to his benefit to fulfill his (self-styled) role as arbiter among the country’s different social and political forces (Maghraoui 2001). In the monarchy’s case, attributing what is widely perceived to be an exceptionally privileged role to the Boutshishiya deviates from the “classical” Moroccan balancing of social forces and thus significantly affects bottom-up political dynamics (Ait-Akdim 2011).
Third, Sufi policies have tended to be inconsistent or even contradictory. This is not simply a consequence of diverging attitudes towards Sufism among national decision makers, but of different regime goals. Zawaya have been built up as a force to counter radical Islamists, while at the same time the authoritarian imperative remained preventing the emergence of strong, potentially independent social forces. Melliti’s (1998, 137) analysis of Tunisia—that post-colonial rulers have been eager to control social space and particularly grassroots sociability and thus have been wary of Sufi orders’ organizing capacities—applies to all three states. In Tunisia under Ben Ali, the contradictions were particularly obvious. While officials in the Ministry of Religious Affairs sought to build up zawaya as an instrument for “religious de-radicalization,” the Ministry of Interior dispatched intelligence personnel to Sufi spiritual gatherings, demanded copies of new adepts’ identity cards, and destroyed the orders’ internal cohesion by having the state rather than an order’s main sheikh appoint key administrative personnel in the zawaya.
Access to Economic Resources and Provision of Services
…Beginning in the 1990s, top-down financial support for Sufism in its multiple dimensions changed the dynamics of the market for religious goods and led to new relationships between Sufi actors, the state, and individual politicians. It created incentives for sheikhs to engage with politicians and state officials to gain access to the formal distributive structures and informal clientelist networks so prevalent in the Maghreb. In other words, they played the game of the authoritarian elites by seeking to be co-opted. The new “manna” thus encouraged competition among orders. Lanza (2012, 6), discussing the economic background of a zawiya of the Tidjaniya in Rabat, pertinently noted, “In a landscape as rich in Sufi orders as the Moroccan one, the survival and blossoming of each brotherhood requires a certain entrepreneurial and competitive spirit.” As the following examples show, this religious entrepreneurship has manifested itself in a broad spectrum of economically motivated activities of Sufi sheikhs with a strong political dimension.
First, the interaction between Sufis and politicians can best be described as a do-ut-des (I give that you may give) process, in which bottom-up and top-down interests coalesce in regard to the accumulation of symbolic, social, and economic capital in the sense of Bourdieu (1977). For example, Sufi sheikhs receive politicians in their zawiya and declare public support for certain candidates because they want funds for the restoration of buildings, the restitution of properties and endowments, subsidies for opening Quranic schools or Islamic universities, jobs or contracts for their families, or media attention. The win-win aspects of such visits include, as a dynamic Moroccan Derqawi sheikh pointedly explained, that the electoral candidates do not need to rent a venue or advertise the event because the order ensures ample attendance, and in return the sheikh receives national media attention, financial compensation, and a boost in his symbolic capital. An Algerian newspaper joked in 2004 that the zawaya enjoy extracting the maximum advantages for services rendered to the president (“Le jeu politique des zaou ̈ıas,” El Watan, 12 July 2004). Another paper cited the example of a zawiya in Djelfa coming out in support for Bouteflika, in the run-up to the 2004 election campaign, in return for the sheikh’s son receiving a contract to build the road between Djelfa and Touggourt (“Le complot de Bouteflika,” Le Matin, 7 October 2003).
Second, the Sufi orders’ traditional role of catering to social demand beyond the narrowly spiritual helps fill vacuums in the state’s provision of welfare and educational services. Cultural and welfare associations linked to zawaya have in particular mushroomed because they are a way to obtain state subsidies. In recent decades, however, entrepreneurial-minded sheikhs and Sufi elites have broadened their offerings and now cater to “modern” educational and spiritual demands, often where the state does not deliver. For instance, the Alawiya in Algeria has been offering workshops in management ethics, taught by European experts affiliated with the order. The Boutshishiya offers summer camps for Moroccans, like Islamist NGOs and parties do. Its dynamic sheikh, Hamza, like a number of other Islamist leaders in the 1980s, perfectly understood how to take advantage of the niches created by the education and religious sector reforms under Hassan II (Tozy 1990, 82–87).
Third, Sufi orders in all three states engage in politics from wariness of others getting a larger piece of the pie. The perceived (and real) top-down favoritism towards certain orders propelled a number of Algerian and Moroccan sheikhs to organize collectively.
In Algeria, the Bouteflika backed Union nationale des zaouïas algériennes faces competition not only from its still existing predecessor, the Association nationale des zaouïas algériennes, but also from a number of other organizations challenging its monopoly and seeking public funding.
Sufi sheikhs also seek public or political attention when their economic activities are endangered. Morocco offers a small but telling example. In November 2012, the head of a zawiya in the Tata region tried to get the governor, a palace appointee, to overturn a decision by an elected local body to change the name of the yearly celebration of its saints’ anniversary. The Sufi argued that the change would lead to economic losses for the zawiya and weaken its capacity to rally Saharan tribes to the festivities. In other words, he sought to prevent an economic loss by, among other things, playing the “national unity” card (Muridu zawiya yashkun majlisan).
[Excerpted from Isabelle Werenfels, "Beyond Authoritarian Upgrading: The Re-Emergence of Sufi Orders in Maghrebi Politics," The Journal of North African Studies 19.3 (2014), by permission of the author. © 2014 Taylor & Francis. For more information, or to read the full text of the article, click here.]