A Sufi group, a cult, or a foreign conspiracy? Several questions were raised about that controversial group that emerged in Algeria and whose members walk around in colorful cloaks and call themselves the Karakaria.
While the group itself is not new, its emergence in Algeria is. It all started when Musa Belghith, a young Algerian man from the coastal city of Mostaganem, announced on social media that he joined the Karakaria after seeing “the light” and being taught “divine secrets” by his sheikh, in reference to Mohamed Fawzi al-Karkari, the current leader of the group and who resides in the town of Temsamane in Morocco.
As several youths followed in Belghith’s footsteps and people wearing the group’s cloaks appeared in the Sidi Lakhdar Ben Khloof shrine in Mostaganem, alarm bells were sounded across the city and the entire country over the threat Karakaria poses to Algerian national security.
No link to Sufism
Sheikh Hassani Hassan, head of the Qadiriyya Sufi order in Algeria and Africa, argued that Karakaria has nothing to do with Sufism: “Sufi orders are sometimes infiltrated by foreign entities and that is why every now and then you find a new trend that calls itself a Sufi order,” he said. “Is it a coincidence that this group emerged now? And where does it come from?”
Hassan added that many leaders of those groups use the internet to attract followers and spread chaos in order to steer people away from their beliefs. “What makes this possible is that there are no laws in Algeria that protect recognized Sufi orders or Maliki jurisprudence,” he said, in reference to the school of thought within Sunni Islam that is predominantly followed in Algeria.
Hassan did not, however, specify the type of foreign intervention he believes is behind the emergence of the Karakaria.
The President of the Association of Algerian Muslim Scholars, Abdul Razak Qasum, argued that the Karkaria is a threat to the moderate Islamic thought adopted by Algerians, in reference to the Maliki school. “We belong to the Maliki school of thought and we do not want any other groups. We want neither the Ahmadiyya nor the Karakaria,” he said.
Ahmadiyya, an Islamic movement that originated in India, is frowned upon in Algeria and the authorities rejected the request submitted by Algerian Ahmadis to be registered as an association.
Likely to lead to conflict
According to Qasum, allowing those sects to spread will turn Algeria to a battlefield similar to countries that are currently witnessing sectarian conflicts in the region. “We have one religion and one school of thought we all follow and we don’t want such trends to cause divisions.”
Qasum also said he believed the Karakaria aims at “serving foreign agendas,” but still did not specify which.
Former advisor at the Algerian Ministry of Religious Affairs and expert in Islamic movements, Adda Fellahi, explained that Karakaria, which he said is linked to the Alawite sect in Algeria, goes back to the early 20th century and became visible in Algeria with the booming of religious tourism in the province of Mostaganem. “However, we have to admit that its emergence in Algeria now might have political implications,” he added. “This group could be supported externally, by Morocco for example, or internally to distract public opinion from pressing problems, especially with the presidential elections approaching.”
Fellahin predicted that the movement can spread easily in Algeria for several reasons. “First, if members of the movement get good financial support, it will be easy to recruit more due to economic problems in Algeria.
Second, the official religious discourse is too weak to counter such trends.”
Yet, Fellahi noted that the group will find it difficult to establish a headquarters from which it can promote its ideas because the state will not allow it.
Allegations of prosecution
According to journalist Mustafa Washlah, the reaction of Algerian authorities and the media to the emergence of the Karakaria group enraged human rights activists across the country. “Members of the group were interrogated by the Mostaganem security bureau and official media outlets directly accused Morocco of attempting to destabilize national security in Algeria,” he wrote. “Added to this is what happened before with members of the Ahmadiyya sect.”
Washlah explained that Ahmadiyya leaders were arrested and many got jail sentences and their offices were demolished and their books burnt. “So now rights groups are accusing Algerian authorities of persecuting religious minorities.”
Washlah also noted that the Ministry of Religious Affairs had earlier banned any religious books that are not in line with the official religious school of thought. “In addition to books related to the Ahmadiyya sect, this also included Shiite books in general.”
Tuhami Magouri, member of the Algerian Association of Muslim Scholars, noted that while the current headquarters of the Karakaria is in Morocco, it originated in Algeria. “The Karakaria is an offshoot of the Alawaite sect, which started in Mostaganem that is also home to dozens of Sufi orders such as the Rahmaniyya, the Tijaniyya, and the Qadianiyya among others,” he said. “It just returned to Algeria recently.”
According to Magouri, supporting Sufi orders is an international tendency that aims at curbing Islam and diving its followers among small groups whose members give priority to rituals over deeds. “Sufism also promotes a quest for solitude while Islam is about unity and sharing common characteristics,” he added.
“Also, Sufism is based on using a mediator between worshippers and God while Islam promotes a direct relation with God.”
Magouri, however, argues that some Sufi orders or cults are more dangerous than others depending on whether they violate basic Islamic principles. “The Ahmadiyya, for example, does not view Prophet Muhammad [Peace be upon Him] as the last of God’s messengers, which means they believe in the possibility of the emergence of other prophets. This is not the case with the Karakaria.”