The Karakaria in Algeria: Religious group or ‘foreign conspiracy’?

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.”

The disappearing Christians of Iraq

The liberation of Mosul was heralded as a new era for Iraqi Christians who could go back to their homes following the defeat of ISIS.

However, this much-publicized triumph overshadowed a significant defeat that seems to shed a more realistic light on the fate of Christians in Iraq.

The capital Baghdad was, meanwhile, witnessing the permanent closure of eight churches. After a delegation from the Catholic Church regional authority visited those churches and following investigations that showed that attendance, if any, kept dropping in the past seven years, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate announced that the churches will be closed for good. While such decision seemed to have made a lot of sense, it leaves little space for optimism as far Iraq’s Christian community is involved.

Journalist Elsy Melkonian argues that Baghdad is different from Mosul, where the latter was occupied by ISIS, hence placing Christians under a direct threat that forced them to leave. For Melkonian, the remarkable decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad can be attributed to other reasons.

“It is not related to ISIS, but to the fact that Christians have generally become targeted by different militias since 2003,” Melkonian wrote. “They always kidnap Christians and ask for ransom and at times they would just kill the kidnapped person right away.”

This led many to flee Baghdad whether to other parts of Iraq or to other countries, she added. Melkonian said that violence against Christians continues till the present time and was especially demonstrated in the case of an old Christian woman who lives alone in Baghdad. In the first week of August, this woman was brutally beaten by a group of armed men and robbed. “This was a message for Iraqi Christians who fled to Kurdistan or Lebanon or other neighboring areas never to come back,”

Melkonian quoted William Warda, coordinator Alliance of Iraqi Minorities Network, as saying. Warda added that Iraqi Christians who still live in Baghdad are under a lot of economic and social pressure. “For example, shop owners have to regularly pay money to armed groups in return for protection,” he said. “Christian girls are also not capable of walking alone in several neighborhoods in Baghdad.” The state, meanwhile, is incapable of securing the capital and protecting its minorities.

Kaldo Oghanna, member of the central committee of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, said that the decline in the number of Christians in Baghdad has been taking place since 2003, before which they constituted 20% of the capital’s population.

“Even though Baghdad has always been better than other parts of Iraq security-wise between 2003 and 2010, Christians remained the weak link that was targeted by different extremist groups,” he said. “The real turning point was the Our Lady of Salvation Church massacre in October 2010.”

According to Oghanna, this massacre drove a large number of Iraqi Christians to flee to Kurdistan or to the Nineveh Plain, having to flee the latter in 2014 when it was invaded by ISIS, while others made it to Western countries. “Christians realized that Baghdad is no longer a suitable place for them and that one group or another is always sending them a message to stay away.”

‘An easy target’

Journalist Sandra Elliot said that after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the main conflict in Baghdad was between Sunni and Shiite groups then starting 2005, Sunni extremist groups started targeting Christians in different neighborhoods across the capital. “It was commonplace for Christians to receive envelopes containing bullets and a threat from nearby extremists,” she wrote. “Messages promising bloodshed and death drove thousands of Christians from their homes in these neighborhoods.” Elliot explains that Christians were an easy target because most of them were unarmed and “with no help from a crumbling government, they had no choice but to flee their homes.”

Journalist Fadi Kamal Yusuf argued that the decision of the Chaldean Catholic Patriarchate came too late that it negatively affected the cause. “Churches have been empty of worshippers for years and the church should’ve taken such a step as soon as it noticed the decline in the number of Christians in the capital because then it would have alerted everyone to the problem,” he wrote.

“Now it is pointless and the issue is just a news story that no one paid attention to and the church can no longer ask people to stay.” For Yusuf, taking this step now will most likely lead to the migration of more Christians from the capital because they would feel they there is very few of them left already, but in the past they could have united to overcome the threats facing them and to keep the churches open.

“And very soon we will be hearing of more churches in Baghdad closing their doors especially that many of the ones that are still open are located in neighborhoods where Christian presence is remarkably dwindling.” Yusuf added that lack of religious will is also coupled with lack of political will to protect the remaining Christians in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq. “Both religious and political authorities need to make use of the liberation of the Nineveh Plain, which received both regional and international attention, in order to give Iraqi Christians hope in going back to their homes. Otherwise, more churches will close and Christians will disappear from Iraq.”