As arrests, shootouts, and the seizure of passports from citizens who wish to be foreign fighters continues, North African leaders must be careful to avoid the perception that fighting extremism means the persecution of the defenders of the faith. The government must rebut IS claims that authorities are complicit with Iran’s “plots and schemes” to carve up the region and spread Shi’ite Islam.
Recently, the Islamist PJD party in Morocco warned of a “sectarian Shi’ite invasion” and the Grand Mufti of Mauritania called on his country’s leaders to resist the “rising Shi’ite tide.” A North African government minister denounced “the intrusion of Shi’ism through social media, university dormitories, high schools and even qur’anic schools,” concluding, “I ask myself whether the Persians want to dominate the Arab world.”
onathan Laurence, Professor of Political Science at Boston College and Nonresident Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy studies at the Brookings Institution, asks in hisfor Reuters, “After Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrein, is North Africa the next realm of a more aggressive Iranian foreign policy?”
Iran has attempted to expand its influence in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, as well as the region that Laurence refers to as Iran’s “backyard”, Senegal, Niger, Guinea and Mali. In fact, this region was toured by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in June, when he met with heads of government in Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia. At around this same time, Iran launched satellites beaming Arabic-language Shi’ite religious programming into North African homes. It made some local powers nervous.
Although it is believed that fewer than 20,000 Shi’ites reside in Algeria, the government recently mandated the registration of all of them. Additionally, the Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs said that Shi’ites have no right to spread their faith in Algeria, “because that causes sedition and other problems.” He , “Algeria cannot play host to a sectarian war that does not concern it,” and added, “Shi’ism, nor Wahhabism nor any of the other sects are the product of Algerians, nor do they come from Algeria. We refuse to be the battleground for two external and foreign ideologies.” Still, Algeria is one of only a few countries who, along with Iran, maintain good relations with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are Shi’ite. The Iranian Foreign Minister’s first stop in North Africa in June was Algiers.
Laurence writes that, “Moroccan and Algerian leaders view Iran’s Africa policy as a threat to their domestic order and regional security. The prospect of sectarian strife exists for ‘heterodox’ – i.e. non-Sunni – minorities scattered across the region, numbering in the millions who live under mainstream Sunni rule. Some of these groups are offshoots of Shi’ite Islam, but are not necessarily the source of conflict. In Algeria, their mere difference – and the government’s toleration of them – sometimes provokes attack from local hardliners.”
There is no official Shi’ite minority in Morocco, however,put the number at less than 2 percent. The foreign ministry in Rabat has accused Iran of trying to alter “the kingdom’s religious fundamentals.”
In neighboring Tunisia, relations with Iran have continued unbroken since 1990, including high-level exchanges before and after the January 2011 revolution that became known as the Arab Spring. As a result, trade with Iran increased significantly. Laurence writes that, “Tunisia prides itself on being an island of sectarian tolerance in a rapidly polarizing region. Senior religious affairs officials proudly state that they represent all religions, including Christians and Jews, although in reality the country has very few non-Sunni Muslims. After the January 15 revolution, Tunisia signed the United Nations Convention on Human Rights and helped protect religious freedom in Article 6 of its new constitution.”
Saudi Arabia maintained its advantage in Tunisia — a month after the Iranian foreign minister left Tunis, a Saudi government delegation arrived, including 53 businessmen. They signed agreements with the government worth $200 million in development projects, including several hospitals and the renovations of a historic mosque in Kairouan.
Some countries in North Africa are struggling with the two-front ideological battle against IS and Iran. The Algerian Minister responded to the State Department’s admonishments on religious freedoms in Algeria, by saying, “If they want to accuse us of defending Islam and our historic traditions, then let them.”
The defeat of IS in Raqqa gives North African governments time to consolidate their religious communities. That same defeat also allows Iranian regime’s influence to compete for leadership in the Persian Gulf.