In Sunni North Africa, Fears Grow of Iran’s Shi’ite Shadow

These are challenging times for North Africa’s Muslim governments. Even as Daesh is ousted from its strongholds in Iraq and Syria, the extremist group is continuing its battle against authorities in countries like Morocco, Algeria and Egypt, Middle East Monitor writes.

Thought the list of arrests, shootouts and seizure of passports from citizens who want to be foreign fighters goes on, North African leaders have to navigate a particularly tortuous sectarian path. To avoid the perception that fighting extremism amounts to the persecution of the defenders of the faith, their governments have to be seen to be making visible gestures of Islamic piety – while also cracking down on Shi’ite proselytizing so as to rebut Daesh claims that authorities are complicit with Iran’s “plots and schemes” to carve up the region and spread Shi’ite Islam.

After Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrein, is North Africa the next realm of a more assertive Iranian foreign policy? These fears come from Iran’s attempt to expand its influence in Algeria, Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia – and its “backyard:” Senegal, Niger, Guinea and Mali.

Iran’s foreign minister toured the region in June, meeting with heads of government in Algeria, Mauritania and Tunisia in search of improved ties, and around the same time, Iran launched satellites beaming Arabic-language Shi’ite religious programming into North African homes. The Algerian minister of religious affairs has said that Shi’ites, which are around 20,000 in the country, have no right to spread their faith in Algeria, “because that causes sedition and other problems.”

“Algeria cannot play host to a sectarian war that does not concern it. Neither Shi’ism, nor Wahhabism nor any of the other sects are the product of Algerians, nor do they come from Algeria,” he explained in an interview.

Officially, there is no Shi’ite minority in Morocco; unofficial estimates put the number at less than 2 percent. Nonetheless, the foreign ministry in Rabat has accused Iran of trying to alter “the kingdom’s religious fundamentals.”

Tunis, on the other side, has enjoyed unbroken relations with Iran since 1990, including high-level exchanges before and after the January, 2011 revolution that sparked what became known as the Arab Spring. 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. Given the tiny number of Shi’ites living in North Africa and the tight control over mosques in the region, widespread Shi’ite religious influence on the ground is unrealistic.

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.

North Africa’s Sunni governments struggle with the reality that two adversaries – Iran and Daesh – are the net beneficiaries of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the crushing of Sunni opposition in Syria in 2017. But not all countries in North Africa feel they have that freedom when they perceive a two-front ideological battle against Daesh and Iran. In response to the State Department’s admonishments on religious freedoms in Algeria, the Algerian Minister said:

“If they want to accuse us of defending Islam and our historic traditions, then let them.”

The defeat of Daesh in Raqqa has bought time for North African governments to consolidate their religious communities. But that same defeat also removes an obstacle to Iranian influence. Don’t expect the competition for leadership from the Persian Gulf to be resolved anytime soon, The Iranian writes.