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Fundamentalists gain ground in Algeria

| Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, 9:48 p.m.

ALGIERS, Algeria — Mosques are going up, women are covering up, and shops selling alcohol are shutting down in a changing Algeria where, slowly but surely, Muslim fundamentalists are gaining ground.

The North African country won its civil war with extremists who brought Algeria to its knees in the name of Islam during the 1990s. Yet authorities show little overt concern about the growing grip of Salafis, who apply a strict brand of the Muslim faith.

Algerians favoring the trend see it as a benediction, while critics worry that the rise of Salafism, a form of Islam that interprets the Quran literally, may seep deeper into social mores and diminish the chances for a modern Algeria that values freedom of choice.

More than a decade after putting down an insurgency by Islamist extremists, Algerian security forces still combat sporadic incursions by al-Qaida's North African branch. The conflict started in 1991 after the army canceled elections that an Islamist party was poised to win. The violence left an estimated 200,000 dead and divided society.

But authorities are treading lightly in their dealings today with “quietist” Salafis, who eschew politics but are making their mark on a nation buffeted by high unemployment — and a far higher lack of confidence in the powers-that-be.

“Thanks to God, Algerian society is returning to its source of identity,” commented Said Bahmed, a philosophy professor at the University of Algiers.

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