ALGIERS (Reuters) - The spiritual leader of Algeria's influential Salafist movement has issued a 48-page fatwa, or religious decree, urging Muslims to ignore calls for change because he says that democracy is against Islam.
The fatwa by Sheikh Abdelmalek Ramdani, who lives in Saudi Arabia, comes at an opportune time for President Abdelaziz Bouteflika as Algerians watching protests in other Arab states have begun pushing their own political and economic demands.
"As long as the commander of the nation is a Muslim, you must obey and listen to him. Those who are against him are just seeking to replace him, and this is not licit," Ramdani wrote in the fatwa obtained by Reuters.
"During unrest, men and women are mixed, and this is illicit in our religion," said Ramdani, who claims several hundred thousand followers here.
Algeria has been shaken since January by a wave of protest sparked by a spike in food prices. The opposition has made several attempts to march in Algiers for democracy, transparency and a change of leadership.
Anxious to keep a wave of popular revolts in the Arab world from spreading to Algeria, the government has lifted a 19-year state of emergency and opened up state media to the opposition.
It has also been paying out huge sums in subsidies, wage increases and interest-free loans to placate discontent.
Ramdani, who moved to Saudi Arabia after threats from radical Islamists, wrote in his "Fatwa on Unrest" that an observant Muslim can only "pray and be patient" when faced with an unwanted ruler.
"Unrest is a tool created by democratic systems which are against Islam," he wrote, echoing recent statements against protests issued by Saudi clerics.
Salafists are a minority in Algeria, where most believers follow mainstream currents of Islam. They observe strict daily rituals to recreate what they see as the ideal Islam as practiced by its earliest followers.
Practicing an ultra-conservative brand of Islam inspired by Saudi Wahhabism, they do not seek overt political influence, partly because their beliefs forbid it.
But they have influence in Algerian society, setting the tone for how to do business, deal with the state, and even dress.
With their trademark long beards and ankle-high trousers, Salafists dominate hundreds of street markets and they have put pressure on shopkeepers to stop selling tobacco and alcohol, both considered forbidden by Islam.
They see Bouteflika as an ally and they have cooperated with him to persuade insurgents to lay down arms. Algeria is emerging from more than a two decades of struggle with radical Islamists during which more than 200,000 people died.
Most Salafists in Algeria had no part in the violent conflict that convulsed the country from the early 1990s but has since sharply diminished in recent years.
In return for their apolitical stand, Bouteflika has turned a blind eye to their religious activism.
Mohamed Mouloudi, a religious books publisher opposed to the Salafists, said Ramdani's fatwa meant his movement was ready to defend dictatorships.
But, he added, "dictatorship is not compatible with Islam, which is much closer to democracy than Ramdani can imagine.
"This is not the kind of political support I would seek to remain in power. The Saudi model is not a model you can implement in Algeria," Mouloudi said.