Morocco’s Salafis: The Multiple Paths to Power
By: Imad Estito
Published Thursday, December 29, 2011
After a decade of decline, Morocco’s Salafis have regained their political footing thanks to elections prompted by mass popular protests. But their future local and regional roles may hinge less on election results and more on their diverse ideological make up and checkered history of social conduct.
Salafis have returned to the limelight in Morocco after the country’s last elections as serious questions have been raised about their role in tilting the balance of power toward Islamists, especially in electoral strongholds in which Islamists usually fail.
When the Arab Spring wave reached Morocco, Salafis took to the streets and joined the protests of the February 20 Movement demanding the release of their detainees and an end to the persecution campaigns against them.
Moroccan Salafis, however, do not constitute a homogeneous bloc. It is difficult to identify one political position that links them together as they are divided among Takfiri Salafis, Salafi Jihadists and Afghani Salafis.
Moroccan Salafis who spoke with Al-Akhbar said that Salafi prisoners are not united but are in fact divided between the Takfiri movement, Afghani Moroccans and Salafi Jihadists who reject the notion of a revision of their ideology.
According to Abdulhakim Abu Alloz, a researcher of Salafi movements in Morocco, so-called authentic (asil) education in Morocco contributed to the spread of Salafi thought as the educational material was written using prominent Salafi overtones. Most of those enrolled in these traditional schools were graduates of Quranic schools and Salafi religious institutions.
Abu Alloz points out that followers of Salafi movements were mostly young, economically disadvantaged and psychologically anxious men. These movements addressed this deprivation with “religious preaching, covering for the economic factors behind it.”
Salafi movements “fight economic deprivation by providing a sense of belonging and meaning that comes from being part of these movements,” says Abu Alloz.
“It is not in their interest to make their followers aware of the source of deprivation, the reason that leads many to join these movements in the first place, otherwise they would have to develop rational and worldly solutions to overcome exploitation which in turn would eliminate their raison d’etre as religious movements.”
After the Gulf war, calls by some religious scholars arose against the Saudi regime branding is as an infidel regime and asking Muslims to fight the United States for establishing military bases in the Gulf. Salafi Jihadism then emerged in Morocco.
It spread through the work of scholars who had studied in Saudi Arabia at the hands of Takfiri preachers and Salafi thought began to make inroads among the youth.
The ideology advocated by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and others was admired by Moroccan Salafis especially with what was going on at the time in Afghanistan. Dozens of Moroccans and their families ended up going to Afghanistan to fight there.
After the US invasion of Afghanistan, a number of these people returned to Morocco and started to form cells led by fighters from the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group which was responsible for the Casablanca bombings on 16 May 2003.
A number of scholars became advocates of Jihad in various Moroccan cities and spread their ideology in neighborhoods through CDs and books advocating extremism.
The doctrine of Salafi Jihadists spread widely in Morocco until a government-led crackdown dismantled some of the cells which had formed throughout the Kingdom.
Pre and Post 2003
A fierce debate raged in Morocco about the Salafi movement after the May 16 attacks. The Moroccan government held Salafis responsible for the bombings and launched an extensive arrest campaign against them, shutting down Quranic Houses and imprisoning a number of sheikhs like Omar Haddouchi and Mohamed Fizazi.
Salafis considered the accusations made against them false and fabricated by Moroccan intelligence. A number of them claimed to have been subjected to various kinds of psychological and physical torture.
In 2003 the normalization between the Moroccan state and Salafis who had benefited greatly from the contradiction that marked the state’s dealings with religious movements, ended.
While Islamic organizations were prohibited from engaging in political activities, Salafis and other movements were allowed to preach within a society which was already heavily Islamic. They were permitted to work with full freedom under the pretext of teaching the Quran, Islamic studies and spreading literacy.
This changed quickly as the state rushed to close a number of mosques that had Salafi links and adopted a policy of “nationalization” of mosques, bringing them under government control.
Nevertheless, some mosques remained under the control of Salafis who took advantage of an established network that allowed them to operate independently of state aid.
The Moroccan state insinuated at some point the possibility of a breakthrough in the case of Salafi detainees, especially with the advent of the “Arab Spring” and the increased pressure applied by the February 20 Movement in which Salafis found a safe platform to demand the release of their detained relatives and friends.
The state however tightened its grip on Salafis again after the successive prison rebellions staged by Salafi detainees in a number of Moroccan prisons.
To vote or not to vote
There is a prevalent belief that Salafi movements in general look down upon politics but that does not mean that Salafis in Morocco do not play a political role.
Even though politics is absent from the Moroccan Salafi ideology, at least at the level of discourse, it is strongly present on a practical level.
Moroccan journalist Osei Mouh Lhassan, a specialist in Islamist movements, states some aspects of the political rise of Moroccan Salafis.
“Salafis have a presence among various social strata. Maghraoui Salafis (in reference to their Sheikh Mohamed bin Abdul Rahman al-Maghraoui) marched in support of the amended constitution, while others supported the Justice and Development Party in the last elections without disclosing that they did so. Salafi Jihadists, along with their family members, chose to join the February 20 Movement after they received a fatwa on the matter from scholars they emulate in the Arabian peninsula.”
As for the future of the Salafi movement, Lhassan sees possibilities for developing these groups and re-shaping them in ways that would have a political impact especially with the rise of Salafis in Egypt and the release of many of their members from prisons like Sheikh Fizazi.
Lhassan adds however: “Their political engagement will not necessarily be associated with the electoral process. They might choose to position themselves in the opposition while some of their sleeper cells might choose to carry on with Jihadist activities, especially if their agenda is tied to a global Salafi Jihadist organization or al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
Some Moroccan Salafis have indeed begun a radical review of their thought and convictions. Some of them even recognized the Emirate of the Believers represented by King Mohammed VI.
Chief among them is Sheikh Fizazi who was released from prison along with other Islamist detainees as a goodwill gesture taken by the Moroccan government after the recent outbreak of public protests.
Many were taken aback by Fizazi’s change of tone. He expressed his willingness to engage in the political process, he even expressed a desire to establish a political party and called on citizens to actively participate in the elections.
Sheikh Abu Hafs issued a document from prison declaring his recognition of the Moroccan monarchy and rejecting violence and takfir.
These revisions however remain individual initiatives and have not spread to the vast majority of Salafi movement followers yet.
The emergence of Salafi organized groups in Morocco dates back to 1971 according to most of the literature referenced on this subject. That’s when the Association of the Holy Quran appeared in the city of Marrakesh. The Daawa for Quran and Sunnah Association appeared afterwards in 1976 followed by other associations founded by the preacher Mohamed Maghraoui who was funded by Saudi Arabia.
However, Salafi ideology can be traced back to the days of King Hassan I, whose rule coincided with the time in which Muhammad Abdel Wahhab, the father of Wahhabi thought, lived. Its presence is also associated with Morocco’s nationalist history, particularly those periods of anti-colonial struggle. Through their religious discourse, Salafis were able to frame and influence the resistance movements of that time period leading up to independence in 1956.
Salafi thought had a difficult time gaining a foothold in a Moroccan environment characterized by diverse worship practices. In response to this, Salafis in Morocco have sought to create religious educational curricula that serve their ideological approach and social doctrine.
Such religious education provided a platform for the emergence of a number of Salafi theorists in Morocco who had studied the basics of the doctrine in the Arabian peninsula.
Salafis were confronted with the challenge of responding to changes in Moroccan society, which led some of them to become more radical and hostile in the process.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.