Country Report

Fundamentalism in Morocco

by Greta Meszoely


Fundamentalist Islamic movements have become commonplace in most Middle Eastern political systems throughout the second half of this century. They are most readily apparent in those countries where a secular government has been introduced into a historically strong Islamic society. In such cases the fundamentalist movements are able to introduce their sectarian ideals into a governmental system that has chosen to remain neutral in the eyes of God and the society it was meant to govern. The common goal of these fundamentalist movements is to create a leadership to guide the nation of Islam ('umma), and to accomplish this goal these groups seek political power so as to establish an Islamic government and subsequently an Islamic political, social, and religious order. Because the Moroccan political establishment is based on Islamic law and the leadership of the all-powerful ruler, King Hassan II, has been granted his authority under the guise of Allah to be the Commander of the Faithful, the absence of an Islamic leadership that has stimulated the growth of fundamentalist movements in most Middle Eastern countries is non-existent.

Additionally, the original baraka (religiously inspired charisma) granted to King Hassan II soon after Morocco's independence allowed him to use his position, as the Commander of the Faithful, to prey on the nationalistic and religious sympathies of society while fostering a corrupt governmental structure to progressively enhance the powers of the Monarch and his leadership through coercion and suppression. Thus the extra-constitutional and illicit powers of the King in the late twentieth century have curbed the possibility of fundamentalist or any other political or religious opposition to emerge and forcefully threaten the current political establishment.

Moroccan Fundamentalism: Fundamentalists in Morocco vary a great deal from the general perception Middle Eastern fundamentalists connoting political Islam. Twentieth- century fundamentalists, whatever their religion, typically argue that the ills of the present are due to deviation from the righteous path of virtuous ancestors. God is punishing them for this deviation. As soon as believers once again conform to their sacred scriptures, God or the gods will deliver them from evil. This is, of course, a classical theme in Islam. Although the righteous men of God who defied sultans often argued along these lines, twentieth-century fundamentalists tend to interpret such classical themes differently.

Fundamentalists, although often critical of nationalism as a secular ideology, are usually themselves intensely nationalistic. Iran's Islamic revolution was as much a nationalist revolution against foreign domination as it was a fundamentalist revolution against secularism. The nationalistic dimension of most twentieth-century fundamentalism relates to broader issues. Like countless revivals throughout history, twentieth-century fundamentalism advocates a return to the true form of their religion, but their conception of their religion is always to some extent an invented one.

Late twentieth-century fundamentalism is typically a politicized revival of tradition very different from tradition itself. Fundamentalists usually stress that their religion is an all-encompassing system governing politics and economics as well as what is conventionally thought of as religion. This ideological view of religion is far removed from how traditional believers believe. However, we find considerable deviation from this position in the Moroccan context. Some people who demand a strictly Islamic state are relatively traditional, like the Moroccan fundamentalist leader al-Faqih-al Zamzami. Others are far more ideological, such as 'Abd as-Salam Yasin, who has led the most influential of the fundamentalist movements in Morocco since its independence. Nonetheless, though each varies in his foundations they do not represent a rigid dichotomy, but points on a continuum.

Al-Faqih Al-Zamzami and the Sunni Movement: Among the least ideological and most authentically traditional of Morocco's Islamic movements is that exemplified by the late Faqih al-Zamzami of Tangier and his sons. In literary Arabic, the word Faqih means scholar, but in Morocco, a faqih is usually a man who teaches the Quran to children. Al-Zamzami would not be considered a scholar by most Moroccan ulama (religious scholar), though he is viewed as one by his followers who call themselves Sunnis. In Morocco, the term Sunni is widely used to refer to Muslims who advocate a strictly Islamic way of life but are not directly involved in political activities. Al-Zamzami's followers are sometimes also called Wahhabis, the name often given to the puritanical revivalist movement that led to the creation of Saudi Arabia.

Though the few followers of Al-Zamzami revered him and continued to follow his words most Moroccans who new him, or of him, suggested that he was old-fashioned unable and unwilling to stand up to King Hassan II. Some even argued that he may have actually been a government agent in that he aided the government in focusing attention on matters of ritual and dress rather than on the need for a fundamental transformation of Moroccan society. A follower of al-Zamzami, however, while praising the Iranian revolution for having shown "the true face of Islam", states that the Faqih merely wanted to change people rather than overthrow the government.

Al-Zamzami's ideas, like those of similar preachers, have been disseminated through cassette tapes of his sermons and lectures as well by his books and pamphlets with titles like "How to Fulfill the Obligation of Prayer." Some were outright critical of the present social and political order in Morocco. For example, Al-Zamzami's book "The Position of Islam Vis-A-Vis the Rich and the Poor" which stresses that Islam does not allow people to possess wealth beyond what they need to live on was banned in Morocco. Although he avoided direct criticism of King Hassan II his reference to the rulers and the rich is generally interpreted by Moroccans to be directed at the monarch.

Through his writings and through his relatively peaceful demonstrations of Sunni ways al-Zamzami attempted to influence Moroccan society. In the 1980's he protested the fact that women were being forced to show their hair when photographed for a national identity card. He wrote the Minister of the Interior demanding that this practice be ended. Also, in the 1980's al-Zamzami's sons led a campaign against the way the poor were treated at public hospitals in Tangier, an act indicative of the Sunni's reformist rather than revolutionary nature.

The most influential of al-Zamzami's sons, 'Abd al Bari' bin al-Siddiq, used to preach in a popular mosque in Tangier where in 1983 he delivered a sermon that provoked local authorities to arrest him. He was then detained and forced to remain blindfolded in a house for one month while he was being tortured. Soon after his release, 'Abd al-Bari' began preaching again, but avoided any direct criticism of the King or the government in public. Like those before him he had come to understand the consequences of the sultan's (or the Malik's) wrath, and was careful not to be subjected to it again.

By the late 1980's, nonetheless, the Sunni tendency could be seen in all the cities of Morocco-in terms of clothing, wedding styles, and rhetoric. For most of the people involved, there is nothing explicitly political about all of this. Nor do most of the people who call themselves Sunnis have any organizational link to al-Faqih al-Zamzami or his sons.(Tozy, 154)

Even at the cultural level, the Sunni tendency does not always run very deep. One hears many stories about women who cover their hair and bodies in Sunni fashion simply to avoid being harassed by men in public. There is also talk of men who have sexual relations with women who wear the hijab. Moreover, it would be a mistake to assume that all women wearing Sunni clothes are committed to the goal of an Islamic revolution.

The Sunni movement with which al-Zamzami is identified is actually a diffuse religious and cultural tendency rather than an organized political group. Al-Zamzami often criticized the government in a manner reminiscent of the classical righteous man of God, but he never advocated force or revolution. In fact, it has been suggested that al-Zamzami believed that the very idea of monarchy was contrary to Islam, but he never openly criticized King Hassan II. His fundamentalism was much more traditional and much less ideological than that which has generally appealed to students and other educated young Moroccans.

If al-Zamzami represents the most traditional wing of the Islamic opposition faced by King Hassan II in the late twentieth-century, Abd al-Karim Muti' and his group "Islamic Youth" represents its most radical one. al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya was founded by Muti' who while the inspector of education and an active member of the Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires (USPF) underwent a transformation into an Islamic activist. Under his leadership, al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya began to attract supporters in Morocco's high schools and universities in the early 1970's. Although they were able to impact the social and political climate of the country through bold public accusations and criticisms they were quickly diffused and their position undermined by the Moroccan state apparatus. The following passage is taken from an editorial in the first issue of a review published in Belgium by a faction of al-Shabiba:

"Our present and our future are caught between the hammer of American imperialism and the anvil of its agents represented by the corrupt monarchical regime ...

"Your review appears in these circumstances to be, God willing, in the vanguard of an authentic Islamic revolution in Morocco; a revolution that enlightens the horizons of this country and liberates its people to bring them back to the Islam of Muhammad and not those of the merchants of oil and the agents of the Americans." (Dhaouadi and Ibrahim 1982, 57)

The merchants of oil in this passage represent the Saudis and the other rulers of the Gulf. These people, like King Hassan II himself, are routinely condemned as agents of the Americans by the more radical fundamentalists. In the same defamatory way the group also published an open letter to the king after he told people not to sacrifice an animal for the feast of sacrifice in the early 1980's, because drought had decimated Morocco's flocks of sheep and goats:

"We have known you ever since you abrogated God's Book in its entirety and became yourself a god who makes laws, forbidding that which is permitted and permitting that which is forbidden; making blood flow and spreading dishonor. The cancellation of the feast of sacrifice only crowns the thirst for Pharaonism and tyranny that controls the core of your vile soul... We say to you: Fear God in his religion and the religion of his prophet before he changes you into a monkey, after having changed you into a drunkard and an opium addict.

"We say to our people, Muslim and believing: Enough humiliation! Enough cowardice and shame! Revolt against this tyrant who wants to turn your country, beloved Muslim Morocco, into a land of debauchery and libertinism for the Jews who impoverish and starve its inhabitants at leisure. You have in your Quran and the Sunna of your prophet the best support."(Harbi 1991, 159)

It was perhaps this harsh criticism and resentment apparent in the al-Shabiba movement that fostered its demise. While developing antagonistic groups within the movement in the early 1980's al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya was being further undermined by the repression and cooptation of the Moroccan government. In 1984, seventy-one members of al-Shabiba received sentences ranging from four years imprisonment to death. Before these events took place a number of activists in the organization had decided that it was too dangerous to challenge the current regime and left al-Shabiba to establish other groups and publications that continued to advocate a strictly Islamic polity but refrained from any direct criticism of the government and, above all the king. The best known of these groups is led by 'Abd al-Ilah Ben Kiran who has made repeated unsuccessful attempts at gaining recognition as a political party. It is worth noting, however, that it is widely understood that Ben Kiran receives a regular stipend from the government to spread his message of nonrevolutionary revivalism.

al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya effectively ceased to exist during the 1980's, though some of its offshoots remain significant in Morocco's high schools and universities and among Moroccan students in Europe.

'Abd as-Salam Yasin and the Mainstream Islamic Opposition: Yasin's movement is more radical and ideological than that of al-Zamzami but less so than that of al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya, but is the most politically significant of the three. Like the followers of al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya, Yasin's followers originally tended to be students. In the 1980's and 1990's, however, Yasin attracted a growing amount of support from young people unable to find work, even some with no more than an elementary school education. He was unable to successfully entertain the support of peasants and the urban poor.

Yasin studied at the traditional Islamic al-Yusifiyya University in Marrakesh and became a teacher of Arabic and then an inspector in the Ministry of Education, a position held until Morocco gained its independence in 1956. He was a devout Muslim in the 1950's praying five times a day and fasting during Ramadan and has suggested that his Islam was relatively gentle and apolitical. At the same time he led a relatively westernized style of life. For example, he sent his children to French schools and allowed them to dress in jeans and other traditionally western clothing.

It was not until 1968 that Yasin had his spiritual crisis, (often cited as a nervous breakdown) which incited him to join the Sufi brotherhood of Butshishiyya, becoming a follower of Shaykh al-Hajj Al-'Abbas. Yasin claims that he was disturbed by the materialism of the brotherhood so he left the order. However, many suggest that Yasin actually left the order in 1971 because he wanted to turn it into a political movement but was unable to do so.

It was at this point that Yasin's attitude toward Islam was politicized after speaking of his realization that Islam is inherently political as opposed to being merely politicized. By 1974 Yasin had decided to write an epistle to King Hassan II entitled al-Islam aw at-Tufan: Risala Maftuha ila Malik al-Maghrib (Islam or the Deluge: an open epistle to the king of Morocco). The epistle, 114 pages long (the number of chapters in the Quran), was a conscious attempt to revive the classical tradition of the Prophet. Yasin begins his open letter to the king by saying: "My epistle to you is not like all epistles for it demands an answer."(p1) He repeatedly addresses the king as "O my beloved one" (ya habibi), terms never used by Moroccans to address king Hassan II.

Yasin contends in his epistle that Hassan II simply camouflages his Western "liberal" ideas with religion when he feels it is politically expedient to do so. He tells the king that his "playing with Islam" has convinced young Moroccans that religion is indeed "the opium of the people and mere trickery by means of which hypocritical rulers exploit the gullibility of the masses and enslave them."

"You do not realize that your senseless and deranged actions are manifest proof of the accuracy of what is claimed by the enemies of God [the Marxists]! How will you face God you so-and-so? Tell me how if you are a believer!"

It is hard to convey a sense of how shocking this language is in the Moroccan context. In the official rhetoric of the government-controlled media, Hassan II is the Commander of the Faithful and the shadow of God on earth. Yet Yasin questions whether he is, in fact Muslim at all.

Yasin says the coups of the early 1970's were warnings from God. He ridiculed the king's claim to have survived these coups thanks to his baraka. God saved him, not his baraka, but Hassan II failed to heed God's warnings and became more of a tyrant than ever. Yasin's epistle represents the king's last chance. It too is a warning from God. If Hassan II heeds it and repents, he can still be saved. If not, "Who will there be to protect you?"(Munson,164-5)

The basic message of Yasin's epistle is simple and familiar. The Muslim's problems are due to their having deviated from Islam. If they return to the laws of God and stop imitating the West, the oppression of the poor by the rich will vanish. The state of terror in which Moroccans now live will vanish. Poverty will vanish. The squatter settlements ringing Morocco's cities will vanish. The caliph will be a man of the people instead of a potentate living indolently in his palaces. Everything that is bad will be good.

It is important to note, however, that Yasin's insistence on the contractual nature of the caliphate should not be confused with a commitment to democracy. Yasin's conception of an ideal Islamic polity is a thoroughly authoritarian one, with the masses seen as being in need of a "just imam" to guide them on the path of righteousness. Unlike many Salafi reformists, not to mention Morocco's principle political parties, Yasin ridicules democracy and advocates a "council elected in an Islamic manner" after all political parties have been banned. "The party of Satan," as Yasin calls people who advocate a secular form of government, would not be allowed to participate in the elections for this council. Yasin contends that those who reject the idea of a strictly Islamic polity are entitled to "firm but humane solicitude." That is to say that they have the right to be taught the error of their ways.

After sending a copy for the king to the governor of Marrakesh province, Yasin reportedly prepared his burial shroud to prepare for the expected response of the king. While King Hassan II was of course infuriated by Yasin's epistle he was advised not to sentence him to death, but to place Yasin in a psychiatric hospital since only a lunatic could possibly address the king in such a way. Moreover, if Yasin would have been put to death it was assumed that he would appear to be a martyr which would clearly effect the king adversely. Subsequently, Yasin spent three and a half years in an insane asylum.

Once released from the asylum, Yasin resumed his campaign for a strictly Islamic polity in Morocco, but he no longer criticized the king directly. In 1979 he began publishing an Islamic review entitled al-Jama'a, "The Group," of which no more than three thousand copies were ever published. The government had obstructed the publication of this review for at least a year before the first issue was published. It was banned after the eleventh issue appeared in 1983. The government also forbade Yasin to preach in mosques. In December 1983, he tried to publish another newspaper, al-Subh, (The Dawn), but this too was immediately banned and he was sentenced to two years in prison.

After Yasin's release he transformed his home into a center for his movement to come and pray and here him preach. But, in 1987 Yasin attempted to establish an Islamic political party to participate in Moroccan elections to express the basic hostility toward the Morrocan electoral system. Although it is well-known that the elections were rigged Yasin's position was that the simple idea of a government based on the will of the people is contrary to Islamic law which presupposes that government should be based on the laws of God. The government paralyzed his movement by surrounding his home with police and arresting many of his followers. Although demonstrations were attempted to protest the government's hostility they met with very little success. In fact, except for the few who joined the protests most Moroccans were outraged by the inconveniences Yasin's movement had caused. To this day Yasin's group has had little impact on the social and political elements of the Moroccan state. Although the group is still in existence there remains virtually no threat to the current system by Yasin or his followers, or any other fundamentalist movement.

"The Commander of the Faithful": As Clifford Geertz argues in Islam Observed, the "strong-man" aspect of Moroccan kingship "inevitably clashed with and usually dominated the holy-man aspects" and that this is "both true and, for an understanding of the nature of the Moroccan state, critical."(Geertz, 53) The King of Morocco remains alone among his fellow heads-of-state's in the region, having repeatedly renewed his links to a political system that has predated the protectorate. The Sharifian monarch, who rules in a very traditionalist society is unique in that the Constitution by which the country seeks guidance designates a double leadership role that includes both temporal and spiritual powers.

The king knew better than anyone else how to preserve support in the field of religion. "From the force of its opposition, Islam, in fact, became the principal force of legitimating government power just after independence."(Leveau, 206) This privileged relationship, however, did not manage to halt a deep process of secularization of Moroccan society. But it did explain the natural reticence of the sovereign to allow the religion's place to be reduced in the field of politics and, thus, his ability to prevent any detraction from his religious legitimacy.

"As you know, I am the Commander of the Faithful," the successor of Mohammed V asserted: "I received this title at birth, without asking for it, without wanting it. That means that I am one of the descendants of the Prophet, which is not exactly common, and which means that as deeply rooted as I am in Morocco for generations, my original tribe is that of Mecca." This title, "Commander of the Faithful," for some, including the Iranians who have accorded such an importance to the question of the descent of the Prophet, does not meet with indifference. It is a title that imposes a great deal of humility and, all the same at certain times, great responsibilities.(Nouvel Observateur, Oct, 3, 1987)

Hassan II understands how to anchor the fundamentalist discourse within the heart of the state, reducing the territory left to the fundamentalism of protest. Fundamentalist-inspired measures largely counterbalance the few secular, modernist or ecumenical "provocations" made by the regime.

Contrary to the Tunisian legislation adopted at the same date, the code of civil status promulgated in 1957 was in strict conformity with Quranic prescriptions. Prayer in schools was made obligatory by the King, who in 1968 reintroduced the institution of Quranic schools. He repressed those who did not fast during Ramadan (800 imprisoned in 1965) and created a High Council of Ulemas (in 1980, seven years before Bourguiba thought of a similar measure), whose approval he took the precaution of obtaining for all the major decisions of his reign, even if nothing obliged him to do so. The monarch, whom certain of his own cadets felt was far too Westernized, was thus alerted at the start of the 1970's, and, far sooner than any of his peers, he went on the counter-offensive. Faced with the mounting current of popular Islamism, which little by little began to take on the "look of a shrewd political protest" the monarchy's reaction consisted of effectively pushing official Islam's control as far as possible over the signs of vitality of popular Islam (Leveau, 206).

Thus, the rural structures of traditional Islam were mobilized, reinforced, and in some cases completely revived, in order to be given new means to watch over and control all the suspect forms of religious mobilization.(Bourgatt, 168-9) The centralization of the demonstration of official Islam was set up within the system to fulfill the need for a centralized Islamic system.

Favored by the structural fragility of the economy and the frustrations which it carried with it, the Islamist current has been deprived of the monopoly of protest. Islamic fundamentalist elements have had to contend with a political opposition and a labor movement endowed with a certain margin for maneuver and with the manipulation of a leftist discourse that remained more credible than in Algeria or in Libya.

Conclusion: No fundamentalist movement has gained widespread acclaim or support in Morocco since its independence for a number of reasons. First, the foundations of Islamic law that has provided a centralized religious structure in Morocco has not created the void typical of other countries in the Middle East whose predominantly Muslim society is denied a structured Islamic authority for guidance which fundamentalist movements promise to fill. Second, the all-powerful King Hassan II's repressive and coercive actions have successfully denied fundamentalism the ability to develop. Also, the constitutional law banning religious political parties legitimates the suppression of any Islamic opposition to the current regime. Finally, Moroccan society, although predominantly religious is not willing to deny itself the freedom to incorporate elements of other cultures and religions, particularly those of the west that may contradict traditional Islamic thought, yet are permitted by the more modern regime of King Hassan II.

Islamic fundamentalist movements are practically an anomaly in Morocco. The central Islamic foundations of the political and social system have provided the desired religious structure necessary to provide the Islamic foundations of this religious society. While other countries in the Middle East have established secular governments, fundamentalist movements predominate in their attempt to fill the religious void the state has neglected.

The strength of King Hassan II, and his careful maneuvering to secure his powers has dissuaded any forceful opposition to his regime. As the Commander of the Faithful, and the head of state, the king has grounded his authority in law and used coercion and repression to undermine the forces of opposition that could potentially threaten his position of power.

Although Morocco is an Islamic state its relations with and influence from the West and its modern ideals has allowed for a more open society that often deviates from the traditional tenets of Islam. Clothing, food, education, traditions, and liberalization have been imported from the West and even the most traditional members of Moroccan society are willing to deny themselves of each of these. While maintaining the basic structure of Islam Morocco is developing and modernizing, and subsequently society is seeking greater personal freedom, that which fundamentalism generally denies. Fundamentalism contradicts modernization in the eyes of most Moroccans, and are subsequently looked down upon or generally ignored.

Neither the state nor society is willing to allow fundamentalism to impact Morocco. While no fundamentalist movement since the state gained its independence in 1956 has had an effective impact in Morocco it is difficult to assume that one will emerge successfully in the years to come. Fundamentalism, it is safe to suggest will not be a reality, at least during King Hassan II's reign.

Civil Society
Volume 5, Issue 52, April 1996