Islam and Politics in Morocco

Nadia Yassine's Journey

The social entrapment of millions of poor Moroccans feeds a hunger for improvement. Can the the charismatic reformist Islamism of Nadia Yassine be the vehicle to deliver it, asks KA Dilday

Nadia Yassine (photo: &copy nadiayassine.net)
Abroad, Nadia Yassine serves a palatable version of conservative Islam to westerners who are intrigued by an intelligent, strong woman representing an Islamist movement

​​In four weeks' time, Morocco goes to the polls. The country's 7 September 2007 election will be the second parliamentary vote since King Mohammed VI ascended to the throne in July 1999. Polls indicating significant victories for Justice & Development (PJD), the Islamist party, have the country preparing for a shift in ideological power.

The king seems on the surface sanguine; in a televised speech in the northern city of Tangier on 30 July, he said: "It is up to everyone to make the coming elections to the house of representatives a new opportunity to consolidate democratic normality".

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy in which the king (always a king, never a queen) is the active head of government. He appoints the prime minister and other members of the government and he is commander of the faithful, essentially president and pope for life.

Since Morocco's independence from France in 1956, the country's main opposition force has been the nationalist party, Istiqlal. Yet in keeping with the global trend Morocco appears to be swinging to the right.

The PJD's growing political strength

An American democracy organisation released startling findings in 2005: according to their poll PJD will gain the parliamentary majority in the September elections.

No one is certain whether or not this indicates a change in the attitudes of the Moroccan public: during the thirty-eight-year reign of Hassan II, Morocco's elections were known to be mere exercises as the results had been negotiated beforehand by the Mazkhen (the king and his close advisors) and the political parties.

Moroccan women cast their vote for the Parliamentary elections in Casablanca (photo: AP)
Moroccan women cast their vote for the Parliamentary elections 2002

​​But in 2002, Justice & Development won most of the races in which it fielded candidates, making it the third largest party in parliament. Those elections were judged fair by most observers and the world became aware of the hidden Morocco, people who are deeply and devoutly Muslim, and votes that way.

The PJD's growing political strength has created an unusual confluence: for once, the king of Morocco and Nadia Yassine of Al-Adl wal Ihsane (Justice & Spirituality, or Justice & Charity), Morocco's most powerful Islamist organisation are on the same side: neither wants the PJD to win.

If the PJD triumphs the king fears that western governments will see a nation of fundamentalist Muslims at their door and Morocco will cease to be a favoured nation for aid and trade.

Ms Yassine knows that Justice & Spirituality, a social group and charity organisation, long accustomed to being the most influential Islamist body in Morocco, could cede that role to the PJD.

A Moroccan journey

It's easy for the casual visitor, hopping between major cities like Tangier, Casablanca and Marrakech to underestimate how conservative Morocco is. Wealthy Moroccans live in the cities, travel frequently to European countries, study at private international secondary schools in Morocco and attend university in Europe or America, returning not only with degrees but a taste for western culture.

Yet the majority of Morocco's population - poor, monoglot, poorly educated and devoutly Muslim – never ever leaves the country. The vast lower class lives a radically different lifestyle from the upper class.

For the poor, the changes in the country over the past seven years are jarring. Western "decadence," long a part of private, rich Morocco is becoming a visible part of daily life, yet western affluence is not.

Justice & Spirituality, a Sufi-influenced social movement provides what the state does nor for Morocco's underclass. They feed and clothe the poor, teach people to read and guide their spiritual development, giving them meaning and an anchor.

The leadership of Justice & Spirituality has more recently taken an interesting turn: Nadia Yassine, daughter of Justice & Spirituality's founder Sheikh Abdesselam Yassine, represents the movement both in Morocco and abroad, focusing her attention on Europe where more than 2.5 million people of Moroccan descent live.

Ms Yassine bridges traditional and modern lives: she is completely bilingual in French and Arabic, quick to laugh, easy in her skin, and she is never seen without a hijab. Her representation of the modern Muslim woman sits well with Morocco's women, who in a watershed change, gained rights nearly equal to those of men in 2004 when the family-law code, the "Moudawana", was reformed.

In theory the change transformed Morocco's fusty gender dynamics in one fell swoop. In practice, the transition is slow and for some, confusing.

Ms Yassine had marched to reform the "Moudawana" in the early 1990s when she founded the women's division of Justice & Spirituality. She argued that the code was not an unassailable sacred text derived from the Qur'an (Moroccan law is derived from Spanish and French law, and sharia) At that time Hassan II was still king.

His sisters and daughters had always led liberated lives, yet he had no real interest in reforming the code that affected the lives of ordinary women.

Morocco's King Mohamed VI (photo: AP)
Morocco's King Mohamed VI gave the crucial impetus for reforming the family code, the so-called "Moudawana"

​​Yet when Mohammed VI first tried to reform the "Moudawana" in 2000, Nadia Yassine led Justice & Spirituality's fight against the proposed changes, claiming that the reforms had been forced by western meddlers. She marched against the changes with other Moroccan Islamist groups including the PJD.

The Islamists mobilised thousands in an impressive show of power and succeeded in getting the reforms tabled until the suicide-attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 momentarily weakened the Islamists' power and Mohammed VI seized the moment to push the changes through.

Ms Yassine's seemingly contradictory position on the reform of the "Moudawana" is understandable in the context of Justice & Spirituality's history. When Sheikh Abdesselam Yassine founded Justice & Spirituality in 1987, he styled it as a moral counter to the climate created by Hassan II, a ruthless autocrat who instituted the "years of lead" - as in bullets - after surviving two coup attempts.

Sheikh Yassine had been impressed by the revolution in Iran and thought that Morocco's political structure should mimic Iran's with a leader chosen by a council of ulema: Muslim holy men.

Morocco's ruling family owes its position to a bloodline from the Prophet Mohammed, nonetheless Sheikh Yassine disputed the king's position as commander of the faithful. Writing as much in a 100-page open letter earned the sheikh three years confinement in a mental institution during the 1970s.

Since Mohammed VI became king in 1999, Justice & Spirituality has had to redefine its role under an infinitely less brutal king who despite a disturbing persecution of the press and harassment of Islamist groups, has won international praise for his reforms.

Between past and future

In recent years Justice & Spirituality has actively criticised social and legal injustice with an eye toward the international press. In 2005, Ms Yassine told a reporter that she believes Morocco should be a republic: under the previous regime she would have been, at best, locked away for saying such.

In King Mohammed's Morocco she is being prosecuted, gingerly, for "attacking sacred Moroccan institutions." Ms Yassine arrived at her trial with a white gag emblazoned with a red cross over her mouth, holding aloft a sign that read: "Don't touch the Liberty of Press and Freedom" - written in English for maximum global comprehension.

Abroad, Ms Yassine serves a palatable version of conservative Islam to westerners who are intrigued by an intelligent, strong woman representing an Islamist movement and making a case for a conservative Muslim lifestyle.

Europe and the rest of the west are keen to hear that Islamists in Morocco are not budding terrorists, especially in light of the fact that many Moroccans also hold a European passport and most of the terrorists in the Madrid train-bombing of 11 March 2004 were Moroccans.

Yet even as she is the most visible member of Justice & Spirituality during the sheikh's decline, her official role isn't easily defined, even by Ms Yassine. It's not clear that the men in the movement would accept her in a position of leadership, even though she is routinely identified as such for audiences abroad.

Although it has its hardliners, Justice & Development (led by Saadeddine Othmani) is considered a moderate Islamist group; Justice & Spirituality's official position is that it will abstain from government until Morocco is a republic.

For those Islamists who want an immediate political voice, PJD is a logical choice, even though they come from different strains: PJD is a Sunni organisation and Justice & Spirituality is guided by Sufi ideas.

Mohammed VI came to power claiming that he would be king for the poor. Yet anyone who spends time talking to locals in Morocco will get a litany of complaints about the tyranny of the rich; the inability of ordinary Moroccans to find employment without a degree from a foreign university, the lack of basic services like potable drinking water or trash removal. Morocco is a country where 50% of men and 60% of women are illiterate.

Its sophisticated travelling class has helped maintain the illusion that liberal values, human development and progressive ideas prevail in Morocco. Yet if all of Morocco is allowed a say in elections, the hidden Morocco will emerge.

They are dissatisfied with economic and social inequality, joblessness and hopelessness. They have put their faith in God - and for the 7 September elections, God seems to mean the PJD.

What will that bring for Morocco, the northernmost of African countries, long regarded as a bridge between north and south, the Turkey of Africa? Those who look to Morocco's neighbour to the east and think back a decade are very, very wary.

KA Dilday

© Opendemocracy.net 2007

This article was previously published on openDemocracy.net.

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between north Africa and France.

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