Interview with Abdelilah Benkirane

"Islam Is Not a Static Religion"

The Secretary General of Morocco's Justice and Development Party, Abdelilah Benkirane, is one of the country's most influential politicians. In an interview with Rim Najmi for Qantara, Benkirane talks about his party's standing in Morocco's political landscape and explains in what way Islam influences his parties' politics

Abdelilah Benkirane (photo:
Abdelilah Benkirane: "Islam is made up of diverse ideas, visions and concepts"

​​ Nearly all political parties in Morocco have incorporated Islam in their programmes as important normative standard. And yet only your Justice and Development Party is called "Islamic". Why is that?

Abdelilah Benkirane: The Moroccan parties do not claim to view Islam as normative basis for their actions. Nevertheless, they do all respect Islam as our state religion, because our constitution defines Morocco as an Islamic state. The PJD is an Islamic party because we belong to Morocco's Islamic movement. Islam thus forms a central pillar of our programme. This is also why we view the problems in our society primarily from our Islamic point of view. We are proud of this.

The parliamentary elections in 2007 made your party the second strongest in Morocco. Why did you not join the coalition government? Are you afraid of taking on the responsibility of governance?

Benkirane: After the parliamentary elections in 2007 no one made us a serious offer of participation in the government. Over the years we have only received two offers to join a governing coalition: from the government of Mr Abderrahman El Youssfi in 1998 and from that of Mr Driss Jettou in 2002.

The first offer was rejected by our party members at the time due to the low number of minister posts we were offered, only one. And we were unable to accept the second offer because of the many conflicts with the strongest party after the 2002 elections, the social democratic Union Socialiste des Forces Populaires.

Where would you place your party on the Moroccan political map? And what distinguishes it from other Islamic or Islamist parties in the Arab world?

photo: AP
Elections in Morocco: The Parti de la Justice et du Développement, abbreviated to PJD, has dozens of female candidates, many of them without the headscarf

​​ Benkirane: The PJD is an Islam-oriented party that acts in a specifically Moroccan context. As you surely are aware, the Moroccan system of rule is similar to that of the other Arab regimes, but also exhibits some special historical features.

Especially in its early days, the PJD was influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Today it is an independent party, active within the constitutional framework of the Moroccan state. Our party distances itself from extremism and from ostracising others. As a political force we are open and prepared to work with all political players for the good of our country.

Do you think that the Justice and Development Party can deliver practical solutions for the problems affecting Moroccan society, beyond its religious and moral views?

Benkirane: We attempt not only to solve religious and moral problems, but also other major problems affecting our society, such as educational problems, judicial shortcomings, health-care and labour issues, etc.

The goal of our party is to serve the good of society, on one condition: that our policies do not contravene Islam. Islam is not a static religion, though; as part of a world order, it is made up of diverse ideas, visions and concepts.

photo: AP
PJD rally in 2007: The PJD is less liberal and modern than the Turkish AKP, although there are signs of a reform process within the party

​​ We nevertheless can't be expected to, for example, legalise prostitution in order to solve our country's financial problems; that's something we wouldn't stand for. Nor can we be expected to accept the founding of associations for homosexuality in the name of human rights. This would violate our religious norms. Otherwise, we are open-minded and some of our goals resemble liberal or socialist objectives.

Due to your Islamic orientation, some of the media and experts in Morocco speak of a "similarity" between your party and the Turkish governing party, AKP. Is this comparison justified from your point of view?

Benkirane: The parties at least share the same Arabic name. But I have to admit that the Turkish AKP is a bigger party than the PJD. The AKP is a major party particularly with respect to its political capabilities and achievements. And to be honest, the Turkish AKP is progressive and advanced in comparison to the PJD; we are worlds away from carrying its political weight.

In contrasting the two parties, we should however not lose sight of the different framework conditions pertaining in Morocco and Turkey. Islam is the official state religion of Morocco, while Turkey is secular according to its constitution. The classic indicators such as the economy, population and geographic size are hardly comparable either.

What we have in common is the conviction that religion can unfold a positive force that benefits all of society.

What do you think of the way the European nations treat Islam-oriented parties in the Arab world?

Benkirane: European representatives are unfortunately still caught up in a false logic, which casts a negative light on everything labelled Islamic. Experience shows, however, that there is no getting past Islamic parties in the Arab world, because these parties take the concerns of the populace seriously. Moreover, most Islamic parties respect the rules of democracy more than the other parties do.

I do believe, however, that this European attitude is gradually changing in the direction of a normalisation in dealing with Islamic political figures.

Interview: Rim Najmi

© 2010

Translated from the Arabic by Rim Najmi and Loay Mudhoon

Editor: Nimet Seker/Lewis Gropp/

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