Morocco’s Approach to Religious Extremism: From Jihadism to Pacifism and Reform

Radical Salafism, a religious ideology based on a rigid interpretation of Islamic texts, has spread well beyond the borders where it was first born, in the Hijaz (the west of present-day Saudi Arabia), to many countries around the world. While the ideology reached Morocco in the early eighties, it failed to gain a stronghold and instead precipitated a series of social and political objectives designed to repel it.

Today, Morocco is focusing on promoting religious moderation and combatting both extremism in its various forms as well as the social and economic factors that lead to it.

The influence of religious fanaticism reached Morocco in the late eighties and early nineties when the country was widely known for its religious moderation, tolerance, and coexistence with other religions under the Maliki rite and Sunni Sufism. Although Wahhabism, a Salafist branch that appeared in the mid-18th century, influenced Morocco during the reign of Sultan Sidi Mohamed Ben Abdellah and his son Moulay Soulaiman, its influence was limited in both time and scope. Religious minorities in Morocco have generally lived in harmony with Muslims for literally ages. Religion-based violence, or what may be called “religious terrorism,” is a very recent phenomenon in the kingdom. Such violence reflects a narrow interpretation of Islamic texts and does not reflect the essence of Islam which is summarized by the following Koranic verse:

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). (Koran, 49:13)

Likewise, “Jihadism” should not be confused with “Jihad.” Jihadism is a transnational ideological and political movement endorsed by Jihadist-Salafism. Jihad, however, is the Islamic principal that encompasses any struggle a person may engage in to achieve worldly and/or spiritual success. When “jihad” is associated with war, it is strictly governed by a number of rules.

The tolerance that has characterized Morocco for centuries changed in response to several regional and international key variables in the last decade of the 20th Century. The first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991 and the increasing American hegemony in the Arab World served as a catalyst for the rise of feelings of enmity, indignation, and hostility towards anything Western. Radical Islamists interpreted the American war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and other parts of the Muslim world as a war on the Islamic faith. Therefore, the first Gulf War and the ensuing blatant American intervention in Arab domestic affairs revived memories of the Crusades when the Europeans waged a destructive “holy” war on Muslims in the name of God. U.S. President George W. Bush (the son) added insult to injury when he himself invoked the word “crusade” in a speech in which he declared war on what he termed “Islamic terrorism” in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in New York.

In the specific context of Morocco, Moroccan authorities are also partly responsible for the upsurge of radical Islamists. Authorities addressed the Wahhabist infiltration of Morocco in the early eighties with remarkable leniency. Some assert that the Moroccan state encouraged Wahhabi missionary activism in the country to counter the growing popularity of Marxist movements and political Islam. The Wahhabi ideology, which is based on a literalist and puritanical approach to Islamic theology, became increasingly appealing to those who were discontented and disillusioned at their state social and political policies as well as by the foreign intervention in the land of Islam. Radical Islamists blamed the failure of Muslims to compete with the West or even to catch up with the pace of its social, economic, and technological progress on the deviation from the “righteous path of Islam,” which is laid out by the Koran and the Sunna. Wahhabists believed that the answer to these pressing challenges was to return to the “true” Islam, as specified in and required by the Koran and the Hadith.

The absence of an effective policy to monitor and manage centers of religious learning and essentially control the information people were being fed in Morocco during the nineties up to the beginning of the twentieth century was another factor that contributed to the spread of religious extremism in the country. At the time, Morocco was working hard to resolve a number of severe social and economic problems which had put the country on the brink of a “heart attack,” as the late King Hassan II described it in a speech to the people in October, 1995.  Consecutive years of drought, along with high unemployment rates, increasing foreign debt, and high government expenditures, among many other problems, paved the way for extremism to infiltrate Morocco and provided the right climate for the dissemination of Wahhabism and radical religious ideologies. At the same time, Moroccans began to notice “strange” new styles of dress. The burka, for example, which had never been part of traditional Moroccan dress, became commonplace in the streets, markets, and public spaces.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, a number of Salafist religious leaders had already gained ground and established a solid base of followers and adherents who believed in the superiority of their faith and in the “divine command” to disseminate their radical religious worldview and impose it on the world even by force if necessary.  The leaders of Jihadi Salafism in Morocco played an important role in mobilizing Jihadists to take up the cause of “changing what is reprehensible” by taking violent action. Religion for these Jihadists was a confrontational ideology that permitted violence for purposes of re-establishing the Islamic khilafa (caliphate). As a consequence, a number of zealous ideologues in the late nineties formed jihadist cells, operating mainly in the shantytowns of the major cities throughout the country, though without having proven direct organizational ties with the well-known symbols of Salafism such as Sheikh Mohammed al-Fizazi, Omar al-Hadhoshi, Mohamed Abdelwahab Rafiki, Hassan al-Kettani, or Abdul-Karim al-Shadli. These leaders, however, were held responsible for the huge amount of theoretical Jihadist literature that spread among the country’s youth through various media.  

Although the authorities have been aware of the activities of the members of the Salafist movement since the nineties, they have typically turned a blind eye to them and have not intervened to limit their operations. After the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, some of these Salafists openly spoke to international media (Al-Jazeera, for example) and declared their unconditional and absolute support for Oussama Ben Laden, considering him a conqueror and the epitome of a true Muslim! Again, the state did not take any firm action against them following their endorsement of international terrorism. It was not until the bloody terrorist attacks in Casablanca in May 2003 that the state launched a massive campaign against members of Jihadist Salafism, arresting more than 4,000 members, including the icons of the movement, although there were no direct proven links to the perpetrators of the attacks. The detainees were tried and sentenced to terms of 20 to 30 years in prison.

While in prison, something unexpected happened. Information leaked from the prison reported by the media revealed that the leaders of Salafism had revisited and critically re-examined their radical ideology. However, the nature of their intellectual re-examination and its broader implications were not clear. People regarded the leaks with suspicion and skepticism, especially given that even until very recently, the Salafist sheikhs in Morocco have been openly against political participation, rejecting the concept of democracy and considering it to be a heretical invention (bidaa) by the West.  Salafists have also attacked political parties and Islamic movements, considering the Koran the only “constitution” to be implemented and followed.

Shortly after the leaks, Sheikh Mohamed Abdelwahab Rafiqi, from within his prison walls, published a letter he entitled “Ansifouna” (“Do Us Justice”) in which he renounced his radical views and declared his support for the state and the Moroccan monarchy. Rafiki also denounced the terrorist bombings in Casablanca and expressed his respect for Morocco’s national ideals which include the embrace of Islam as the state religion, national territorial integrity, and the monarchy.

The Salafists’ expression of repentance and conformity led to a general royal pardon issued by King Mohamed VI in April, 2011 to 190 Jihadi Salafists, including Sheikh Mohamed al-Fizazi, and Abdelkarim al-Shadli.  Almost a year later, in February 2012, the King pardoned another 458 Salafists. At the same time, sheikh Omar al-Hadhoshi, sheikh Mohamed Abdelwahab Rafiqi, and sheikh Hassan al-Kettani were released. Abdelkarim al-Shadli completely disappeared after his release in 2011.  While Omar al-Hadhoshi denied having changed his views, sheikhs Mohamed al-Fizazi, Mohamed Abdelwahab Rafiqi, and Hassan al-Kettani admitted that they had done a thorough critical rethinking of their religious assumptions and that they had completely changed their radical positions on a number of issues.

Circumstances later validated the claim that the Moroccan Salafist leaders had completely rethought their radical Islamic ideology. Mohamed al-Fizazi, for example, sought to found a political party he called “al-ilm wal-amal” (Science and Work). On Friday, March 28, 2014, al-Fizazi led the Friday prayer attended by the King Mohamed VI in Tangier. This was understood as a sign of reconciliation between the state and the repenting Salafists and the end of their long struggle. After his release, Mohamed Abdelwahab Rafiqi joined the party of Renaissance and Virtue. However, he would later resign from his position in the party because of “the closed horizons and lack of resources to achieve the goals for which [he had] engaged in this partisan experience.” (Hespress, September 3, 2016).

In September 2016, Rafiqi joined the party of Independence which nominated him as a candidate for the parliamentary elections of October 7, 2016, in the constituency of Northern Fes. In a statement to Moroccan news outlet Hespress, Rafiqi said that his choice for the Independence party sprang from his belief that the Independence Party is a nationalist party with a long history of nationalist struggle, and a long roster of political leaders in the areas of science, thought, and patriotism. He also said that there is significant crossover between his ideology and the principles of the Independence Party.

Rafiqi continues to stir up controversy today with his controversial revisions of a number of religious core principles. The punishment of the grave, the notion that sinners and wrongdoers would be punished right after they are put in their graves,  which is supported by a number of “true” Hadiths (statements by the prophet), is one such principle that Rafiqi continues to deny in his statements to newspapers, his tweets, and his posts on social media. In a recent interview with Hespress, Rafiqi re-affirmed his rejection of the punishment of the grave describing it as an “illusion” that exists only in the minds of those who believe in it. “Such a big issue, if it were true, should have already been mentioned clearly in the Koran,” he said according to Hespress, July 25, 2018.

Rafiqi’s drastic change is manifest in his endorsement of personal freedoms, above all religious freedom and freedom of women. Commenting on a recent campaign against women wearing bikinis on Moroccan beaches, Rafiqi contended that this campaign was launched by a horde of patriarchal misogynists who still think within the framework of an obsolete mindset. Thus, to him, the campaign is a blatant attack on women’s freedom and independence.

Moroccan Salafists’ intellectual re-examination has not, however, relieved the country from the rise of Jihadism. In recent years, Moroccan intelligence services have dismantled a number of active terrorist cells. According to Abdelhak al-Khiyam, Director of the Central Office of Judicial Research, his bureau dismantled 21 terrorist cells in 2015, 19 cells in 2016, 9 cells in 2017, and 4 cells in the first half of 2018. These Jihadist cells, however, lack national leadership and operate according to the foreign agendas of international terrorism, usually ISIS or Al-Qaida. Indeed, 1,699 Moroccan Jihadists have joined ISIS since the outbreak of the armed conflict in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, according to a report presented by Minister of the Interior Abdelwafi Leftit to the Moroccan Parliament on November 9, 2017.

With the threat of religious extremism growing, King Mohamed VI initiated and Morocco implemented a strategic national policy in the aftermath of the 2003 Casablanca attacks to monitor and manage the institutional aspects of Islam in Morocco. The policy is premised on the preservation of Moroccan Islam, a form of Islam traditionally characterized by openness, tolerance, and coexistence under the Maliki doctrine. The principle purpose of the policy is to curb the influence of Wahhabism and other imported radical trends through a set of measures, such as control of mosques, training of moderate religious scholars and preachers, and the control of fatwas by appointing the Supreme Scientific Council. The policy has contributed a great deal to the stability that Morocco enjoys in comparison to other countries in the region.

Today, the International Imam Training Center in Rabat is a key element in Morocco’s strategy to promote religious moderation and combat extremism. Moroccans and foreigners alike, male and female,  are welcome to receive training there, and the Moroccan government has already signed agreements with France, Belgium, Tunisia, Gabon, the Ivory Coast, the Maldives, Libya, Mali, and Guinea to train their Imams. Of the 250 new admissions each year, almost half of them are women. In fact, the implementation of the training of female imams (“morchidate”) along with male imams in Morocco is unique.  Morocco is a pioneer in the world in this regard because the religious sector remains male-dominated and excludes women from many religious functions. The women imams trained in Morocco lead prayers for women and children in hospitals, workplaces, prisons, as well as in mosques.

Morocco has long had its brand of Islam distinct from the more extreme ideologies practiced elsewhere in the Arab World. Morocco is doing its utmost to preserve its religious identity based on the Ashaari doctrine and the Maliki School of jurisprudence. King Mohamed VI consistently calls upon Moroccans not to learn their religion from outside the country, but from within. Morocco’s approach to countering radicalism and religious extremism focuses on education. To tackle the menace of religious extremism that prevails in many parts of the Muslim world, the Moroccan International Imam Training Center in Rabat is indeed an initiative to adopt and emulate.