Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Maghreb Mirror: Morocco Is Not Algeria, but Is It Heading in the Same Direction?

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Maghreb Mirror: Morocco Is Not Algeria, but Is It Heading in the Same Direction?

Article excerpt

Maghreb Mirror: Morocco Is Not Algeria, But Is It Heading in the Same Direction?

By Marvine Howe

"Morocco is not Algeria," say most Moroccans emphatically. But their conviction is tinged with apprehension and they keep looking over their shoulders.

In fact, most Moroccans, whether mainstream Muslims or Islamists, express concern that if King Hassan II--who still holds the real power in this constitutional monarchy--doesn't do something to remedy social and economic conditions, people could take to the streets in despair.

I went to Morocco to assess the rise of the Islamist movement in this westernmost Muslim country and examine the repercussions of the devastating war with radical Islamists in neighboring Algeria. To piece together the story of Morocco's Islamic revival, I saw old friends from the main political parties, scholars, members of the women's movement and, of course, Islamists.

Morocco had changed considerably since I last covered the scene for the New York Times in the late 1970s. It is younger, more urban, more developed, and more Muslim. It also is more vocal and more frustrated with the growing gap between rich and poor. King Hassan II, who also goes by the title of Commander of the Faithful, has set up political and religious institutions but keeps them under his tight control. There are new Islamic councils, more mosques, more people at Friday prayers and more contacts with other Islamic countries. But the king and his Ministry of the Interior still supervise everything Islamic, from pilgrimages to Mecca to sermons in mosques.

The monarch, according to palace sources, is firmly persuaded that the majority of Moroccans are moderate Muslims. Any radicals are watched closely and present no immediate danger. On the other hand, politicians on the left and right argue that failure to strengthen democratic institutions has fueled the current Islamic thrust.

No one can measure accurately the extent of the Islamist movement, but according to unbiased estimates by the leading leftist party, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, there are as many as three million Islamists--militants and sympathizers--out of a population of 28 million. Since the early 1970s, scores of Islamic associations have appeared around the country. Initially, they were encouraged by the palace as a counterweight to the left. As Islamists began to show their strength, however, the palace was quick to crack down.

The government reaction only bolstered the image of the Islamists, even among the leftists. Today there are about 50 known Islamic associations. Most are reformists seeking to promote Islamic values, but some operate underground and aim to change the system.

The most influential Islamist group in the country today is the outlawed Association for Justice and Charity, which has been taking college campuses by storm. Its leader is Abdessalem Yassine, a 66-year-old mystic, who spent five years in prison and has been kept under house arrest since 1989.

Failure to strengthen democratic institutions has fueled the current Islamic thrust.

Yassine's first political act--which gave birth to his movement--was the publication in 1974 of an open letter to the king entitled "Islam or the Deluge," said Fathallah Arslane, the association's spokesman, who received me at his residence in the El Massira quarter of Rabat. In the 124-page letter, Yassine, an inspector in the Ministry of Education, urged the king to assume his responsibilities and advised him how to fight corruption and waste, stimulate the economy and achieve democracy and freedom of expression through the Qur'an. Challenging the legitimacy of the Moroccan monarchy, Yassine called for a return to the early caliphate system whereby the ruler was chosen by Islamic scholars--not by heredity.

Then commenced what Arslane calls the regime's "long campaign of repression." This involved repeated arrests of Yassine and his partisans, public trials, intimidation of their supporters, seizure of their publications, and refusal to authorize their request to form either a community or political association. …

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