Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Islamism and the State in Morocco

Associate Professor of Political Science, Oklahoma City University
Place Jemaa El Fna (Djemaa El Fna), August 12, 2012. (Godong/UIG via Getty Images)
Place Jemaa El Fna (Djemaa El Fna), August 12, 2012. (Godong/UIG via Getty Images)

For centuries, Islam has been the major force that Moroccan monarchs have used to legitimize their authority. King Mohammed VI, a descendant of the Alaouite dynasty in power since 1631, maintains hegemony over both the spiritual and secular realms. Episodic periods of societal and political tension have not yet demystified the regime’s traditional veneer or undermined its authority. The Moroccan monarchy’s strength lies in its spiritual authority, which is based on a variety of religious claims about political legitimacy. They include “sharifian” lineage (the king’s claim to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad), possession of a divine blessing (“Baraka”), and the king’s title of commander of the faithful. Throughout post-independence era, the monarchy has relied on these sources of religious authority and used the rituals surrounding them, which have been codified in the laws and constitution and institutionalized in the Moroccan political system, to set the monarch above the political fray.1 The resulting political arrangement places the king above all other branches of government, with unlimited political powers anchored in Islam.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, a conflict emerged between the state and a resurgent political Islam that posed a new kind of challenge to the monarchy and its religious authority. The conflict centered on control of the religious and symbolic public space and on the regime’s authoritarian control over state institutions. After the 2003 terrorist attacks in Casablanca, the state cracked down on Salafi Islamists. The state also used its exclusive control of traditional media outlets to reinvigorate the national significance of Sufi mystical Islam and, in effect, to reclaim and secure the spiritual identity of the country. Sufi Islam is at the core of the state’s religious narrative and has been instrumental in maintaining the regime’s monopoly over national religious identity. Today, the contours of this public space continue to be challenged and redefined, with little to no instances of radical violent Islamism.

The two main Islamist movements in Morocco, al-‘Adl wal Ihsane (Justice and Charity), and al-‘Adala wa at-Tanmiya (the Party of Justice and Development or PJD) for years resorted largely to quietist strategies of activism and opposition. But the tsunami of the Arab uprisings in 2011 presented opportunities for Islamists to assert their presence more forcefully on Morocco’s political scene. In fact, an examination of Moroccan Islamists’ strategies during and after the Arab uprisings reveals both the limits and the potential areas of success for political Islam in Morocco.

As Moroccans took to the streets under the banner of the February 20 movement, Islamists pursued different trajectories vis-à-vis the state. In particular, each trajectory reflects the rejectionist versus participation dilemma that has faced Moroccan Islamism in the post-independence era. The al-‘Adl initially joined the protests of the February 20 movement against state corruption, then later retreated to its strategy of rejection, which refused to recognize the legitimacy of the monarchy and of politics. The PJD, in contrast, successfully contested the legislative elections of 2011. It has since led a coalition government on a limited reformist path of political action that aims to bring about a “passive revolution” and overturn the monarchical system by operating within the regime’s constitutional rules of the game. The PJD’s path illustrates what Asef Bayat terms as a refo-lution,2 which involves incremental societal changes through reforms within the regime’s institutions, rather than insurrectionist attacks on the state and society favored by Islamists elsewhere. Each strategy, rejectionist and refolutionary, reflects an approach toward the monarchy born out of an understanding of the Islamists’ strength and limitations in Morocco.

Al ‘Adl wal Ihsane

Much of the support of al-‘Adl is attributed to the leadership of its late founder and spiritual leader, Abdessalam Yassine, and his Sufi influences, which focus on moral and spiritual programs. Yassine was an intellectual force and a prolific Islamic scholar. Between 1975 and 1989, he published 15 works of religious syntheses and commentaries on Sufism, Marxism, secularism, and nationalism. For instance, his al Minhaj Annabawi (the Prophetic Way) is a synthesis of Sufism in Islam and an analysis of the ideas of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founder, Hassan al-Banna, and the militant Islamist ideologue, Sayyid Qutb.

From its onset, al-‘Adl wal Ihsane espoused an anti-state, rejectionist strategy, which Yassine captured in a famous epistle, “Islam or the Deluge,”3 that he sent to the late King Hassan II in 1974. In the notorious letter, Yassine questioned the religious legitimacy of the monarchy. He called on the king to repent of his sins, dissolve all political parties, and institute a shura consultative council.4 Yassine’s letter to the king was a bold attempt to challenge the monarchy and its religious authority. It also marked the beginning of Yassine’s own long political struggle against the regime and state. A Bouchichi5 mystic Sufi by background, Yassine advocated religious education and spiritual da’wa, especially after founding Ousrat al-Jama’a (Family of the Association) in 1981, as an attempt to unite Moroccan Islamists under one banner. The Association published al Jama’a journal around a new clandestine political association by the same name in 1983. The new association sought social activism and fought for political existence, which was repeatedly denied by the state. Al-Jama’a was very critical of societal deprivation and corrupt political leaders, charging that:

In our country, the citizens who respect the time of prayer at work are threatened with dismissal. Now it is the apostates, the sinners and the drunks who govern the country while the real believers are prevented from practicing their religion. The management of politics and the economy is the prerogative of a class of exploiters. The precepts of God are pushed aside. 6

While critical of society writ large, Yassine rejects Qutb’s and other radical Islamists’ notion of a Jahili Muslim society, which departs from the principles of the Islamic faith and substitutes human for divine sovereignty. Rather, Yassine suggests that Moroccan society is in a state of Fitna7:

We live in a fitna, not in a Jahili era. Even though there are those among us and among our leaders who are apostates, our ummah [Islamic community] is still that of our master Mohammed, its core Islamic beliefs are intact and Jahili beliefs cannot penetrate it.8

Building on his rising popularity, Yassine formally established al-‘Adl wal Ihsane in 1987 with religious and political goals. The association is largely a protest group that appeals to a wide range of Moroccan people. Its success lies in the social services it provides for thousands of Moroccans in urban and rural areas, including literacy courses and basic welfare in poor urban centers. The association has a strong base among university students and in the main cities. In the suburbs of the big cities, for instance, al-‘Adl Wal Ihsane and its associations encourage women to wear the veil by offering better health care than the state. Its charities run blood banks, help people organize funerals, and, on Eid al-Adha, offer lamb to the needy.9

The state allowed al-‘Adl Wal Ihsane to transform into a political party in 1989, the same year Yassine was put under house arrest. However, the association has refused to take part in the political system. In a press conference after Yassine’s release in 2000, the Sufi sheikh stated: al-‘Adl wal Ihsane is a movement focused on spiritual education, not a political party… but we are partly interested in politics.”10 Al-‘Adl is, however, informally active through its many offshoot associations. For example, the association's League for the Protection of the Family was one of the principal catalysts behind the famous Casablanca rally in protest of the King's planned reforms of the Mudawanna (code of family law in Morocco) in 2000.

Earlier in 2000, al-‘Adl issued a public reprimand to the newly enthroned king Muhammad VI. Yassine posted a memorandum to “The King of the Poor.” In this memorandum, Justice and Charity broke the taboo on discussion of royal wealth and appealed to Muhammad VI to repatriate his father’s alleged multi-billion dollar fortune to pay off the national debt. Yassine struck at the heart of the monarchy’s religious capital and criticized the traditional ceremony of allegiance to the king, which he described as a “sacrilegious ceremony in which the king was worshipped”11 Yassine concluded: “In the end, I wish the young king a lot of courage and resolution and give him a farewell advice: “save your poor father from torment! Restore to the people their legitimate belongings! Redeem yourself! Repent! Fear the King of the kings!”12

On May 14, 2000, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine was freed from his house arrest after several appeals from some members of the government, and also after much pressure from international organizations. After his release, Yassine appeared to be less militant in his discourse. Al-‘Adl kept a low profile vis-à-vis the state until the start of the Arab uprisings and the Moroccan February 20 protest movement in 2011. Al-‘Adl’s decision to join the protest movement was hardly surprising since the movement has always championed a confrontational Islamist approach in Morocco, especially as its rival PJD refused to participate in the protests. As my interviews with PJD officials indicate, they were largely worried about the instability of the regime.

Al-‘Adl’s decision to join the protests was a calculated one to tap into the base of Islamist supporters who wanted to support the anti-monarchy and anti-corruption slogans that al-‘Adl had long espoused. Strategically, the decision to march alongside the February 20 movement may have been an attempt to capitalize on the attractiveness of the Arab uprisings in the Arab streets. However, al-‘Adl’s ability to coexist with a diverse protest movement, especially the secular left, was short-lived. The association made the abrupt decision to leave the protest movement in December 2011. Al-‘Adl’s spokesperson and Deputy Secretary General, Fath Allah Arsalane, explains that: “It was really a painful decision. We wanted to keep this space open for cooperation and dialogue and to create a new phase of joint, open, and balanced work. But, unfortunately, we faced many problems after this movement has made a tremendous effort by peaceful and legitimate means.”13

Al-‘Adl’s official communiqué declaring cessation of participation in the February 20 movement somewhat expands on Arsalane’s statement. It is replete with combative rejectionist rhetoric toward the state. It says it is an attack on “those who make their main concern to rein in young people, or spread rumors and poison the atmosphere, or to insist on the imposition of a particular ideology, and constrain them with conditions that moved them from the direction of real change towards venting popular anger, or turn them into a way to settle narrow accounts with imaginary opponents, or attempt to dye this movement with an ideological or political color against the Muslim identity of the Moroccan people.”14

Much has been made of the withdrawal of al-‘Adl from the protest movements in 2011. My own research and interviews with former members of the February 20 movement suggest that al-‘Adl withdrew for four main reasons. First, the popular angst sustaining the protests in the streets was waning after the pre-emptive and largely cosmetic constitutional reforms in July 2011. The royal speech brought discursive changes to the relationship between state and society. For instance, it introduced the principle of a “citizen-king,” which made the monarchy appear more of a participant in the political system. The new constitution featured several changes to the relationship between regime and state in Morocco as it nominally empowered the Prime Minister in policy-making and appeased the Amazigh movement’s quest for recognition of their cultural and identity rights.15 The monarchy, however, still retains its ubiquitous discretionary powers, which in effect could suspend the law-making function of the legislative body of the parliament. Monarchical prerogative to dissolve the parliament and the government, albeit with the “consent” of the government, limits the principle of separation of powers. Similarly, the king maintains authority over the military, foreign policy, and Islamic affairs, given his claim to be the commander of the faithful. This royal religious title and the monarchy’s claim to sharifian lineage set the monarch as an inviolable figure in Morocco, where lèse-majesté laws prohibit any criticism of the monarchy.

Second, al-‘Adl probably realized it was being dragged into a long and costly political fight against the regime alongside a protest movement al-‘Adl did not control. Third, the electoral victory of rival PJD in the legislative elections of November 2011 provided al-‘Adl with a strategic dilemma: to continue opposing popular cosmetic reforms and a charismatic Islamist prime minister, or to retreat back to its rejectionist strategy, maintain its opposition to the state, and wait for the PJD to lose its popular support as it continues to be hampered by a palace shadow government. Fourth, al-‘Adl’s withdrawal was a function of the failure of the overall February 20 movement to articulate a coherent strategy toward the regime, especially after the state’s constitutional reforms and legislative elections.

A significant fissure appeared within the February 20 movement between those who wanted to continue the protest at the national level and those who sought to shift strategy by appealing to poorer sections of the main cities. As a former member of the movement suggests: “We opted between September 2011 and the parliamentary elections [in November 2011] for a different strategy to revive the movement by taking the fight to the poor areas of the city, to bring down the moment to the average Moroccans, and hence get popular support for the political issues we were defending and save the movement from being “banalized,” especially after the new constitution trick…but we failed for a lot of reasons.”16

Faced with these divisions within the movement, al-‘Adl pragmatically withdrew from the protests and retreated to its favored rejectionist position. A year after al-‘Adl left the protest movement, Yassine died. The death of the mystic Islamist could usher in new pathways and strategies of dissent beyond rejectionism. Some suggest that there is an internal divide between al-‘Adl’s two main organizational units: the political da’ira (circle) and the religious da’ira, with the former contemplating its own entry into the political scene and perhaps even reconciliation with the palace.17 That is the path that the PJD clearly charted in 1997. It culminated in the party’s electoral victory in November 2011 and ascent to the halls of governmental power as a coalition majority party.

The Party of Justice and Development

The PJD was founded by members of the Islamic Youth Association and members of its splinter organization, Jama’at Al-Islamiyya, which is led by Morocco’s current prime minister and president of the PJD, Abdelilah Benkirane. In 1994, Benkirane’s Jama’at regrouped under the banner of the Harakat al-Tawhid wal-Islah (Movement for Unification and Reform), which joined forces with Abdelkarim Khatib, a former nationalist leader, to form the PJD. Unlike al-‘Adl’s wholesale rejection of any rapprochement with the state, the PJD took part in the political system as early as the elections of 1997, winning nine seats in the Moroccan parliament. For more than a decade, the PJD steadily grew in stature and support as an opposition party within the confines of an electoral system in which the monarchy devised electoral districts to benefit its political allies.

The Arab uprisings provided an opportune moment for the PJD to contest the elections of 2011. The PJD won a slight plurality of the votes, but as in past elections, the party’s electoral performance was a function of state control of the process. Unfavorable electoral districting and the lack of a strong appeal in rural Morocco, historically due to the prevalence of traditional pro-palace parties and vast patronage networks, have long hampered the PJD. Pro-palace parties such as the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM) and the National Rally of Independents (RNI) also managed gains in the elections.

Lacking an outright majority, the PJD formed a coalition government whose parts have little ideological overlap. In fact, the Islamist’s nominal opposition take-over of the government is hardly unprecedented in the history of Morocco. In 1997, the late King Hassan II, King Mohammed VI’s father, perhaps conscious of his own mortality, invited the then-opposition Socialist Union of Popular Forces Party (USFP) to form the government. It was then, as it is now, a Machiavellian stroke to break the cycle of contention for the February 20 movement, delegitimize the opposition, and tarnish its reputation with Morocco’s panoply of socio-political and economic problems. Most Moroccans do not draw enough distinction between the regime, headed by the monarchy and in charge of the entire edifice of the political system, and the state, nominally run by a weak government headed by the Prime Minister. Thus, the coalition government will take the blame for a failure to solve Morocco’s host of political and economic development issues. This strategy of delegitimizing the opposition appears to be in use, as the PJD has been a reifying agent of state power in the post-Arab uprisings.

Initially, the PJD had a rocky start to its new era in government. In 2012, the PJD launched ill-timed and controversial fiscal reforms as it took on the state's subsidy system in a bid to bridge the widening socio-economic gap between the rich and poor. The Benkirane government also unveiled a 20% increase in fuel prices, which angered many in the streets already reeling from high inflation and increased costs of living. In some major cities during the holy month of Ramadan, protests erupted condemning the government decisions and its perceived lack of movement toward meaningful socio-economic and political reforms in the country as a whole. Subsequent police brutality only exacerbated the public sense of frustration with both the PJD government and the larger institutional behemoth of the Makhzen, which is the complex web of political and religious state institutions that have sustained the monarchical regime for centuries through coercive means, a network of clientelism, and cooptation.

The regime promptly adopted some decisive measures, both institutional and electoral, to stem the public angst and pacify the February 20 movement. The regime convened a blue-ribbon palace commission to adopt a new constitution while promoting the opposition Islamist PJD to positions of nominal power in the November 2011 elections. Within this limited framework, the PJD is slowly working to establish its agenda of incremental reforms. This approach recognizes the PJD’s limited power in a regime that is still the only game in town.

To understand the PJD position, I conducted interviews in July 2015 with leading figures in the PJD, including its president and current head of the government, Abdelilah Benkirane. I also analyzed a major PJD electoral breakthrough in the September 2015 local elections. The combination paints a picture of a party engaged in a measured, calibrated strategy to tackle the most pressing social-economic issues by playing within the rules of the game set in the new constitution. The PJD’s strategies are vying to reform the state in a Gramscian war of position or “passive revolution.”18 A war of position functions within a circumscribed public and political sphere and involves an incremental change of society and politics through moral and intellectual leadership over civil institutions and processes. It avoids insurrectionist “frontal attacks” on state and society.19 For the PJD, such a strategy seeks gradual meaningful social reforms within the confines of an authoritarian political structure. This pragmatic strategy meant the PJD did not take part in the street protests in 2011 so as to maintain stability of the regime. According to Benkirane, the party didn’t join the February 20 protest movement:

Because we [PJD] refused to go to the unknown. In Morocco, there are issues that are not as they are supposed to be. But monarchy is a key element in Morocco, and had we taken part in the February 20 protests, that would have destabilized the system, and we don’t want to go into the unknown. What are we going to do then? Decision was to preserve the stability of the country and to keep the monarchical order, which is necessary in Morocco. You can change a president of a republic, but if you lose a monarchical regime, then it is difficult to find another monarchical system.20

The Passive Revolution

The Islamists of the PJD try to mitigate the authoritarian effects of the state on society while pressing for accountability based on Islamic moral teachings for justice and social solidarity. The PJD has engaged in the political system despite its flaws. It hopes to promote change through a calibrated strategy to reform the fundamental barriers to socio-economic development in Morocco. In this context, the PJD has attempted to exert a different, “moral, socially-conscious”21 leadership once in government within what a PJD official called a “new discourse of honesty and transparency.”22

This pragmatic strategy and new discourse of honesty have so far paid dividends, notably in the recent local elections in September 2015. The PJD placed third in overall communal seats, but more important, first in city municipal seats, where it defeated incumbents in most of the big cities in Morocco: Casablanca, Marrakech, the capital city of Rabat, Fes, Kenitra, Meknes, Safi, the northern cities of Tangiers and Tetouan, the southern port city of Agadir, and in Mohammedia. In total, the PJD won 25% of the urban municipal seats, besting the PAM’s 19% and al-Istiqlal’s 17%.

The PJD has changed the political calculus in Morocco, presenting a governance alternative unparalleled in its style and substance in post-independence Morocco. Many Moroccans now speak of hope and change and are less and less cynical about the political scene. The high voter turnout is also in part due to the PJD’s grass-roots campaign and the excitement it has generated in big cities, driven partly by the PJD’s new discourse of honesty, and Benkirane’s populist strategy.

In an interview I conducted with Benkirane in July 2015, the jovial statesman showed great confidence in his party’s record and its chances in local elections. According to Benkirane, the other options of rejection and isolation, perhaps in a reference to the Islamists of al-‘Adl wal Ihsane, didn’t yield meaningful results. Instead, Benkirane is still confident that the PJD made the right choice as early as 1992 when it decided to join the political game:

It is a challenge that we took because we had three options: rejection and confrontation, which others pursued, but didn’t yield any results, and we are still convinced that rejection and confrontation still yield no results. The second option was to isolate and depoliticize completely, staying out of the political system. And there is the option of participation despite the difficulties, which we chose back in 1992. This is our course because of the specificity of the Moroccan people and the Moroccan state that have had a consultative approach for centuries. The Morocco state is not a centralized authority.23

The Islamist leader asserts that since leading the coalition government in 2011, the Islamist party has: “left [its] touch in regard to some previously marginalized groups like widows, university students, retirees, and people with disabilities.” But more important, the PJD’s strategy of positioning functions well within a Moroccan state with a two-level executive branch. According to Benkirane:

This is a government with two presidents. The original president is the king who presides over everything. I, as the head of the government, am in a lower position than the king. Sometimes there appears to be some policies that originate from the king. There are other policies that come from me, but they have to be approved by the king. We have a government with a president, and we have a council of ministers that includes the government and is headed by the king. It is an executive authority that has two levels: one at the level of his majesty, and the other at my level as the head of the government. I am obligated to take his view on everything, but the king isn’t obliged to take my opinion since he is the head of the state, commander of the faithful, in charge of the military, and the justice system. 24

For the PJD, the goal is to mitigate the authoritarian features of the system while tackling the major socio-economic issues in Morocco. In this, it has had some limited success. PJD acknowledges that the state in Morocco is “based on ‘sharifian lineage’ as a source for legitimacy, not as a source of power.”25 The PJD’s position is markedly different from the banned al-‘Adl, which in the past challenged the religious authority of the monarch. The PJD instead accepts the religious capital of the regime as a key element of the Moroccan system:

We [PJD] support it [religious authority of the monarchy]. The religious authority is strong, and if it was divided, then it will lead to endless mazes and labyrinths. Religious authority is with his majesty as the commander of the faithful. He has the authority and he has to seek counsel from politicians, and religious scholars. This authority is important to unify the ummah (Muslim community) in Morocco, because Moroccans have always feared division. Morocco is perhaps one of the few Muslim countries with one madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), the Maliki madhab. This unity is a key element of our existence as a state. 26

The PJD’s strategy involves not just winning some measure of state power, but also attempting to capture society by institutional, intellectual, and moral means. In this regard, the PJD’s strategy is a product of playing “games in multiple arenas,” as it simultaneously works within the rules while seeking to modify them.27

Morocco is still a carefully engineered political edifice. However, there is a palpable change in the political scene and discourse. The PJD is restoring some popular confidence in the ability of political parties to provide some measured solutions to societal problems, especially among the marginalized and alienated segments of the population in Morocco. The regime is firmly entrenched and shows no signs of deep democratic reforms, but for now, Moroccans, at least those who voted in the 2011 legislative elections and recent local elections, seem to favor good governance, transparency, and social justice discourse over deep democratic institutional reforms.


Islamists face a monarchical regime that has largely managed to pacify the public through cosmetic reforms and an appeal to a national religious identity. The regime’s religious authority has proved difficult to challenge for oppositional movements, including the protest movement, and the Islamists, especially during the tumultuous early months of the Arab uprisings. Indeed, the monarch’s religious status is as formidable as his temporal institutional status. While the “Moroccan Spring” has stalled, the dual challenge of the February 20th movement and al-‘Adl have nonetheless managed to demystify the monarchy ever so slightly, making the king a potentially vulnerable subject of criticism. But criticism is not particularly destabilizing, the monarchy has in the past allowed a small space for dissent, and the regime has proved resilient in dealing with different challenges in the post-independence era. The monarchy will continue to guarantee stability and the status quo for a long time, especially amidst challenging regional security issues that have kept a lot of Moroccans at home and wary of the streets for fear of a Syrian or a Libyan scenario.

Faced with a carefully crafted regime, Islamist movements in Morocco had to adapt their strategies. The results of the referendum and the legislative elections of 2011 have presented the PJD as an opposition and reformist force with the political opportunity to effect socio-economic change, albeit in a limited fashion, and within the confines of an increasingly coercive state. The recent state crackdown on various protests (e.g., the teacher students demonstration in January 2016), and the general constraints on freedom of the press only serve to tighten the state’s grip on civil society. State repression, though not sanctioned by the PJD-led government, but by the palace-controlled Ministry of the Interior, threaten the PJD’s popularity and cast it as an accomplice in repression.

Yet the PJD seems to be drawing dividends from its "refo-lutionary" strategy as it continues to work within the system for socio-economic reforms. Al-‘Adl is still a prisoner of its own rejectionist paradigm, which presents it with a dilemma: either follow in the footsteps of the PJD and embrace the political system with its known defects or continue to be on the margin of society looking for political opportunities to challenge the regime. For now, al-‘Adl has ceded the way to the PJD, which is showing that Islamists can partake in politics and provide a real alternative to change despite constitutional and institutional constraints.