Militant Islam in Morocco: The Perils of Exclusion and the Risks of Inclusion

Azzedine Layachi

© Working Paper, 2002, Azzedine Layachi


The Islamist movement in North Africa goes back to well before this century when it was mostly reformist in nature and willing to work toward its objectives within the existing order. It is only in this century, starting in the 1920s in Egypt, that radical Islamist movements have aimed at replacing the existing domestic systems with societal and political orders based on a strict interpretation of the Qur'an, the Hadith and the Sunna (saying and deeds of prophet Mohammed), and ruled by the Shari'a (Islamic legal principles). Also, in the last two decades, there has been a proliferation of radical Islamist groups willing to use violence and to spread fear in order to destabilize governments and to end Western encroachment in the region. These violent groups are few and very small within the overall Islamist movement, but their bold actions have caught the media's and the public's attention. This has in turn prompted both scholars (e.g., Gill Keppel) and political leaders to re-examine the Islamist phenomenon, which was previously regarded as declining and passing with the advance of modernization and secularization. The attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, which was attributed to an Islamist network let by Oussama Ben Ladin's al-Qa'ida, makes this re-examination even more urgent for both the West and the countries which have faced the Islamist challenge in recent years, including Morocco which has a substantial Islamist movement that it has always been able to keep under control. This article examines the nature of this movement in the Moroccan kingdom and the way it has been dealt with by the state and the monarchy. It also tackles the question of whether the political and economic liberalization process which began a few years ago will be able to check or accommodate the most radical expressions of such a movement.

The Foundations and Nature of the Islamist Movement

As an ideology and a political movement, Islamism - just like similar movements in other religions - aims at restructuring society on a religious basis. It is inspired by uncompromisable dogmas and actively seeks to bring about rapid and comprehensive change. Its militants believe that their actions are ordered by a transcendental authority.1 For them religion is both a key factor of identity and a framework of social order.

The Islamist movement thrives on a strong criticism of home rulers and regimes and a desire to bring about change. It strongly opposes Western entrenchment and influence in the Muslim world. Its ideology rejects the Western culture as secular, immoral and corrupting, and contains a strong opposition to Israel and its existence on Arab land. This ideology includes also a transnational feeling which asserts uniqueness on the basis of religion, and a desire for real independence from the West and for a vaguely defined Islamic Umma (worldwide Muslim community). It is inspired not only by the prevalent weakness of the Arab and Muslim worlds vis-a-vis the West, Judaism and Christianity, but also by past events such as the Crusades, colonialism, and even the 1991 Gulf War which increased this sentiment even more.

As a manifestation of serious problems facing the Muslim and Arab countries, including Morocco, Islamism is just one among many protagonists in a crisis that cannot be reduced to a simple opposition between secular regimes and religious groups, or between Muslim forces and the non-Muslim world. Such reductionism not only produces inadequate and simplistic explanations, but also reinforces a prevalent misunderstanding of the Islamist phenomenon. Also, knowledge about one Islamist group in a given country cannot be generalized to all Islamist groups in that country and beyond because there is a wide range of Islamist views on a host of issues, including the means and ways to attain power, how to govern, and the relationship between Islam, on one hand, and democracy and modernity, on the other.

The Causes of Islamism in Morocco

The main causes of the Islamist protest in Morocco are primarily domestic. They are numerous and mutually supportive. The precarious socio-economic conditions constituted the most important springboard for the birth and activism of Islamism in Morocco; they provided the movement with a large pool of young people who were unhappy with their living conditions and with the regime. The bulk of the movement grew mostly in poor urban neighborhoods, but also extended its reach to members of the middle class who saw their living standards and quality of life decline in the last decade or two. Through a meticulous grassroots work, the Islamists turned thousands of people into active militants or sympathizers. As a social and political movement, Islamism became primarily an opposition to the regime which it blames for the failure of development policies, injustice, inequity, and the growing of the influence of Western culture.

The rise of the Islamist movement corresponded also to a marked decline of the secular opposition, which was itself caused mainly by repression and manipulations by the monarchy. Under the justification of national integrity and economic development, which required unity, the monarchy inhibited political dissent and asserted its hegemony over society. The most challenging opposition figures were jailed, pushed into foreign exile or eliminated. Independent civic and professional associations, student organizations and unions were either disbanded, co-opted, or put under state control. Moreover, the legislature had no power of its own, and the media were under strict state control. The consequent ideological and institutional vacuum was easily filled by religious slogans and networks that offered a radically different social and political project. With the combination of calls for democratization and religious revival, the Islamists pushed for the widening of the arena of political participation by making more people involved. Members of the governing elites played a facilitating role by manipulating religious groups and symbols. They often used the Islamist sentiment against the secular left and vice versa. However, in the end, the monarchy managed to strike a delicate balance between the two tendencies by way of a constantly shifting game of repression and tolerance of one at a time, or both at once.

The External Factors

Several external factors and events also contributed to the rise of Islamism in Morocco and elsewhere. At the ideological level, the most important doctrinal influence came from the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and thinkers such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyedd Qutb. The Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979 also provided a strong inspiration as a successful challenge to secularism, authoritarianism and Western encroachment in Muslim land. The ensuing support of Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states and Sudan to Sunni groups (to counterbalance the rising Shiite activism inspired by the Iranian revolution) helped the Moroccan Islamist movement establish its infrastructure. The war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s served as a training ground for Muslim volunteers, and the victory of the mujahedeen (holy warriors) strengthened the faith of many young North Africans in their ability to overthrow an existing order.

In 1990 and 1991, the Gulf crisis helped enhance the mobilizing potential of the Islamists and increased tensions between a society that sided with Iraq and a regime that contributed 2,000 troops to the American-led international coalition against Iraq. During that crisis, the Islamists articulated the popular pro-Iraq sentiments, recruited more people and increased their movement's visibility with impunity. On February 7, 1991, the Islamists participated for the first time in Morocco in a massive pro-Iraqi demonstration without governmental reprisal. For the first time, they appeared as a legitimate force alongside the secular opposition. Finally, the public visibility and mobilization of the Islamists was also encouraged by the fall of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, and by persistent Western calls for democratization.

The Early Restraints on Militant Islam

Militant Islam began in Morocco in the 1970s when, in the midst of an economic crisis Abdesslam Yacine, a school teacher, openly challenged not only King Hassan's policies and style of government, but also his claim to religious and traditional leadership. This action led to Yacine's internment for many years in a psychiatric hospital and in jail thereafter, and his placement under house arrest until 2000.

The Islamist challenge on Morocco was always contained, thanks to a series measures and circumstances, and has not been able to match the mobilizing power of its counterparts in the region (Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt). Various factors inhibited its full development in the last twenty years. Its biggest obstacle was a monarchy based on traditional and religious legitimacy and controlled by an autocratic monarch, the late King Hassan II, for 38 years. King Hassan, who claimed to be amir al-mu'minin (commander of the faithful), made it difficult for the Islamist movement to gather momentum. He made the monarchy the center of the political system, and governed with a mix of relative political pluralism and authoritarianism. Starting the early 1970s, he kept the Islamists in check by repressive measures and a tight control of the religious sphere and its symbols. He established a whole system of expression of "official Islam" through the promotion of non-political religious organizations (such as Da'wa, which he also used against the secular left), and the re-activation and control of the then dormant Council of Ulama (religious scholars). Moreover, he balanced modernist actions by religious measures, such as the enactment of a conservative Code of Personal Status (Mudawana), the imposition of prayer in school, and the creation of Qur'anic schools.

Islamist Revival in the 1990s

Contrary to the anticipated effect, the Islamist movement took advantage of this invigorated religious life and continued to develop as a moral force. Just like in Egypt, Algeria and Tunisia, it increased its appeal by way of social and charitable actions, by taking up the demands and grievances of the poor and the students, and by denouncing the corrupt elements among the governing elite.

By assisting the sick, the widowed and the unemployed, they have gained followers in the shanty towns in Tangier, Rabat and Casablanca. Their charities run blood banks and help people organize funerals. [On Aid al-Adha,] they offer lamb or mutton to the poor. [They also] have been steadily reaching into the educational system, enlisting high school teachers and university students.2

Among the factors that contributed to their attraction as a movement of social protest, economic and social difficulties are by far the most important. In the last half of the 1990s, the country was rocked by a stream of strikes among university professors, doctors, student, and railroad, airline and bank workers. Taking advantage of the socio-economic crisis, the Islamist movement established, slowly and systematically, important networks in major cities, and gradually increased its pressure for change after the succession of Mohamed VI to the throne. In the context of renewed socio-economic difficulties, the Islamists rebounded and their appeal increased.

Other factors behind this revival of militant Islam include: the persistent failure of the tolerated opposition (both right and left) to articulate societal demands and grievances; the relative gains in the protection of human rights; the recent institutional reforms which increased the hope for the legal existence of Islamist parties; and the Islamists rebellion in Algeria which pushed the government there to allow the legal representation of the Islamist tendency in parliament and in the government.

A Managed Threat

It is somewhat paradoxical that, in the last two decades, and in spite of serious socio-economic difficulties and a moderate challenge from the Islamist opposition, Morocco has known political stability. Even though the country seemed to be on the verge of an impending social explosion in the last half of the 1990s, the power of the king and the stability of the regime were never at risk. Starting in 1996, the country engaged in a series of institutional reforms that gave an additional respite from the ever-impending crisis, which many observers have been predicting for years. What seems to have helped avert the worst scenario were the way the monarchy has ruled Morocco in the last three decades and how it managed the crises. The monarchical rule has been characterized by a measured mix of authoritarianism and relative political opening which culminated in the late 1990s in a gradual and peaceful reform process.

In the last two years of his life, King Hassan II enacted important institutional changes, allowed the opposition to form a government, and permitted, for the first time, a token Islamist representation in parliament. These changes came as a result of several factors, including strong domestic and international pressures; fears instilled by the Algerian social rebellion; and a need to co-opt even further the leftist opposition in preparation for the succession of his son to the throne. Such opposition may have caused serious problem to a young and inexperienced king if it had remained on the outside.

King Hassan's last minute strategy of relative political inclusion seems to have worked. It neutralized the left even more and made it share the blame for people's economic hardship. One the most important challenges that the new king had to worry about after taking over was that of the Islamists (maybe the military in the future). His current campaign against social ills and poverty are partly intended to hinder the Islamist action in that area. As for the military, their views and positions remain unknown, at least until the Western Sahara question is resolved.3

The transition to a government by the former opposition in 1998 and to a new monarch shortly thereafter raised great hope that Morocco was well on its way to a democratic system of governance. However, actual change has been slow since a heterogeneous coalition, led by the Popular Union of Socialist Forces (USFP), came to power. Under the leadership of Abderahmane Youssoufi, the government discovered the frustration of having to face a host of problems with little means and power. As for the new king, after a period of honeymoon with both society and the socialist-led government, he seems to be resisting with great pain the urge to revert to the repression of the past. Those who took the risk of testing the limits of dissent tolerance met a swift reaction from the system (e.g., newspapers were closed and their editors jailed or fined). However, it is important to note that both the monarchy and the state have, so far, avoided, a direct confrontation with the Islamist movement. The tolerated (i.e., moderate) groups, while being closely watched, have been allowed to lead social protest and to consolidate their appeal. But, the young monarch has been actively seeking to upstage them by tackling directly and constantly some of their main issues, such as poverty and social justice.

The Main Religious Groups

There are today in Morocco some 150 a-political religious associations working peacefully on islamizing society through Da'wa (preaching), and there are more than two dozens of religious associations that are more or less politicized, some of which are affiliated with international Islamist movements, while others are exclusively local.

Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence), which was banned in 1989, is the most popular political organization; it influence has increased tremendously in recent years. Claiming moderation and legalism, it has benefited from the implosion of other Islamist factions by recruiting their members and by continuing to attract the sympathy of young and disaffected urban dwellers. It has penetrated various parts of society, especially the poor neighborhoods and the schools and universities of major cities (Casablanca, Fès, Meknès. Marrakesh and Rabat) and has recruited educated urban professionals. This association officially rejects the use of violence and does not attack the regime directly. It denounces social injustice and ethical degradation, calls for a return, though legal means, to the "rule of God," and criticizes the leftist parties. It seeks the right to form a political party that abides by the constitution. It identifies itself more with its Algerian counterparts Harakat Mujtama'a al-Silm (Movement of Society for Peace, previously known as Hamas) and Harakat al-Nahda (Renaissance Movement)--which are perceived as moderate Islamist parties. It does not seem to have affinities with the radical Algerian al-Jama'at al-Islamiyya al-Moussalaha (Armed Islamic Groups, known as GIA, with alleged links to Oussama Ben Laden's al-Qa'ida organization) which wants to conquer power by violence and is responsible for the death of thousands of people in Algeria since 1992.

Jam'iyat al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya (Association of Islamic Youth), created by Abdelkrim Mout'I4 and Kamel Ibrahim in 1970, rejects the existing order and seeks a radical change. It has, however, lost most of its core membership and structure since the mid-1980s due to repression, factionalism and divergent visions on how to achieve its aim. Some of its former members dissented and created in 1981 Al-Jama'a al-Islamiyya, which distanced itself from the confrontational attitude of the former and turned its attacks against the Westernized elite instead of the monarchy.

Another association, al-Tabligh Oual-Da'awa Lillah born in 1965, seeks the revival of the Islamic Umma and the implementation of the Shari'a by peaceful means. It has several thousand members among the urban dwellers.

Finally, Al-Rabita (the League) is a benevolent religious association which does exclusively social and humanitarian works. However, its principal task is that of protecting the interests of the Shurafa5 and their descendants and to strengthen their brotherly relations.6

Most Islamist associations born in the 1970s "have evolved toward an 'Islamism of compromise' with the regime. Many known leaders have chosen the strategy of 'pressure' for the moralization of the political and socio-cultural life."7 Several radical organizations (e.g., Jam'iyyat al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya) were subdued by repression and weakened by internal division and their inability to mobilize people. However, a few ultra-radical Islamist groups - some of which are suspected of having affinities with the Algerian GIA and al-Qa'ida - may still be waiting for the opportune time to act. Although King Hassan was able to co-opt, coerce and contain the most visible manifestation of Islamism, the potential threat of militant Islam remains a possibility, even if remote for now.8 However, this may change if the economic and social conditions worsen, and if the Islamists move from the margins to the center of the political field through organized political action,9 and if the system fails to allow or encourage the development of a credible secular opposition; its absence can encourage a dangerous radicalism.


In North Africa, the Moroccan Islamists have posed the least threat to the ruling regime, maybe because they were particularly targeted for control and harsh sanctions. The challenges facing the monarchy and the state today are numerous and the Islamists constitute only one of them. If it is ever faced by an uncontrollable societal challenge, the monarchy may return to an absolute reign in spite of the promising institutional changes of the last few years. A regression in political openness due to threats posed by radical Islamists will lead, unfortunately, to the muzzling of all opposition, just as has happened in Algeria and Tunisia in the 1990s.

It is important that the current reformist momentum be maintained and that the state and the monarchy offer more avenues for the peaceful expression of dissent from all tendencies. This may prove to be a powerful way of inhibiting the radical urges of some social movements. The recent and incremental increase in relative political freedom have helped Morocco overcome a major political malaise that went back to the failed 1993 parliamentary elections. This incremental change has included a host of positive steps such as the freeing of hundreds of political prisoners, the improvement in human rights conditions, and the empowerment of the socialist opposition.

Political Islam appears to gain ground at times of economic deprivation, social exclusion, lack of political representation, and a deficiency of the secular opposition. While relative political liberalization has generally excluded the Islamists, economic liberalization has contributed to swelling their ranks. In the past, the state and the monarchy reacted to the Islamist surge with coercive measures and also with an attempt to regain what they had lost to "popular Islam," notably by investing more in religious institutions, modernizing religious teaching, and by increasing the use of religious slogans in the media. But this strategy worked to the advantage of the Islamist opposition.

As an ideological and a political force, Islamism is deeply imbedded in the Moroccan society. Whether it will attain its objectives or not will depend on several factors. The longer the economic and social crisis lasts and the more the living conditions worsen for most people, the more attractive the Islamist movement will become. The ability of monarchy and the government to solve the crisis and to halt the erosion of their own legitimacy become thus crucial for the curtailment of the revolutionary fervor and appeal of the Islamists. Moreover, the secular opposition needs to be more effective in the aggregation and articulation of popular grievances if it wishes to regain the appeal it has lost to political apathy or to the Islamists. Finally, since the Islamist tendency is strongly imbedded in the social and ideological landscape of Morocco, its moderate expression must be allowed to partake in the political process. This may help marginalize the radical tendencies while lending more legitimacy to such process.

However, as a protest movement, moderate Islamism is likely to take advantage of any inclusionary policy and may not allow such opening to remain solely a symbolic gesture or a regime survival tactic. Once entrenched in the political institutions and processes, militant Islam will continue working on implementing its agenda, but this time from within the system and within safeguards which a democratizing polity ought to put in place well ahead.


1. This definition owes its inspiration to the generic definition of fundamentalism given by Ian Lustick, For The Lord and the Land: Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, (New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1988), p. 6.

2. Marlise Simons, "Morocco Finds Fundamentalism Benign but Scary," in New York Times (April 9, 1998).

3. See Azzedine Layachi, "State-Society Relations and Change in Morocco," in Azzedine Layachi, ed., Economic Crisis and Political Change in North Africa, (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), pp. 89-105

4. Abdelkrim Mut'i has been living in exile - probably in Belgium - since December 1975, around the time of the assassination of Omar Ben Jelloun, the editor of the socialist newspaper al-Muharrir and a prominent Marxist intellectuals in Morocco. The government accused the Jam'iyat al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya of Mut'i of having committed his murder. See Henry Munson, Religion and Power in Morocco, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993), pp. 160-161.

5. For a succinct discussion of the Shurafa, see A. Agnouche, "Les Chorfas Face à l''Etat de Droit' dans le Maroc Contemporain," in Santucci, Jean-Claude, ed., Le Maroc Actuel: Une Modernisation au Miroir de la Tradition? (Paris: CNRS, 1992), pp. 273-283. The Shurafa are people who claim descent from prophet Muhamad; they have a social-political function and several important privileges, including not being liable before a regular court of law, and not having to pay taxes. In the 1960s, the Shurafa organized in the form of a Rabita, or confederation of associations for the purpose of defending their interests.

6. A. Agnouche, "Les Charfa Face à l'"Etat de Droit," Op. cit.

7. Abderrahim Lamchichi, "Les incertitudes politiques et sociales: L'Islamism s'enracine au Maroc," in Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1996, pp. 10-11.

8. An attack in a luxury hotel in Marrakesh in August 1994 which killed two Spanish tourists, and the ensuing court trials of people linked to the attack, are an indication of the potential radicalization of the Moroccan Islamist movement, especially in connection with other radical networks in the Maghreb and Europe.

9. Emad Eldin Shahin, "Secularism and Nationalism: The Political Discourse of Abd al-Salam Yassin," in John Ruedy, ed., Islamism and Secularism in North Africa, (New York: St. Martin Press, 1996), p. 184.

Website © 2002-19 National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education.

This website is compliant with the XHTML 1.0 standard as defined by the W3C.

Valid XHTML1.0!