Takfir in Morocco

There is an interesting if rather confused piece about takfir movements in Morocco in this month's English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique. It's interesting because these movements have drawn little attention in Morocco, since they were born in Egypt in the 1970s and for the most part have not had a very public role elsewhere. They also show the multi-faceted nature of Islamic fundamentalism, with so many factions and different offshoots that it reminds me of the "People's Front of Judea/Judean People's Front/Popular Front of Judea" skit in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

However, I found the article rather confused because while the headline, "Morocco: slums breed jihad" would lead one to suspect that the argument is that poverty breeds terrorism, most of the article is devoted to explaining the beliefs of the takfiris and the networks they've created. This is an old dispute when we talk about Islamist terrorism: is the idea in itself violent or is it conditions of living that inspire violence? While the answer is probably a mixture of both, I tend towards the first option. It may be popular to point to the Arab world as have failed its development and try to explain violence as the result of "arrested development", but in many cases the key advocates of violence were not particularly poor: think of Muhammad Atta, son of a comfortably middle class engineer, Ayman Zawahri, scion of a prominent family of doctors and theologians, or even Osama Bin Laden, heir to a vast fortune and playboy millionaire until he found his calling. (At the same time, think of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and his origins in Jordanian slums.)

In other words, poverty breeds conditions when idle young men who see limited horizons in front of them may be tempted by a radical ideology. But the ideology has to be there in the first place. And here it's important to distinguish between the many different types of Islamism, some reformist, some conservative, some democratic, some autocratic, some progressive, others backwards.

For those who don't know what takfir is, here is a long explanation from the article:

The bomb blast at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba last month confirmed that the cause of global jihad is no longer confined to peripheral areas such as Afghanistan, Chechnya or former Yugoslavia. It is now striking at the heart of the Arab Muslim world, with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco directly in the firing line.


The bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 revealed the existence of a new form of fundamentalism - takfir. Takfirists are no longer content to fight the United States or the "Zionist entity"; they brand Muslim leaders, and all their direct or indirect supporters, as infidels (kafir) and condemn them as apostates. They preach political violence as a means of forcing states to return "to the laws of God and the society of the Prophet of original Islam". Their aim is not only to overturn unpopular and corrupt regimes but to cleanse the existing political order.


The movement Takfir wal-Hijra emerged in the 1970s after a split in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; it has inspired one of the main ideologies of violence in the Muslim world, especially since the early 1990s. It is sometimes referred to as "Takfiri Salafism" and it constitutes a clear break with other Islamist movements that are prepared to engage if necessary in legal political activity aimed at establishing an Islamic state through the ballot box.


The importance that Takfirist doctrine has assumed for armed groups reflects a deep gulf between this extreme fringe of Islamism and countries that are themselves rooted in traditional Islam. In Morocco, where the king is regarded as a descendant of the Prophet, we are witnessing a shift in the boundary between jihadists and their targets within Muslim society. A few weeks before the attacks of May 2003 fundamentalist groups issued a declaration of apostasy against the Moroccan state and Moroccan society and distributed it in mosques in slum districts of Casablanca.


A Salafist activist spoke of Mohamed Fizazi, 57, a primary school teacher, the Moroccan Takfirists’ "theoretician", who was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in August 2003. He said: "Fizazi was found guilty of pronouncing the Muslim profession of faith [There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet] differently from others." This comment demonstrates how the Takfirists’ relationship with Islam has changed and how other Muslims are now considered heretics.

An inquiry conducted after the Casablanca attacks (like the investigation into the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 in Spain) revealed that most Takfirist groups originate in the shanty towns and disintegrating districts of Casablanca, Meknes, Fez and Tangiers. It also showed that extremist groups have a solid, active local base and are not just dormant cells waiting to respond to commands from al-Qaida, even if Osama bin Laden’s network has played a major role in providing logistic support and formulating strategy.


Figures for 2002, when more than 166 civilians were assassinated, suggest the extent of Takfirist violence in Morocco. But mass media have taken care not to publicise them and do not much cover the violence, which usually happens in the poor districts. The autonomous activities of local gangleaders - self-proclaimed "emirs" such as Fikri in Douar Sekouila on the outskirts of Casablanca and Rebaa, a militia leader in the Meknes suburbs, and some dozen others heading local groups - show they act on their own initiative and not always on instructions from somewhere in Afghanistan.


The Takfirists are part of a new generation of Islamic fundamentalists from Morocco’s urban slums. Their strongholds are what locals call al-karyan, the disused quarries in industrial zones left to decay after independence in 1956. The shanty towns that have mushroomed there in the past 20-30 years are home to uprooted landless peasants, victims of a rural exodus. Most Takfirists, like the suicide bombers of 16 May, are karyanis, from a class of social outcasts living in the shanty towns.


All of which reminds me of a good friend of mine who was walking down the street of a poor quarter of Cairo with a Muslim Brotherhood activist. A man with a long black beard dressed in traditional robes -- the marks of the ultra-pious -- walks by them and throws a dirty look at the Muslim Brotherhood activist. "He's a member of takfir wa al hijra," the Brother says. Then he added, with an air of contempt, "extremist!"

The point is that there is a real effort that can be done to curb extremism by closing down the sources of funding for the real extremists (mostly Saudi Arabia) while engaging other Islamists in a political dialogue even if some of their ideas are distasteful (as they are to me). In most Arab countries, this is not being done.

P.S. At the risk of contradicting what I said above, I'm also pasting an article I wrote a few months after the 16 May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that looks at the slums from which most of the bombers came on the day of a local election. Click "more" below to see the story.



Morocco torn between security and democracy

Issandr El Amrani in Rabat and Casablanca

Five months after the 16 May Casablanca bombings that took over 40 lives -- the first Islamist terror attacks in the country -- Moroccans find themselves at a critical juncture on the road to democratization.


One the one hand, many are eager to continue the democratization process started towards the end of the reign of King Hassan II and that was given a boost by King Muhammad VI when he ascended upon the throne. Feisty opposition newspapers and new political parties flourished.

But the transition period was short-lived. Soon after the September 11 attacks on America, security forces began to regain their influence as the kingdom’s traditional elite -- the makhzen -- began to worry that Al Qaeda’s ideas may spread to Morocco too. By the time the 16 May attacks took place, democratization was put on hold.


Some of the educated, Westernized middle class began to think that the democratization process was flawed because it allowed too much freedom for Islamists to operate, including, for the first time, the right for moderates to create their own “Justice and Development” party, the PJD, which is now the third largest party in parliament.


“The king wanted his democracy so much,” lamented one pharmacist in Rabat. “But now he can’t, not with these Islamists.


This reaction is not untypical among Moroccans, for whom the 16 May attacks shattered the conceit that Morocco was protected from the violent politics of neighboring Algeria, which has been hostage to a bloody civil war between the ruling military junta and Islamists for the past decade.


The change in mindset has even been given a name, “l’apres seize mai” -- the post-16 May era. Many people here have even began to refer to the date much like Americans say 9/11, as a symbol of a critical watershed.


Hence, the heavy-handed approach the security forces have taken after the attacks, cracking down on the entire Islamist movement and arrested 1046 persons -- many more than could have plausibly been involved with the attacks -- was met with public approval. A blind eye was turned to the obvious flaws with the lightning trials of those who were arrested, during which judges ignored defendants’ claims that they were tortured to sign confessions.


The crackdown by the security services is seen by others as a wrong-headed approach, though, focusing on repressing dissent rather than dealing with its roots -- the country’s chronic social problems.


In Sidi Moumen, the suburb of Casablanca where the 16 May bombers lived, it’s easy to see what may have led them to embrace radical ideas. There, an entire shantytown sprawls out on top of a garbage heap. Cattle live in the same rickety shacks as people and graze on the garbage, eating rotting vegetable peel and other organic refuse. Electricity is pirated from nearby power lines, and there is no running water, only one central public fountain.


“They said after 16 May that they would improve things for us,” said Muhammad, a local carpenter. “But the only thing that they’ve done is build streetlights, and the only reason they did that is so they could better watch us.”


On 12 September, the residents of Sidi Moumen, like the rest of the country voted in for local council elections. But apathy in this neighborhood was rife, with many people saying they would not bother to vote, as “it wouldn’t make any difference anyway.”


Even among those who voted, there was disapointment that the PJD did not present itself in the constituency, where it is very popular. Although it came third in parliamentary elections in 2002, the PJD only presented itself in 20% of constituencies in last week’s local elections under pressure from the authorities.


Soufiane, a 19-year-old student from Sidi Moumen, voted for the first time in the recent elections. Dressed in traditional white robes and wearing the embroided white hat favored by the pious, he said he wished he could have voted for the PJD. The other parties, he said, had never done anything for Sidi Moumen.


“We don’t have cybercafes, we don’t have a youth center,” he complained. “The only options [for young people] are drugs or fanaticism.”


The king and his government have made dealing with unsanitary housing, unemployment and education priorities. But critics say change is coming too slow, with the rise of extremism representing a ticking time bomb.


“How can we hope to win this the war against the cancer of terrorism while only relying on methods that disregard the law?” wrote Abou Bakr Jamai, the editor of the weekly Le Journal, Morocco’s most critical newspaper. “Equality, respect for the law and democracy are the ingredients that strengthen a society. It’s by injecting these medecines that we can rid ourselves of the tumors of terrorism.”

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.