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Reviews of Islamism in Morocco: Religion, Authoritarianism, and Electoral Politics

“In an insightful analysis (an updated translation), Zeghal … describes the complex political competition primarily contested by monarchs, ulama, and Islamists in Morocco to define and determine ‘public Islam.’ The author presents a constellation of actors — Sufis, sharifs, and salafis as well as kings. Hassan II, Muhammad VI, Allal al-Fassi, Abdessalam and Nadia Yassine, and the al-Kittani family receive particular attention. Zeghal especially examines the monarch’s traditional role of political arbiter, monopolizing power and fragmenting opposition, as exemplified by the legalization of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development in the late 1990s to neutralize the Justice and Benevolence Movement. The 2003 terrorist bombings forced King Muhammad VI to project a greater authoritative role as ‘commander of the faithful.’ Nevertheless, the current condition of state Islam has significantly ‘shifted the definition of Islam toward a bureaucracy rather than focusing it on the … monarch, his public piety and genealogy.’ Specialists will appreciate this detailed book. Includes a glossary. Summing Up: Highly recommended.” — Choice

“Tip O’Neill would have appreciated this shrewd study of how Islamism has evolved in Morocco. Malika Zeghal shows how important it is to understand the ‘local,’ specifically the structure of national politics. Islamism may look similar around the globe but its genesis, and therefore its trajectory, can differ profoundly from country to country. In Morocco, Zeghal contends, the king’s opening of the political system in the 1990s led to Islam becoming more, not less, politicized. Islamists increasingly question the king’s ‘fiction,’ to use Zeghal’s daring word, that he, his people, and their faith are one (p. xiv).

“The Moroccan monarchy’s model of authority derives from Sufism. Just as a charismatic Sufi master requires obedience from his disciples, so the king, a descendant of the prophet, commands the submission of believers. The opposing model is Salafism, an orthodox reform movement that brought conservative Wahhabi doctrine to Morocco from the Middle East in the late nineteenth century. Hostile to cults around saints’ tombs, which they consider polytheistic, Salafists stand for the power of the clergy to interpret texts for the community or umma. Just before Morocco’s independence in 1956, Salafists, monarchists, and nationalists tended to be good bedfellows, and Sufis were the outsiders. In the post-1990 phase of this political story, four principal actors have emerged: the monarchy (known locally as the makhzeri), the ‘ulama (Muslim jurists now largely absorbed in the state bureaucracy), and two main groups of Islamists. Justice and Benevolence, a movement rather than a party, is headed by Sheikh Yassine, an eighty-two-year-old Sufi master. Yassine is famous for personally berating Morocco’s kings as corrupt and ignorant of Islam; among Islamists he is uniquely successful in allying mysticism to politics. The Justice and Development Party [PJD], on the other hand, is a legal Islamist political party whose candidates campaign for public office; it tends to follow the Salafist model of political authority. However, because all these games-players have taken a range of political positions over time, it would be a mistake, Zeghal argues, to expect ideological consistency from any one of them.

“The late king Hassan II created a new political landscape in the 1990s when he first opened the political arena to multiple political parties. He did so because he hoped competition for office would neutralize both left-wing and Islamist challenges to his rule. His gamble did pay off for a while, but pluralism and more open public debate also led to proliferating interpretations of Islam and the creation of more Muslim political parties. After ascending to the throne in 1999, Mohammed VI, Hassan’s son and successor, rarely intervened among these ‘new religious entrepreneurs turned competitors’ for ‘authoritarian’ power (p. 213).

“But the Casablanca bombings on May 16, 2003, changed all that. After young men from a shantytown targeted buildings associated with ‘Zionists’ and ‘crusaders’ (p. 220), the king began trying to use the government’s bureaucracy to rehabilitate popular and mystical Islam as the truly Moroccan national faith. Political liberalization, in short, is not depoliticizing Islam. It has simply changed the way both Islamists and the monarchy frame their political discourse. Neither has jettisoned a religious frame of reference.

“The kingdom’s educational and employment policies helped generate this political recourse to faith. Hassan II pumped money into largely Arabophone state universities, especially his own theological college Dar al-Hadith al-Hassaniya, but not all graduates can find jobs. Those who succeed tend to be the Francophone children of notables. Proletarians and children of peasants are poorly educated, unemployed, and angry, ripe for recruitment by groups like the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group. These new freelance clerics hate external enemies like the United States, Israel, and the West generally. They may save their greatest enmity, though, for the makhzen’s efforts to exert control over all religious authorities through the Council of ‘Ulama and the Minister of Religious Affairs.

“A French-trained political scientist teaching anthropology and sociology of religion at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, Zeghal has written a fairly dispassionate study of highly emotive issues. Some Islamists would probably call her analytical framework too light on moral principle and too heavy on power politics, but her language tends to be temperate. (She lapses occasionally, as when she writes that Sheikh Yassine fosters ‘illusions’ of religious intensity [p. 81].) She seems to favor none of the actors on the Moroccan political scene, except perhaps one politician within the ‘Islamist mosaic’ (p. 174), Ahmad Raysuni, who tries to make Islam more present in daily life without advocating an Islamic state. Zeghal’s argument is based on wide reading in English, French, and Arabic. In addition to meeting with party and movement members, she conducted interviews with Islamists, ‘ulama, and students in three important cities: the official capital Rabat, the economic powerhouse Casablanca, and the former intellectual capital Fez.

“Islamism in Morocco puts on display its author’s training in political science more than her anthropological appointment. By focusing on power brokers and the changing structures within which they must work, she raises but does not answer questions about public opinion. One wants to know more about the relative popularity of the various political actors. One also wonders if she has sold short the current Minister of Religious Affairs, Ahmad Tawfiq, noted for his efforts to encourage a ‘tolerant’ and ‘authentic’ Moroccan Islam (p. 256), in the face of significant Saudi financial support for conservative Wahhabi preachers and mosques. Is it not possible to be Sufi and democratic in the modern world? Just because Sheikh Yassine’s movement demonstrates ‘totalizing if not totalitarian’ (p. 81) tendencies and because the monarchy is by definition authoritarian, is there really no hope for a democratically ‘tolerant’ as well as ‘authentic’ Moroccan Islam?” — Diana Wylie, African Studies Review

“During the 1990s, Moroccans used to follow the unfolding of violence in neighboring Algeria, where the electoral victory of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) had been nullified by the military, with a mixture of apprehension, revulsion, and relief. The stability of the Moroccan monarchy, it was widely agreed, had shielded Morocco from similar brutalization and anarchy. Conversely, the smooth transition of King Muhammad VI to the throne following the death of his father, Hassan II in the summer of 1999, was widely hailed as an indication of the durability of the Moroccan system. However, on May 16, 2003, Moroccans got their wake-up call to the challenge posed by radical Islamism, as a group of Al-Qaeda wannabes emerged from a Casablanca slum to wrack carnage in the center of the metropolis.

“The events of May 16, ‘Morocco’s 9/11,’ are discussed rather briefly in the last chapter of Malika Zeghal’s study of the Islamist phenomenon in contemporary Morocco. The bulk of that chapter deals with the responses of the monarchy to those events. It analyses the manner in which the King sought to, and to a large extent succeeded, in turning this direct challenge to his regime into an opportunity to redefine his role as ‘Commander of the Faithful.’ The main theme of the entire book concerns the changing patterns of relationship between the monarchy and other actors on the Moroccan political scene. In the first of three parts of the book, Zeghal, who teaches Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago [now Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Professor in Contemporary Islamic Thought and Life at Harvard University], leads the reader from the pre-colonial era at the turn of the twentieth century through the course of the dual protectorate, struggle for independence, and the long authoritarian reign of Hassan II.

“In this first part, Zeghal analyses the relationship between the monarchy and the modern Salafiyya movement, the religiously-inclined nucleus of the Istiqlal Party, and the divergent and divisive post-independent political system, which was manipulated by the palace to provide the King with ultimate arbitrary status. The focus of that part is on the relationship between the monarchy and theulama and on the manner in which changing patterns of affiliation between the two redefined Islam in the public sphere. ‘While it is quite clear that Islam is today not necessarily the keystone of the Moroccan monarchy’s legitimacy,’ states Zeghal, ‘it is just as clear that the regime continues to use Islam strategically.’ (5)

“The manner in which higher religious education (notably at the Qarawiyyin University in Fez) has been reformed during the course of the previous century is one of the numerous interesting topics of Part I. Royal patronage over the formal training of ‘ulama [Islamic scholars] implemented after independence by both Muhammad V and Hassan II, was part of a calculated policy to fragment institutional religion and deprive religious scholars of an independent powerbase. Ironically, the institutional fragmentation of the ‘ulama had been partly carried out by no other than ‘Allal al-Fasi, leader of Istiqlal and himself a salafi ‘alim, while he served as Minister of Islamic Affair during the early 1960s.

“The monarchy’s success in taming the ‘ulama as well as the secular political parties proved to be short-lived and counterproductive, however. New challenges from the ranks of the military (the two failed coups attempts of the early 1970s) threatened to undo the stability of an authoritarian regime whose severe repression of all opposition increased its isolation. It was amid that background in the early 1970s, that Morocco got introduced to the individual who for the next three and a half decades would personify most Moroccan Islamism.

“Part II of Islamism in Morocco focuses on the biography of Shaykh Abdesalam Yassine (and to a lesser extent that of his daughter Nadia) and on the movement he established, al-‘adl wa’l ihsan (“Justice and Benevolence”), which remains the best organized and most vocal extra-parliamentary Islamist voice in Morocco. It narrates the improbable rise of an obscure Ministry of Education employee and seeker of Sufi guidance who transformed himself into an admonisher of royalty and moral preacher. Incarcerated in a psychiatric ward and jailed for a number of years before being released and confined to house arrest, Yassine has attracted considerable popular followings and challenged the monarchy to seek new ways to recapture its religious authority.

“Part III is what makes Islamism in Morocco a truly invaluable reading for the student of Moroccan history and politics. It highlights the emergence of the Party of Justice and Development (PJD) during the 1990s and the manner in which it was incorporated within the electoral process. The decision to legitimize the PJD, but not al-‘adl wa’l ihsan, was part of a strategy employed by the regime aimed at fragmentizing the Islamist camp and containing its most radical component. However, better than expected performance on the part of the PJD in the parliamentary elections of 2002 (the first in which it had participated as a recognized party) forced the King to assume a more dominant role in politics. The anti-Islamist public sentiment at the wake of the shocking events of May 16, 2003 was used by Muhammad VI to reinstate the reform in the family code (mudawana), which had been derailed three years earlier by a massive Islamist demonstration.

“Chapter Eight [‘Theology and Politics: Differentiated Repertoires’] is of particular interest to this reader. It discusses the organizational and ideological origins of the PJD, as well as its pragmatic approach to power-sharing in a state which falls short of the Islamist ideal of a Shari’a-based polity. Disassociating the PJD from the label of a ‘religious party’ was an essential condition for its admission to the realm of legitimized electoral politics. However, in spite of attempting to distance itself from any radical Islamist agenda, the PJD has continued to be viewed with suspicion by the Moroccan political establishment and kept at arm’s length from membership in the government.

“The English version of Zeghal’s book contains an epilogue not included in the 2005 French original. It analyzes the elections of 2007 in which the PJD had been projected to win the majority of seats in Parliament, but in spite of winning a plurality of the votes, fell behind Istiqlal (gaining 46 seats to the latter’s 52). With quiet blessing from the Palace, Istiqlal opted to maintain the status quo by allying itself with the weakened center and leftist parties while keeping PJD in opposition. Thus, Morocco has maintained its ‘hybrid system of authoritarian government and free election.’ Hence, elections ‘now serve as democracy in performance,’ whose ‘main function is to regularly showcase for the Moroccan and international public what the monarchy calls the “democratic” or “transitional nature of the regime”‘ (262-263). This dual appearance has failed by-and-large to convince Moroccans, as attested by the low turnout (37%) in the 2007 elections. It cannot mask, concludes Zeghal, ‘the reality of a government that remains under the tight control of the monarchy.'” — Maghreb Review

“The nationalist movement in Morocco was conservative in nature, using Islamic rhetoric to mobilize the masses around the Alaouite throne. Threatened by the popularity of this movement, the French sent King Mohamed V into exile in 1953. The nationalist movement, however, spearheaded by the popular king, became an even more significant force. The French bowed to the political protest of nationalists, and the king returned from exile in 1955. The next year, Morocco triumphantly received its independence. Islam, as embodied in the person of the king, had triumphed over the foreign colonizers. In many books about this North African kingdom, the historical narrative ends there. But what happens after this glorious fairy tale ending? Did the king retain the loyalty of the elites who placed him at the head of the nationalist movement? Did the Moroccan monarch continue to act as the legitimate head of an Islamic polity? How did the Islamic rhetoric used by nationalists shape Morocco’s political system?

“By addressing these and a host of other significant questions about the structure of Moroccan governance, Malika Zeghlal’s Islamism in Morocco: Religion, Authoritarianism, and Electoral Politics fills an important gap in the history of Morocco’s political life. Zeghal provides readers with a broad overview of Moroccan history since independence as well as a lucid and interesting analysis of Islam’s role in the political life of this kingdom. She divides her work into three chronological periods. And yet, despite her focus on the past fifty years, she deftly roots contemporary Islamist movements into an analysis of Moroccan political actors and movements of the past.

“The first period on which the author focuses is the 1950s and 1960s. Zeghal describes in detail the tensions between the monarch and charismatic scholars-cum-nationalists, who, in the wake of independence, the king feared would become too powerful if provided with an institutional base. Mohamed V and his successor Hassan II implemented policies designed to fragment religious scholars. Zeghal reveals an effort by the monarch to undermine independent institutions of Islamic education at traditional universities, like Fez’s Qarawiyyin. The relations between the king and these scholars are described as ‘a tense, but in the end submissive relationship with the monarch’ (p. 6). Thus, the monarchy retained its key religious role in the political life of the kingdom.

“The second part of this book addresses the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, the monarchy received new religious challenges from outside the realm of traditional religious scholars. Zeghal shows that Sheikh Abdesselam Yassine is an intermediary figure between the nationalist ulama and the Islamists of today. In an open letter to the king, Yassine claimed Hassan II was not a legitimate religious leader of the Moroccan nation. In a close analysis of this letter, Zeghal shows how Yassine tried to desanctify the king. To preserve the power of the Alaoui dynasty against the threat of a charismatic leader, one tapping into a tradition of Sufism, Hassan II confined Yassine to prisons. And yet, Yassine drew a following, though one that refused to enter the official arena of politics.

“The monarch’s desire to neutralize Yassine’s movement was one consideration in opening up the electoral process to Islamists in the 1990s, which is the focus of Part Three of this book. Here, Zeghal focuses on the rise of the Islamist Justice and Development Party. Despite a new emphasis on party politics, Zeghal emphasizes that this does not mean there was an actual democratic liberalization of the regime, only that ‘the forms of authoritarianism … have been radically changed’ (p. 155). In opening up the political system, the state wanted to co-opt Islamists, forcing them to recognize the religious sanctity of the Alaouite monarchy. Mohamed VI continued his father’s policy, with Zeghal making the important point that elections don’t necessarily lead to the demise of a highly centralized govemment that she deems authoritarian in nature. The extensive sources used by Zeghal include both primary sources in Arabic as well as conversations with key political actors. Although Zeghal is an anthropologist by training, this work, which gives such a concise narrative of the past fifty years, offers an important contribution to the field of Moroccan history. It is also a must-read for all interested in the interconnection of religion and politics in the modem era ” — Stacy E. Holden, Purdue University, International Journal of African Historical Studies

Reviews of the French Edition:

“An analytic survey of great scope and a definite subtlety in classification … A book that provides both detailed analysis and synthetic scope, full of theoretical questions … doing justice to the complexity of the country and providing tools to analyze other national scenes.” — Maghreb-Machrek

“On the basis of a particularly detailed field investigation and a rigorous analysis … Malika Zeghal has established herself as one of the best experts on these issues.” — Alternatives Internationales

“Extremely rigorous and lucid, the book by Malika Zeghal, who is also the author of a work of reference on Egypt, includes a comparative dimension that makes her analysis of Morocco even more enlightening.” — Esprit

“This is a book filled with sharp analytical observations in regard to an important set of political and religious relationships as they impact on the performance of Moroccan state and society. One learns a great deal about ‘religion, authoritarianism, and electoral politics’ in Morocco, however much that knowledge leads to a problematic optimism. … an important study from which both students and scholars will benefit.” — International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies

“First published (in French) in 2005, this revised and updated translation, even in light of the fast-moving ‘Arab Spring’ in 2011, is a remarkably current and concise response to those who wonder if, how, or why the Moroccan government has escaped the popular scrutiny that has engulfed the Arab states to the east in recent months. The answer lies in a complex set of relationships, deeply rooted in the Moroccan past that has pitted the state and governmental authorities against religion and (fragmented) religious authority; provincial, regional, and state interests against international/pan-Islamic sentiments and influences; secular against religious education; and rural against urban civil societies, all in a chronological march across colonial Morocco, through early independence and into the late twentieth-century, second-coming of the Salafiyya.

“But much as this may be her frame of reference, Zeghal’s account is not one of mindless structuralism. Her story is woven around the careers and words of a handful of the main actors who also wrote the script for this drama: the legendary ’Allal al-Fasi, and his nemesis Muhammad V, the king’s successor Hasan II and his nemesis Shaykh Yassine. What these figures (and a host of others and organizations they each give rise to) negotiate across sixty years is nothing less than a definition, and redefinition, of what nationalism will be in Morocco and how the authorities in the state will eventually be sanctioned through an electoral process. This is not to imply that modern politics in Morocco was without its thuggery, or duplicity or ideologues, or that the king didn’t do his best to arrest (figuratively and literally) progressive, democratic movements. But what we learn about is a unique, Moroccan political path that has been a synthesis of modern intrusions (Marxism, labor unions, democracy, Western-style universities) all buttressing new kinds of authority. And against them, a predictable array of Islamic institutions (Sufi organizations, madrasas, ulama, Salifism, Islamic universities) all backstopping traditional, religious authority in different ways. And in the middle, leading negotiations between these two forces, rests the office of the sultan, the symbol of Moroccanness that, at least since the sixteenth century, has held the far Maghrib together. For the twentieth-century story Zeghal leads her reader through the evolving thought and changing circumstances that defined and redefined the role of the sultan by a careful reading of the treatises and letters, pronouncements and acts of the actors themselves. It is a quality of groundedness in political science writing that is as atypical as it is refreshing.

“So what does set Moroccan politics apart from its eastern neighbors? Part of the answer lies in a succession of savvy sultans who absorbed the nationalist cause as part of their own identity, from the 1930s onward. Another is the effectiveness of the sultan’s office to capitalize on its symbolic sharifi an origins and consistently stay one step ahead of the religious authorities through their cooptation, repression, and fragmentation. Whether in dealing with Islamic education and the universities or the implementation of shari’ah and family law, the king led, mediated, and acted in the language of Islam. And at the same time the ’Allal al-Fasis and Shaykh Yassines — two very different kinds of challenges to the crown — ultimately contribute to ‘a regime of competitive authoritarianism’ (147), an ‘opening’ of the political system (not to be confused with democratization), and a very gradual desacralization of the monarchy, currently underway.

“The arrival of al-Qaeda attacks in Morocco in 2003 and the implication of Moroccans in the Madrid train bombing in 2004, followed by other violence, has led to the monarchy’s reining in of religious authorities who were gradually being integrated into the electoral system. The closing chapter and epilogue that deal with these recent developments read as more of a summary of these events than an analysis of where this tale is headed in Moroccan politics, but the foundation for understanding the historical parameters and actors influencing contemporary times has nonetheless been well established. Malika Zeghal has provided us with a useful antidote to unidimensional, presentist analyses of Islamism not only in Morocco but in lands to the east, and those who seek explanations for contemporary developments will be well served by this study.” — Islamic Africa