The Middle East Channel

The unknown Moroccan Islamists

As turmoil swept one Arab country after another, Morocco seemed to offer a distinctive opportunity for peaceful reform initiated by the government and overseen by a popular monarch. But the dreams of Moroccan exceptionalism may soon be dead, or at the very least battered and beaten, like the thousands of protesters taking to the streets of ...

Avi Spiegel
Avi Spiegel

As turmoil swept one Arab country after another, Morocco seemed to offer a distinctive opportunity for peaceful reform initiated by the government and overseen by a popular monarch. But the dreams of Moroccan exceptionalism may soon be dead, or at the very least battered and beaten, like the thousands of protesters taking to the streets of the North African kingdom. Police brutality and repression has reached new heights. And, as has been the case elsewhere, the more police beat them down, the more the protesters of this Arab Spring seem to be picking themselves up and persisting.

Despite all the Moroccan regime has done to hold itself out as unique, its tactics are beginning to appear jarringly familiar. First, it tried denial (Morocco, officials told us, was immune to volatility). Then it tried belittlement (the king first called the protests "demagoguery"). It even tried reform (the official results of a constitutional commission are due out this month). And now, as rationale for a bloody crackdown in May (which injured dozens and killed one), the government has reverted to a favorite authoritarian pretext: the specter of Islamist manipulation.

"The Moroccan government has nothing against the February 20 Movement," the Communications Minister said, using the popular name for Morocco’s version of the Arab Spring protest group. "But we suspect its members are being manipulated by the Islamists and the movements of the left." The minister went on to point the finger at one group in particular: the illegal Islamist movement, Al Adl Wal Ihsan or the Justice and Spirituality Organization (JSO). But this should be seen for what it is: one more tactic designed to put off demands for reform. I spent two years on the ground studying JSO and the slew of other Islamist groups in Morocco, and recognize this as a familiar ploy.

In Morocco, as in every country in the region, Islamists represent a diverse, evolving, and messy field. The term "Islamist" could reasonably be applied to the banned JSO; or to the legal political party, the Party of Justice and Development (PJD); or to a bevy of illegal Salafi oriented groups. It could even pertain to the monarchy itself, which claims direct descent from the Prophet Mohammed and assumes the role of "Commander of the Faithful." As one of PJD’s early founders, Mohammed Yatim, once noted: "Our problem in Morocco is not in establishing an Islamic state. Theoretically and constitutionally, this state is already [one]."

It is not "Islamists" in general that the government has a problem with, but rather simply the ones that openly challenge the status quo. In a divide which echoes the cautions of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the early days of that uprising, the legal party, PJD, has largely remained ambivalent. Many of its members still cling to the increasingly anachronistic conviction that political change is most effectively pursued from within the system. This has been that movement’s hallmark since (or, indeed, as a basis for) its licensed admission into the electoral system in 1997. While PJD shares historical and ideological commonalities with the Muslim Brotherhood, it has also spoken fawningly of Turkey’s AKP Party, with whom it shares its very name (in Arabic).

The JSO, by contrast, has wholeheartedly embraced the Arab Spring. Because JSO is largely unknown outside Morocco, it is an easy target. For years as the largest opposition force in Morocco, JSO may very well be the least understood Islamist group in the world. It has certainly belied casuistic categorizations of religio-political activism. The JSO is illegal but nonviolent, repressed but thriving. Its members boycott elections, but are also politically engaged. And while nonviolence is one of the group’s three core precepts, it has not shied away from calling for the overthrow of the Moroccan regime and for an entirely new constitutional system. Such sentiments were, until this year, almost unheard of in Morocco.

The JSO was officially formed more than three decades ago by Abdeslam Yassine, who now serves as its spiritual guide or murshid. Despite Yassine’s background with the prominent Boutchichiya Sufis, his writings are as varied as they are prolific, engaging with Sufism, Salafism, and even Marxism. Young members have been known to cite both Yassine and Samuel Huntington in a single sentence. While the group is organized, in part, like a traditional Sufi brotherhood, it also functions increasingly like a modern political party, replete with a political wing (or "circle"), official spokespeople, complex organizational charts, internal elections, and multiple websites.  

As is often the case with illegal movements, estimates of JSO’s size are notoriously unreliable. PJD’s secretary general once shrewdly speculated that his rival only had around 5,000 followers; authorities have suggested that it’s closer to 50,000.  I’ve even heard JSO’s own activists invoke the word "million." The actual number of both members and supporters probably doesn’t exceed 200,000.

But regardless of the precise figure, JSO is the only group that has had past experience in mobilizing multiple and simultaneous unpermitted protest marches in cities throughout the country, similar to the kinds now seen. As far back as 2005, a young activist in the group bragged to me about their unmatched prowess at text messaging and web-based mobilization: "We can bring thousands to the streets at the press of a button. No one else can do that here." (Indeed, the one person killed in recent protests was a member of JSO.) So, while the February 20 movement is a wide compilation of voices from the left to the right, it is no coincidence that its anti-regime marches would include JSO. But news of JSO involvement would only be shocking to those outside Morocco.

The U.S. government, for one, has not had much luck or interest in figuring the group out. A classified 2008 cable to Washington from the embassy in Rabat — released via Wikileaks — revealed that diplomats couldn’t even figure out what to call the group (was it Justice and Charity Organization or the Justice and Spirituality Organization?). The authors also seemed shocked that JSO "may be moving toward political participation" –even though the formation of its "Political Circle" had taken place a full decade earlier. This confusion was understandable. The embassy admitted that it had not had any communication with the group for at least seven years — because the last time they tried to make contact with JSO, the Moroccan government "protested." In a practice that has become only too common, the U.S. relied on a foreign government to determine which of its nationals it would engage.  

Like most everyone in Morocco and the Arab world, JSO is still figuring out how to adjust to this new political context. They are no longer the sole opposition force in the country. They are now merely part of a much larger force for change — and they are no longer operating in the shadows. Don’t forget that it was only six years ago when Nadia Yassine (a spokesperson for the group and the founder’s daughter) was brought to court for simply suggesting in a newspaper interview that Morocco could function as a "republic." Moreover, until this year, JSO was alone in calling for the king to relinquish his position as Commander of the Faithful; now such a message can be seen on protest signs. JSO’s new role in the spotlight has, at least, sparked it to state publicly its goals more firmly than ever before. Nadia Yassine declared last week that her movement favored a "civil" over a "religious state." Such statements are reassuring, but still tell us little about the policies they would actually promote.

The Moroccan government says that JSO is using the Arab Spring — the call of democracy — to further its own nefarious agenda in hopes of splintering the February 20 movement. But spokespeople for the February 20 movement have responded that they won’t be manipulated by anyone — and that the group, even while including Islamists, was "peaceful," "open" and "independent." JSO, for its part, says it is simply being used as a scapegoat to justify a violent crackdown. But one thing is certain: if the regime engages in bloody crackdowns, the protests will only continue. It cannot pledge reform one week and then kill protesters the next, even if the marchers include prominent "Islamists."

Avi Spiegel is an assistant professor of political science at the University of San Diego and a fellow at the Strauss Center for International Security and Law at the University of Texas, Austin. He is currently writing a book on young Islamists and the Arab Spring.