Politics after Abdessalam Yassine

(Published on Jadaliyya.com)
Read the original here.

Abdessalam Yassine has died. Founder and leader of the Jamaa Al Adl Wal Ihsane, Yassine – known to his followers as Sheikh Yassine – was perhaps the strongest figure in opposition to the power of the Moroccan monarchy. Yassine died early the morning of 13 December 2012, at the age of eighty-four, in his home in Salé, the working class city adjacent to Morocco’s political capital of Rabat.

Political expression in Moroccan society must be understood in terms of its environment: a repressive monarchist state. Because institutional politics in the country mainly represent the political hegemony of the makhzen, the political role of social actors outside of formal politics – artists, activists, protest groups, religious organizations – is particularly important. These groups fulfill not only a social role, but as a result of the tight control of sanctioned political parties, also fill the place of what might otherwise be opposition parties. Under these conditions, Al Adl Wal Ihsane occupies an important place in Moroccan society, acting not only as a religious organization providing charity, education, and religious guidance, but also as a political force described by members and non-members alike as the strongest “political party” in Morocco, despite having never been presented on a ballot. This dual role is imperative in understanding the political landscape of Morocco, and Yassine’s significance in it.

Al Adl Wal Ihsane’s website describes the identity, vision, and modes of action of the group in terms of both a religious and a political imperative. Their mission statement distinguishes but also draws a connection between these two obligations. With a special emphasis on education, the group declares its focus to be on the relationship between the individual and God. They also assert the need to combat ills in the community with Islam. The movement promotes the sharia, but does not follow any of the traditional maddhabs, or religious schools, instead stressing the importance of adhering to the fundamentals of the Quran. It must be noted that although members often focus on the period of time of the rashidun, the first four caliphs who ruled the Muslim population after the Prophet, Al Adl Wal Ihsane does not recommend a regression to ancient times. The relegation of “modernity” with a renewed conception of Islam is integral to the group’s ideology and was the topic of one of Yassine’s books. The period of the rashidun is especially important to the movement because it is understood that during this time, leaders were chosen not by inheritance, but by an expression of the will of the people. This rejection of inherited power, which Al Adl Wal Ihsane justifies with Quranic examples, both exemplifies the relationship between the religious and political values, and also explains the oppositional status of the movement in resistance to the current monarchy.

Despite its implicitly forbidden (though not formally illegal) status, the organization has repeatedly made headlines for the large crowds it is able to mobilize around the country. In 2000, Al Adl Wal Ihsane organized marches of hundreds of thousands to protest reform to the mudawanna (personal status code), declaring that the initial changes proposed by feminist groups would be in opposition to the Quran and reflected a growing influence of Western influence. However, after a rewriting of the laws with special attention to interpretations of the Quran, Al Adl Wal Ihsane supported revisions to the mudawanna. Professor Zakia Salime explains this relationship in terms of the dialectic relationship between religious and secular factions in influencing policy during this time. Salime refers to the “feminization of Islam,” describing the feminist influence on interpretations and discourse surrounding the shari’a – and the “Islamization of feminism” – the influence, notably of Al Adl Wal Ihsane, in forcing a reconsideration of the laws in terms of their adherence to the Quran.[i] This influence highlights the dominance of Al Adl Wal Ihsane in the street (as a literal and sociopolitical venue) and demonstrates a relationship that complicates a simple Islamist/secular binary.

This binary is further complicated by the relationship between Al Adl Wal Ihsane and the Party for Justice and Development (PJD). The PJD, an Islamist political party, currently holds a majority of the seats in parliament, and its leader, Abdelilah Benkirane, is the current Prime Minister of Morocco. Although both groups vehemently proclaim the need to combat corruption in government, and use discourse concentrated with references to Islam and Quranic principles, both the religious rationale and political modus operandi of the two groups differ greatly. This has led to a tenuous relationship. In fact, during the reform of the mudawanna, the PJD initially marched with Al Adl Wal Ihsane against the reform. However, Nadia Yassine (Abdessalam Yassine’s daughter and spokesperson for the organization) later explained that the PJD were religiously opposed to the mere idea of reform, while Al Adl Wal Ihsane was opposed to the method by which the reform was proposed, suggesting it was an exclusionary process. The decision to participate in formal politics is the most obvious example of the difference between the two groups; while the PJD celebrated their victory in the last election, Al Adl Wal Ihsane protested its anti-democratic premise. Despite this opposition, members from Al Adl Wal Ihsane paid respects to Benkirane after his election to Secretary General of the PJD.

Most recently, the movement mobilized crowds in support of the February 20 protests, organized by a coalition of activists demonstrating against social ills in Morocco. Again, the participation of Al Adl Wal Ihsane in these protests seemed confusing to many: what was a conservative Islamic organization doing marching alongside outspoken secular activists? The marches were initially designed in solidarity with Tunisia and Egypt, other states experiencing an “Arab Spring,” in the hopes of shedding light on the injustices committed by corrupt, authoritative regimes, and providing an outlet for citizens to achieve a measure of dignity. These motives were neither religious nor secular in nature, and in fact directly reflect the movement’s focus on justice and “indignation against an opulent class, confiscating the rights of the people.” However, despite the initial cooperation between the groups, after the adoption of a new constitution and the election of the PJD into power, Al Adl Wal Ihsane equivocally split from the group. Although they still made it clear that they supported the aims of the February 20 protests, both officially and in individual conversations, the split seemed to indicate different visions for a most effective method of organization. While there have been many explanations as to a definitive reason for the split, in my conversations, members described a concern that the tone of the protests and the timing of the elections and new constitution led to an alienation of the majority of the population. Since this time, there has been much allusion to the detrimental effect of the group’s decision on the strength of the protests; the most recent protests have drawn only a fraction of the staggering number of mourners who poured into the streets to pay Yassine their final respects.

Yassine was nothing if not controversial, and opinions of him vary greatly among scholars and activists: there are those that believe he was a religious nut, or merely another power-hungry politician trying a different angle, and those that look at him as a an inspiring imam with a depth of spiritual insight – one of the only men who had the bravery to stand up to the corrupt power of the monarchy. However, regardless of personal viewpoints, I found general agreement that Yassine was a brilliant leader, a fascinating figure in Moroccan politics, and that Al Adl Wal Ihsane was a force to be taken seriously – in fact, it was the vehemently secular activists of February 20 who initially pointed me in the direction of Al Adl Wal Ihsane, explaining that it this group that was the best organized and least coopted – both problems that plagued February 20.

Many descriptions of Al Adl Wal Ihsane suggest a group of religious “fundamentalists,” bearded men and veiled women, rural, poor, uneducated, and easily influenced by Yassine’s prophetic dreams. It is suggested that the group, and Yassine himself while he was alive, wish to replace the monarchy with a new form of repression–one that is distinctly Islamist and based on some sort of rigid shari’a law. However, the members of Al Adl Wal Ihsane with whom I spoke lauded not the importance of adhering strictly to a rigid notion of shari’a law, but extolled the principles of a political arrangement that might be characterized as an Islamic democracy. They expressed a disdain of inherited power, the importance of right of a people to choose their own leadership, and the duty of a leader to serve his people with justice and benevolence – in Arabic adl and ihsane. In fact, when I asked one member what sort of government currently exists that is most closely aligned with the vision of the group, I received an answer not of Iran or Saudi Arabia, but of Norway, or Canada. Of course, this vision has biting significance in Morocco, where the Alaouite dynasty has ruled for four hundred years and the current King Mohammed VI spends nearly one million dollars a day while GDP per capita remains under three thousand dollars.

This points to the specificity of the political hegemony and the authority of the king, both with respect to the treatment of religion (the king claims legitimacy from his roots to the Prophet Mohammed as Commander of the Faithful) as well as the control – violent or nonviolent – of political opposition. This specificity is not to be confused with any idea of Moroccan “exceptionalism”; though Morocco has a specific political situation, this is not untrue of any nation in the world, and does not indicate that this situation is somehow reflective of a particular Moroccan determinism. Dr. Francesco Cavatorta, specialist on politics in the Middle East, has explored the contextual role of Al Adl Wal Ihsane and the role of Islam, arguing that the movement cannot be analyzed based on any specific Islamist ethos. Cavatorta concludes that the role of Al Adl Wal Ihsane operating outside of the formal political sphere is a result of its place in a liberalized autocracy. He determines that the movement has determined it has a more powerful role as an external, if persecuted, democratic and political force, than it would as an accepted but influenced part of the political system.[ii] One young member described to me the importance of Yassine’s three “no’s”: no to external influences (chiefly meaning money from the Muslim Brotherhood,) no to corruption and opacity of decision-making, and no to violence. These “no’s” are the basic principles of Al Adl Wal Ihsane’s political organization.

Of course, there is a public relations value to this image; portraying Al Adl Wal Ihsane as an organization which promotes democracy and engages in nonviolent resistance to oppression allows it to garner support from human rights organizations. These international sympathies make it all the more difficult for the state to persecute without public outrage, and give it the power of moral upper hand. The elaborate organization of the movement is a testament to its professed principles. Al Adl Wal Ihsane’s structure is incredibly complex, and designed to facilitate access vertically (one member often described to me the ease at which he was able to approach Yassine, describing him as a “father”) as well as horizontally across managerial bodies with varying roles. At the most micro level, members are grouped by “families,” small units of around ten people with designated roles which meet to discuss political and religious ideas. These “families” are then grouped in larger units, up to regions, and finally to the national and international organizations. Additionally, there are separate bodies which handle the political and ideological development of the organization, including a youth circle and women’s circle. The highest level of political organization is the famous political inner circle, and a new secretariat was most recently elected in September. Thus, while some sources describe an organization that merely waits for a revelatory dream, the highly developed organization of Al Adl Wal Ihsane indicates that it not merely extols an abstract idea of shura, but operates with a political savvy that surpasses even the elected political parties in the country.

Yassine himself was born in Marrakech and demonstrated an aptitude for Islamic scholarship, having memorized the Quran at an early age and began writing poetry at the age of twelve. Yassine worked in education, both as a teacher and in administrative positions (which has undoubtedly influenced the focus on education within Al Adl Wal Ihsane) and learned French, English, and Russian. After 1965, Yassine spent six years with the Boutchichiyya Qadiri Sufi order; however, by 1974 and the writing of his famous letter to Hassan II, he had broken with the Sufist tradition. After “Islam and the deluge,” where he decried the religious claims of the king as Commander of the Faithful and offered him advice on how to lead in a way that would be in keeping with Quranic values, Yassine encountered decades of persecution. He was forced to spend over three years in a mental asylum, was banned from leading prayers or offering lessons in mosques, and was sentenced to house arrest. However, it was during this time that Al Adl Wal Ihsane gained strength as a movement. Yassine never ceased writing and publishing over forty articles, books, and letters in both Arabic and French.

With the passing of Abdessalam Yassine, the strength of the organization will be tested; if nothing more than a cult following of a particularly charismatic leader, it can be expected that Al Adl Wal Ihsane will disintegrate. Elections of a new spiritual leader are scheduled for after a week of mourning, and the new leader will be responsible for the direction of the now-international movement. Recently, on 1 and 2 December, the first international conference was held in Turkey to discuss Yassine’s spiritual ideas. There is already speculation on who this new leader will be, and analysts have spoken to rifts forming between emerging leadership. Thus, the Jamaa Al Adl Wal Ihsane embarks on a new era, without the direction of its founder, but with the opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to its avowed principles. Undoubtedly, the absence of Yassine’s guidance and leadership will be evident; however, given the strength of the “Political Circle” and the internal organization, as well as the formidable size of the movement, it is incredibly unlikely that Yassine’s death indicates its disappearance from the political arena. Al Adl Wal Ihsane continues to provide the greatest opposition to the power of the monarchy. Its recent participation in the February 20 demonstrations of the past year reveals its sustained and salient influence on resistance, be it Islamist in nature or otherwise. In short: Al Adl Wal Ihsane is large, it is flexible, it is efficiently and democratically organized, and its members oppose the claims of Mohammed VI to the throne. With or without Yassine, I do not expect that my colleagues or I will write off its importance anytime soon.

[i] Zakia Salime, Between Feminism and Islam: Human Rights and Sharia Law in Morocco. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001).

[ii] Francesco Cavatorta, “Neither Participation nor Revolution. The strategy of the Moroccan Jamiat al-Adl wal-Ihsan,” Mediterranean Politics 12, no 3 (2007), 381-97.

Tags   •   Islam   •   Morocco   •   politics   •   religion   •   social movements


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