With the growing presence of the Islamic State (IS) in North Africa and the serious threat this poses to Morocco, the Moroccan government is opting for a strategy whereby the Salafi-Jihadists who have renounced violence and are now referred to as “Salafi” (referring to the Salaf, the Muslims of the Prophet Muhammad’s era), as a model to be emulated, are gradually contained and integrated into the country’s political system in the name of democracy.
The first manifestation of the Salafi-Jihadist ideology in Morocco was the Casablanca bombings of 16 May 2003, which killed 44 Moroccans and maimed many. The attacks were seen as a slap in the face to both the government and the nation, because all the terrorists were homegrown. The attacks led to a massive crackdown on the Salafi-Jihadists.
However, in the aftermath of the so-called Arab Spring, the death of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, the failure of political Islam, and the growing presence of IS and similar terrorist groups in North Africa, the attitude of the Moroccan regime towards the Salafis shifted gradually. This change is attested in four ways.
First, in 2011 and 2012, a royal decree was issued under which five Salafi-Jihadi sheikhs (theorists and issuers of fatwas), as well as several hundreds of their followers were pardoned after having been convicted on charges of extremism and terrorism. Some of these Salafi-Jihadist detainees were not only released from prison but were given the opportunity to engage in peaceful politics. This was an unprecedented move.
Second, a prominent figure of Salafi ideology and a former radicalized sheikh, Muhammad al-Fizazi, led a Friday prayer in the presence of the king on 28 March 2014. This stressed the regime’s changed attitude towards al-Fizazi, who had previously espoused radical jihad and takfiri ideology (i.e., the declaring of someone to be kafir, unbeliever, and subjecting him or her to the “proper” punishment—ostracism or death).
Third, on 4 April 2015, the Ministry of Religious Affairs, in partnership with the Supreme Council of Religious Scholars, organized a well-publicized seminar on “Salafism: Realizing the Concept and Demonstrating Its Content.” The main recommendation of this seminar, that Salafism and Sufism should be reconciled, was discussed by the Moroccan cleric Mustapha Benhamza in the presence of the king in July 2015, during the Ramadan religious durus (lessons).
Fourth, on 6 November 2015, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Green March, King Mohammed VI pardoned 37 Salafi detainees, who had all been convicted of terrorism charges. A prominent figure among them was Sheikh Hassan al-Khattab, a notorious former Salafi extremist.
These four facts mark the emergence of a new era in the relationship between the Morocco’s regime and the country’s Salafis. This new relationship is expected to usher in a collaboration between the two camps as a way to counter threats to Morocco’s security and stability.
The new relationship between the Moroccan regime and the Salafis also attests to the failure of using Sufism to contain the Salafists; these attempts did not convince the Salaf-Jihadists to renounce violence. Morocco began to use Sufism as a way of ensuring security and countering Salafi-Jihadist extremism in the aftermath of the Casablanca terrorist attacks. The implementation of this approach was the responsibility of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, led by the Sufi minister Ahmed Tawfiq. In spite of the ministry’s serious efforts, the Sufi trend could not really curb the Salafi-Jihadi and takfir ideologies that threatened Morocco’s security. In this context, the present policy of containing the Salafists by reconciling their ideology with Sufism became a more viable option for the government. The aforementioned seminar, as well as the other facts cited above, had this reconciliation as one of their central goals.
For the Moroccan government, this new move is welcome, as it both consolidates religious authority in the person of the king as Amir al-Muminin (Commander of the Faithful) and serves democracy. Locating religious authority in the institution of the monarchy is a means of containing other voices that may claim this authority. For some political critics, such as Mohammed Masbah of the Carnegie Middle East Center, the integration of Salafists into political life is the right move.
The Moroccan government pays special attention to Salafi theorists such as Abdelkarim Chadli, Abdelwahab Rafiki (also known as Abou Hafs), Umar al-Hadouchi, and Muhammad al-Fizazi, and, through them, the many followers that support them and implement their fatwas. Although these sheikhs vary in their extremism, their religious knowledge and ability to reach wide audiences through mosque preaching and through electronic media attest to their strong position in society, especially among the lower strata. The new attitude of the government led many of them—Mohamed al-Fizazin, for example—to renounce the issuing of pro-Syrian jihad fatwas.
The strategy of “containing” the Salafists by allowing them to join political parties of their choice is accompanied and reinforced by a series of national debates on the issue. An increasing number of Salafists are being integrated into political parties and civil society. They all express their loyalty to Moroccan institutions and advocate a non-violent approach.
For Idris Kanburi, Morocco’s recent approach to Salafism is a way of stripping the Islamists in the government of their religious authority by making them more moderate and of creating a tension between the two. For Kanburi, the integration of the Salafists into pro-regime parties is a also a way of neutralizing the Salafists, although it may make Moroccan society more Islamist.
Improving relations with the Salafists is not a guarantee that the latter will commit to peace. In spite of the success of the Egyptian experience in this regard, fear of the Salafists is still a reality.
Salafism in Morocco both offers opportunities and raises challenges, but the latter seem to be minimized by three factors: Morocco’s extra vigilance and intolerance in matters of security, the whole process of including the Salafists into the Moroccan political systems which involves only the pro-regime Salafis, and the fact that the project of a full-fledged Salafist political party is not a truly viable option for the time being.