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This conversation with Moroccan blogger kingstoune is centered around the controversial Islamic movement Al Adl Wal Ihsane (“Justice and Spirituality”) which refuses to recognize the King as the legitimate leader of Moroccan Muslims. Its founder, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, is said to covet that role for himself. The Shiekh’s highly articulate daughter Nadia has emerged in recent years as a major figure in the movement. According to the 2006 book Quand le Maroc sera islamiste, Al Adl Wal Ihsane has about 150,000 active members and a large number of passive supporters. It functions a bit like a political party, or like a powerful interest group such as the Christian Coalition, with a policy committee and outreach operations all over Morocco. Its ideas have never been tested at the ballot box because Sheikh Yassine refuses to participate in the political process, which would mean endorsing the Constitution and the central role it gives to the King.

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eatbees: I’m trying to understand Al Adl Wal Ihsane and why it’s so popular. Also, how it’s evolving with Nadia as opposed to her father. I found a couple of articles online that were helpful—one on the Sheikh’s personal evolution, and the other on the movement’s program.

kingstoune: I think anthropological work should be done on this group, because from a logical point of view it’s quite “insane.”

eatbees: What is?

kingstoune: The popularity of the movement, and what its members believe. I mean, I can’t imagine myself as Yassine’s “fan.”

eatbees: Even sanity or insanity has a context.

kingstoune: Of course. That’s why I put the quotes.

eatbees: We can say that a prophet, a guru, or a revolutionary leader represents a paradigm shift—a fundamental change in thinking. Either the society considers him insane and casts him out, or his project achieves critical mass and changes history. Before the Age of Reason, it was insane to believe that our leaders have no legitimacy except what the people give to them. In all of history before that, legitimacy was considered to come from God. Yet the republican movement succeeded.

kingstoune: We still have that in Morocco. The legitimacy of the monarchy comes from its “ties” to the Prophet.

eatbees: That’s why I think Yessine is important. He represents a Moroccan response to the same problems—an attempt to return to traditional sources of legitimacy.

kingstoune: Well, the monarchy has a historical legitimacy too. That may be its only legitimacy!

eatbees: It could be argued that the Moroccan monarchy as we know it—I mean the institution of the national monarchy—was fashioned by the French, although the dynasty is of course much older. I think that part of Mohammed VI’s project is to try to restore the monarch’s traditional sources of legitimacy which are rooted in Moroccan spirituality. That part of his project isn’t understood very well in the West, or even by the Westernized Moroccan elites.

kingstoune: What do you mean?

eatbees: I mean that I could see him being a “quietist” King, more of a spiritual leader like the Pope than someone who meddles in politics. He would be the head of the Moroccan zawiya—the whole nation as zawiya.

kingstoune: I don’t think so. There are no signs of that. I think he’s still leading. Maybe the next elections will show whether or not the monarchy wants to share power with the people. If not, the King as an institution is just making himself stronger.

eatbees: What I’m saying is that he has other strings he can pull besides the civil administration, the army and so on. He has the network of zawiyas, which are the traditional political fabric of Morocco when they choose to play that role. They have a legitimacy that runs much deeper than the colonial-era institutions, because they are mystical and political at the same time. Traditionally, when Morocco needed a new leader because the old dynasty was corrupt or because there was chaos, it was the zawiyas that decided that.

kingstoune: That’s always been the case, but the structure of society is changing. More and more people live in the cities, and in my opinion, the zawiyas don’t provide the same leadership they did years ago. That’s why leadership will be broad and political rather than based on small groups scattered all over Morocco.

eatbees: You can see how Yassine offers a response to the urbanization of Morocco. He’s attempting to recreate the network of zawiyas in an urban context.

kingstoune: Do you think most of his support comes from zawiyas? For me, it’s more likely to come from political groups. His movement is like a political party, even if Yassine seems to be a “guru.”

eatbees: I’m saying there’s a dual role. I don’t think it’s so different from the traditional zawiya, which was the base of political organization for the community. Look at a town like Chefchaouen. Apparently, until it was conquered by the Spanish, it was a “holy city” that only adherents of that zawiya were allowed to enter. I suspect that a lot of Moroccan communities were traditionally like that. The zawiyas maintained contact among themselves, and occasionally would rise up in revolution….

kingstoune: I agree with you, but what I said is that the society’s structure is changing. There is a trend toward urbanization, and the zawiyas are losing their leadership role in many regions.

eatbees: So Yassine is trying to modernize the concept and adapt it to the dislocation of the modern city. That’s what makes his movement more like a political party. He’s trying to maintain the traditional discipline of obedience, but in the process it’s losing some of the spiritual flavor. So it becomes like other modern cults—a dangerous, misleading escape from reality. All of which proves that Moroccans still feel a need for spirituality, even if traditional Islam hasn’t found a good way to adapt itself to the conditions in which they are living. Moroccans are still looking for the right mix of spirituality and modernizing ambition.

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For more on the relation between religion and politics in Morocco, see the discussion I had with bloggers Xoussef and BO18 in the comments to this post. We were debating whether or not a victory by the Islamist PJD in this year’s elections would be a disaster for individual freedom.


Comment from ummabdulla
Time: April 9, 2007, 00:43

Isn’t that a picture of the late Palestinian Sheikh Ahmed Yassin? Is it supposed to be him?

Comment from eatbees
Time: April 9, 2007, 01:48

You’re absolutely right, and no, it’s not supposed to be him. As you can see, I’ve changed it now to the correct Sheikh Yassine! Nice catch, and thanks for pointing it out.

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