/ 13 June 2006

Growing popularity of Islamists worries Morocco

Moroccan authorities have launched a wave of repression to stem the growing influence of an illegal Islamist movement, which many observers are already describing as the country’s biggest de-facto political party.

Al Adl Wal Ihsane (Justice and Spirituality) is now so popular it would probably win elections if it was legalised and decided to enter politics, analysts said.

The regime of King Mohammed VI wants to curb the growing influence of Islamists, but knows it risks doing just the opposite if it appears too heavy handed.

Fifteen Al Adl Wal Ihsane members were on Monday each sentenced to four months in prison for organising an unauthorised demonstration in 2001.

They will not, however, have to serve the sentences, because they have already been jailed for much longer than four months.

Press commentators criticised the sentences as too lenient, but in private even some anti-Islamist Moroccans have sympathies towards the peaceful movement, which is in judicial limbo.

Technically illegal, Al Adl Wal Ihsane was tolerated until recent months, when the apparent politicisation of its activities prompted a police crackdown.

The movement’s founder, French-educated teacher Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, first became widely known with a 1974 open letter to then King Hassan II, in which he dared to question the monarch’s knowledge of Islam.

Morocco’s king is the official leader of the country’s Muslims, and Yassine spent about 15 years in psychiatric hospitals and under house arrest before his release in 2000.

The only political force in Morocco to question the monarchy, Al Adl Wal Ihsane has become the mouthpiece of discontent in a country where masses of young people have fled rural unemployment to urban slums and where about 15% of the population is estimated to live in poverty.

Advocating an Islamic state with Sharia law, Al Adl Wal Ihsane adheres to the mystical Sufi strand of Islam and rejects violence.

Its leaders include Sheikh Yassine’s daughter, Nadia, whose particular brand of Islamist feminism has given the conservative movement a modern touch.

Al Adl Wal Ihsane has traditionally focused on social work, but observers say it now appears to have become increasingly political in a development that frightens the regime.

Over the past few months, the movement has opened premises around the country, staging ”open door” days, including exhibitions and videos to promulgate its ideas.

Police moved promptly to close the venues, evacuating a total of 500 people and detaining more than 150 others, who were released immediately afterwards.

A trial against Nadia Yassine for advocating a republic has been suspended, apparently to avoid provoking critics at home and in the United States, which she has visited.

The regime does not want to see Morocco go the same way as neighbouring Algeria, where the Islamic Salvation Army was outlawed to prevent it from seizing power through the polls.

Hundreds of suspected violent Islamists have been detained in Morocco since suicide bombers killed 45 people in Casablanca in 2003, but it is more difficult for the authorities to move against the popular Al Adl Wal Ihsane.

So far, the movement has declined to enter politics or to give its backing to the parliamentary Islamist party Justice and Development, which gained ground in 2002 elections to become the third political force in the country.

”The security forces have nothing to fear,” Nadia Yassine said.

”We are not planning anything that would go against our principles of non-violence.” — Sapa-dpa