There is an interesting if rather confused piece
movements in Morocco in this month’s English edition of Le Monde Diplomatique
. It’s interesting because these movements have drawn little attention in Morocco, since they were born in Egypt in the 1970s and for the most part have not had a very public role elsewhere. They also show the multi-faceted nature of Islamic fundamentalism, with so many factions and different offshoots that it reminds me of the “People’s Front of Judea/Judean People’s Front/Popular Front of Judea” skit in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
However, I found the article rather confused because while the headline, “Morocco: slums breed jihad” would lead one to suspect that the argument is that poverty breeds terrorism, most of the article is devoted to explaining the beliefs of the takfiris and the networks they’ve created. This is an old dispute when we talk about Islamist terrorism: is the idea in itself violent or is it conditions of living that inspire violence? While the answer is probably a mixture of both, I tend towards the first option. It may be popular to point to the Arab world as have failed its development and try to explain violence as the result of “arrested development”, but in many cases the key advocates of violence were not particularly poor: think of Muhammad Atta, son of a comfortably middle class engineer, Ayman Zawahri, scion of a prominent family of doctors and theologians, or even Osama Bin Laden, heir to a vast fortune and playboy millionaire until he found his calling. (At the same time, think of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi and his origins in Jordanian slums.)
In other words, poverty breeds conditions when idle young men who see limited horizons in front of them may be tempted by a radical ideology. But the ideology has to be there in the first place. And here it’s important to distinguish between the many different types of Islamism, some reformist, some conservative, some democratic, some autocratic, some progressive, others backwards.
For those who don’t know what takfir is, here is a long explanation from the article:
The bomb blast at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Taba last month confirmed that the cause of global jihad is no longer confined to peripheral areas such as Afghanistan, Chechnya or former Yugoslavia. It is now striking at the heart of the Arab Muslim world, with Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco directly in the firing line.
The bomb attacks in Casablanca on 16 May 2003 revealed the existence of a new form of fundamentalism – takfir. Takfirists are no longer content to fight the United States or the “Zionist entity”; they brand Muslim leaders, and all their direct or indirect supporters, as infidels (kafir) and condemn them as apostates. They preach political violence as a means of forcing states to return “to the laws of God and the society of the Prophet of original Islam”. Their aim is not only to overturn unpopular and corrupt regimes but to cleanse the existing political order.
The movement Takfir wal-Hijra emerged in the 1970s after a split in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood; it has inspired one of the main ideologies of violence in the Muslim world, especially since the early 1990s. It is sometimes referred to as “Takfiri Salafism” and it constitutes a clear break with other Islamist movements that are prepared to engage if necessary in legal political activity aimed at establishing an Islamic state through the ballot box.
The importance that Takfirist doctrine has assumed for armed groups reflects a deep gulf between this extreme fringe of Islamism and countries that are themselves rooted in traditional Islam. In Morocco, where the king is regarded as a descendant of the Prophet, we are witnessing a shift in the boundary between jihadists and their targets within Muslim society. A few weeks before the attacks of May 2003 fundamentalist groups issued a declaration of apostasy against the Moroccan state and Moroccan society and distributed it in mosques in slum districts of Casablanca.
A Salafist activist spoke of Mohamed Fizazi, 57, a primary school teacher, the Moroccan Takfirists’ “theoretician”, who was sentenced to 30 years’ imprisonment in August 2003. He said: “Fizazi was found guilty of pronouncing the Muslim profession of faith [There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet] differently from others.” This comment demonstrates how the Takfirists’ relationship with Islam has changed and how other Muslims are now considered heretics.
An inquiry conducted after the Casablanca attacks (like the investigation into the Madrid bombings of 11 March 2004 in Spain) revealed that most Takfirist groups originate in the shanty towns and disintegrating districts of Casablanca, Meknes, Fez and Tangiers. It also showed that extremist groups have a solid, active local base and are not just dormant cells waiting to respond to commands from al-Qaida, even if Osama bin Laden’s network has played a major role in providing logistic support and formulating strategy.
Figures for 2002, when more than 166 civilians were assassinated, suggest the extent of Takfirist violence in Morocco. But mass media have taken care not to publicise them and do not much cover the violence, which usually happens in the poor districts. The autonomous activities of local gangleaders – self-proclaimed “emirs” such as Fikri in Douar Sekouila on the outskirts of Casablanca and Rebaa, a militia leader in the Meknes suburbs, and some dozen others heading local groups – show they act on their own initiative and not always on instructions from somewhere in Afghanistan.
The Takfirists are part of a new generation of Islamic fundamentalists from Morocco’s urban slums. Their strongholds are what locals call al-karyan, the disused quarries in industrial zones left to decay after independence in 1956. The shanty towns that have mushroomed there in the past 20-30 years are home to uprooted landless peasants, victims of a rural exodus. Most Takfirists, like the suicide bombers of 16 May, are karyanis, from a class of social outcasts living in the shanty towns.
All of which reminds me of a good friend of mine who was walking down the street of a poor quarter of Cairo with a Muslim Brotherhood activist. A man with a long black beard dressed in traditional robes — the marks of the ultra-pious — walks by them and throws a dirty look at the Muslim Brotherhood activist. “He’s a member of takfir wa al hijra,” the Brother says. Then he added, with an air of contempt, “extremist!”
The point is that there is a real effort that can be done to curb extremism by closing down the sources of funding for the real extremists (mostly Saudi Arabia) while engaging other Islamists in a political dialogue even if some of their ideas are distasteful (as they are to me). In most Arab countries, this is not being done.
P.S. At the risk of contradicting what I said above, I’m also pasting an article I wrote a few months after the 16 May 2003 bombings in Casablanca that looks at the slums from which most of the bombers came on the day of a local election. Click “more” below to see the story.
Continue reading Takfir in Morocco