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Managing Morocco’s Islamists – Professor Hussein Solomon


Managing Morocco’s Islamists

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 4 (2016), Number 5 (November 2016)

That radical militant Islamism is on the rise in Africa is without a doubt. Whilst authorities and the international community concentrate their security apparatus on the likes of Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s Al Shabaab, it should be borne in mind that even after the military defeat of these groups, the pernicious ideology of Islamism will still remain. Recognizing this fact, the Moroccan government has embarked on a policy to tame and co-opt its own Islamists – the Justice and Development Party or PJD.

The government and the PJD were compelled to embrace each other as a result of a number of factors. Polls demonstrate that conservative Islamic values resonate amongst Moroccans. Given the deteriorating political and economic situation, specifically as it relates to the disaffected youth languishing in poverty and alienated from an authoritarian monarch, King Mohammed VI, it is unsurprising that radical Islam has gained adherents in the country. This was self-evident when in May 2003, five suicide bombers attacked tourist and Jewish sites in Casablanca. Scores were either killed or injured. This attack was the work of the Moroccan Islamic Combat Group. Members of this group soon became part of a larger grouping – Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Other Moroccans have found the Islamic State more appealing and more than 1500 have joined its ranks.

King Mohammed’s rule came under fire from other Islamists too. The Justice and Charity party is a non-violent Islamist party which has demanded a civic state, popular sovereignty and minority rights. The Palace has also not found itself unaffected by the Arab Spring protests which swept through the region. Moroccan youth were at the forefront of protests from 20 February 2011. These protests compelled the king to surrender some of his powers to the prime minister and concede that the prime minister was to be the leader of the majority party in parliament.

In an additional measure to deflect popular discontent regarding the deteriorating economic circumstances as well as the constrained political conditions, the Palace sought an Islamist ally it could co-opt. The choice of an Islamist party reflected the conservative Islamic values Moroccans subscribe to as was alluded to earlier. It was DrissBasri, a former Minister of Interior, who authorized the formation of the United and Reform Movement which eventually morphed into the PJD. At the same time, the Palace ensured that it defanged and domesticated the PJD before it was allowed to contest legislative elections. A central pillar of the PJD, for instance, is its support for the monarchy which has ruled the country for 350 years.

AbdelilahBenkirane, the Secretary-General of the PJD who went on to serve as Prime Minister following the party’s electoral success has also been compelled to embrace moderation and compromise with the authorities. To understand the moderate option embarked upon by Benkirane one needs to understand developments in North Africa. In neighbouring Algeria, a civil war consumed the country for much of the 1990s. This followed the military aborting an election which the Islamists were set to win in 1992. More recently the ousting of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood from power after a year of inept rule as well as the Islamist Ennahda’s retreat from political power in Tunisia made clear to the PJD that they need to adopt a gradual approach towards the Islamization of their society and not scare of other elements of society – notably the military.

This gradual approach was reflected in the various elections the PJD participated in since 1997. Despite increasing its votes, and delegates, with each successive election, the PJD restrained itself seeking to earn the trust of the Moroccan political establishment. For instance, in the 1997 poll, the party only fielded 140 candidates, instead of the 325 for all districts. This gradual approach certainly paid dividends in that by 2011 the PJD secured the most amount of votes and Benikrane went on to become Prime Minister. In October 2016, the PJD secured another victory obtaining 125 seats out of 395 with Benikrane seeking to secure the support of some smaller parties to form a government.

The question however is how successful is this politics of co-option? Have the authorities managed to tame the Islamist threat the kingdom is faced with? In truth, the embrace between the Palace and the PJD has always been an awkward one with distrust exhibited by both sides. For instance, the secular Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM) came second in the October 2016 polls achieving 102 seats to the PJD’s 125. The fact that PAM was formed in 2008 by a close adviser to King Mohammed VI suggests that in order to ensure that he is in control the King is playing off conservative Islamists with secular modernists. Moreover, the legitimacy of the electoral process itself has come under scrutiny given the litany of voting irregularities in the October 2016 polls. Khalid Adennoun, spokesperson for PAM, complained of 50 voting irregularities concerning the PJD in Tangiers. The PJD, for its part, expressed concern when one of its candidates was attacked and wounded in Rabat. In the process democracy itself has been debased with much of the electorate losing faith in the political system. Voter participation, therefore, was at a record low of 43 percent or 6,750,000 voters.

There is however a broader point to be made as it relates to political Islam. Proponents of political Islam promise clean and responsive government. The PJD when assuming the reins of power in 2011 promised economic development , better and more numerous employment opportunities and a war on corruption. In reality, as with many secular parties it has failed to deliver. Their time in power was characterized by rising unemployment set to become worse as the economy contracts. In addition, they have failed to halt corruption. Indeed, they themselves have been mired in a string of scandals. Members of the PJD have been involved in a drugs bust as well as a land-grab deal. In addition, two of their vice presidents have been found in sexually compromising positions.

The PJD has demonstrated that Islamist parties in power operate no differently from any other political party. Unfortunately, this reinforced the more radical Islamists’ message that the system itself is corrupt and needs to be torn down; that the PJD should never have participated in the political system in the first place. Far from managing and co-opting the Islamist threat, Morocco’s example may well fuel the fire of jihadism further.

Do African Lives Matter for African Leaders? – Professor Hussein Solomon


Do African Lives Matter for African Leaders? 

By Hussein Solomon

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 4 (2016), Number 4 (November 2016)

Africans have grown accustomed to the West ignoring their suffering. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Consider the fact that Belgian King Leopold II’s atrocities were historically ignored in Europe at the time and barely get a footnote in recent European books on its African colonies. To be clear, 15 million Congolese were murdered and numerous others were mutilated by this ‘civilized’ European king as he sought to extract rubber from this blighted country. More recently, more than 6 million Congolese have been killed since the 2nd August 1998. Once again, there is scarcely a mention on the front pages of The Washington Post or the New York Times.

At one level, perhaps, this is understandable. According to psychologists one is supposed to have greater empathy for one’s in-group as opposed to the proverbial other. What is particularly galling for Africans, however, is when their own leaders display such callous disregard for their lives. Worse, still, is the hypocrisy accompanying the callousness on the part of Africa’s leadership. Consider for instance the events surrounding the 7 January 2015. This was the date of the brutal terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices which resulted in 17 people being killed on the streets of Paris. The world rallied with the French and a mass march of 1,6 million people took to the streets of Paris. This march also included 40 world leaders, including several African leaders who mourned the lives of the innocent savagely cut short. This is as it should be.

At the same time, of the Paris killings, however, there was another atrocity taking place. In the dusty town of Baga, northern Nigeria, Boko Haram militants slaughtered 2000 innocent people. There was no similar Paris march. No African leader took to the streets to commemorate the lives of those lost. Even the Nigerian President at the time, Goodluck Jonathan, did not immediately respond to the tragedy which took place on his own territory where his own citizens lost their life in such a cold-blooded way. This prompts the question: Do African lives matter to African leaders?

I asked this question several times following the decision by my own government – South Africa – to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC). The South African decision may well be related to domestic politics. According to Anton du Plessis of the Institute for Security Studies, the Zuma administration is attempting to protect itself from an imminent Constitutional Court hearing in relation to the 2015 visit of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir when Pretoria refused to arrest him as it was obligated to do under the Rome Statute. Instead Bashir and his entourage were whisked out of the country by the South African authorities.

To be clear, the arrest warrant for Bashir was based on the charge that he oversaw the war in Darfur which resulted in the deaths of between 200,000 and 400,000 people and the displacement of a further 2.5 million people in Darfur out of a population of 6.2 million. The so-called leaders of Africa denounced the ICC decision ostensibly because heads of state should have immunity of prosecution. The counter-argument is simply this: as Head of State should the buck not stop with him? Do not forget that Bashir was not merely Commander-in-Chief by virtue of him being President of Sudan. He was a military man who staged a coup in 1989 to come to power. The second charge levelled against the ICC was that it was unfairly targeting Africa. Let us be frank: many of the ICC investigations were initiated by African countries themselves since they did not have the resources to conduct an investigation and engage in a trial themselves. Do not forget, too, that the ICC is a court of last resort. The attack on the ICC is simultaneously taking place at a time when Africa’s own domestic and regional judicial mechanisms have come under threat from Africa’s self-serving leaders who desire to escape accountability at all costs whilst they simultaneously steal from and brutalize their citizens.

Perhaps the most powerful response to these objections put forward would simply be this: Do African lives matter to African leaders? Their deep concern for Bashir is akin to sympathizing with the aggressor as opposed to the victims. After all who speaks for the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims who needlessly lost their lives in Darfur?

Subjects of Empires/Citizens of States: Yemenis in Djibouti and Ethiopia – Samson A. Bezabeh

“Although the Horn of Africa was historically one of the earliest destinations for Yemeni migrants, it has been overlooked by scholars, who have otherwise meticulously documented the Yemeni presence in the Indian Ocean region. Subjects of Empires/Citizens of States draws on rich ethnographic and historical research to examine the interaction of the Yemeni diaspora with states and empires in Djibouti and Ethiopia from the early twentieth century, when European powers began to colonize the region. In doing so, it aims to counter a dominant perspective in Indian Ocean studies that regards migrants across the region as by-products of personal networks and local oceanic systems, which according to most scholarship led to cosmopolitan spaces and hybrid cultures. Samson Bezabeh argues that far from being free from the restrictions of state and empire, these migrant communities were constrained, and their agency structured, by their interactions with the institutions and relations of states and empires in the region. Elegantly combining theoretical readings with extensive empirical findings, this study documents a largely forgotten period in the history of Yemeni migration as well as contributing to the wider debates on class, citizenship, and ethnicity in relation to diaspora groups. It will appeal to specialists in Middle East studies and to those who study the Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa regions, as well as to migration and diaspora studies scholars, nongovernmental organizations, and policy makers concerned with the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden region.”



Islam and Christianity in the Horn of Africa: Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan – Haggai Erlich

Can Christianity and Islam coexist? Or are Muslims and Christians destined to delegitimize and even demonize each other? Tracing the modern history of the region where the two religions first met, and where they are engaged now in active confrontation, Haggai Erlich finds legacies of tolerance, as well as militancy. Erlich’s analysis of political, military, and diplomatic developments in the Horn of Africa from the late nineteenth century to the present is combined with an exploration of the ways in which religious formulations of the nearby ‘other’ both influenced policymaking and were reshaped by it. His work also demonstrates in a compelling way how initial Islamic and Christian concepts remain directly relevant in the region today, perhaps more so than ever before.


Islamic Sufi Networks in the Western Indian Ocean (C.1880-1940): Ripples of Reform – Anne K. Bang

In the period c. 1880-1940, organized Sufism spread rapidly in the western Indian Ocean. New communities turned to Islam, and Muslim communities turned to new texts, practices and religious leaders. On the East African coast, the orders were both a vehicle for conversion to Islam and for reform of Islamic practice. The impact of Sufism on local communities is here traced geographically as a ripple reaching beyond the Swahili cultural zone southwards to Mozambique, Madagascar and Cape Town. Through an investigation of the texts, ritual practices and scholarly networks that went alongside Sufi expansion, this book places religious change in the western Indian Ocean within the wider framework of Islamic reform.


Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The History and Ideology of a Militant Islamist Group – Stig Jarle Hansen

Since early 2007 a new breed of combatants has appeared on the streets of Mogadishu and other towns in Somalia: the ‘Shabaab’, or youth, the only self-proclaimed branch of al-Qaeda to have gained acceptance (and praise) from Ayman al-Zawahiri and ‘AQ centre’ in Afghanistan. Itself an offshoot of the Islamic Courts Union, which split in 2006, Shabaab has imposed Sharia law and is also heavily influenced by local clan structures within Somalia itself. It remains an infamous and widely discussed, yet little-researched and understood, Islamist group. Hansen’s remarkable book attempts to go beyond the media headlines and simplistic analyses based on alarmist or localist narratives and, by employing intensive field research conducted within Somalia, as well as on the ground interviews with Shabaab leaders themselves, explores the history of a remarkable organisation, one that has survived predictions of its collapse on several occasions. Hansen portrays al-Shabaab as a hybrid Islamist organization that combines a strong streak of Somali nationalism with the rhetorical obligations of international jihadism, thereby attracting a not insignificant number of foreign fighters to its ranks. Both these strands of Shabaab have been inadvertently boosted by Ethiopian, American and African Union attempts to defeat it militarily, all of which have come to nought.


Islam in Africa South of the Sahara: Essays in Gender Relations and Political Reform – Pade Badru and Brigid M. Sackey

Islam in Africa South of the Sahara: Essays in Gender Relations and Political Reform draws together contributions from scholars that focus on changes taking place in the practice of the religion and their effects on the political terrain and civil society. Contributors explore the dramatic changes in gender relations within Islam on the continent, occasioned in part by the events of 9/11 and the response of various Islamic states to growing negative media coverage. These explorations of the dynamics of religious change, reconfigured gender relations, and political reform consider not only the role of state authorities but the impact of ordinary Muslim women who have taken to challenging the surbodinate role assigned to them in Islam.

Essays are far-ranging in their scope as the future of Islam in sub-Saharan Africa falls under the microscope, with contributing addressing such topics as the Islamic view of the historic Arab enslavement of Africans and colonialist ventures; studies of gender politics in Gambia, northern Nigeria, and Ghana; surveys of the impact of Sharia law in Nigeria and Sudan; the political role of Islam in Somalia, South Africa, and African diaspora communities.

Islam in Africa South of the Sahara is an ideal reader for students and scholars of international politics, comparative theology, race and ethnicity, comparative sociology, African and Islamic studies.