A New Breed of Islamist

A New Breed of Islamist

With a reformist king and a moderate Islamist party in power, Morocco could become a model for the region. But looming threats could derail its progress.


Following the adoption of a new constitution last summer, Moroccan voters delivered their verdict: the current government is in the hands of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD). The party enjoys a commanding majority in the present ruling coalition, a third of all parliamentary seats, while its secular, leftist and royalist opponents are divided—at least for now.

Yet the situation in Morocco today is markedly different from Egypt, Tunisia and other countries where Islamists dominate or rule. Morocco’s new Islamist-led government did not come about as the result of a revolution. Rather, it was Moroccan king Mohammed VI himself who designed the new constitution, which cedes most domestic authority to an elected prime minister. He is the only Arab leader in this season of upheaval to have engineered a democratic transition.


The king enjoys the legitimacy and credibility that enabled him to make these changes due to the exceptional history of the Moroccan monarchy: his grandfather spearheaded Morocco’s struggle against colonial rule, and his father braved a Soviet-backed coup and assassination attempts to enable the rise of unions and civil opposition. The young king, for his part, has devoted the last thirteen years to fostering civil society, promoting the rights of women and minorities, and ushering the monarchy’s erstwhile enemies on the Left into government. Though Islamists now hold the reins of authority, their power is strictly provisional, as in any democracy, because a system of checks and balances is in place to assure the rotation of power, subject to the will of the majority.

In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, the new Islamist elites have only just emerged from years of underground revolutionary activism. By contrast, in Morocco they gradually have been inducted into the mainstream by a watchful government over the course of a generation. Along the way, they have learned about and embraced the logic of consensual rule and civil discourse.

Morocco’s Islamists won this year’s elections on an electoral platform of cooperation with the West, tourism and global commerce, a moderate foreign policy and individual rights. They will now be held accountable to an electoral base demanding the fulfillment of these promises. Whether Islamists in other Arab countries prove committed to the same democratic principles is a matter of chance; in Morocco, it’s the outcome of a history of moderation.

No Sure Thing

This contrast can serve as a barometer for analyzing conditions in other Arab countries. There are hopes for good governance in Tunisia because the Islamist al-Nahda party has proclaimed the Moroccan PJD a model worthy of emulation. Al-Nahda leaders have signaled their respect for the ancien regime’s insistence that secularism and Islam can coexist and encouraged the population to hold them to this principle. By contrast, Egypt’s Salafis and elements within the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood call for a total break with former president Mubarak’s policies: they assert that a renewed conflict with Israel should be a prime directive, even at the expense of the effort to heal the country’s many domestic woes.

To be sure, there are valid concerns about the political future of Morocco as well. Liberal and progressive parties face an uphill battle in competing with Islamists in the marketplace of ideas: they have not yet articulated an alternative formula for reconciling Islam and progressivism, and in their complacency, they have become internally fractious. They need to roll up their sleeves, form their own coalition, and make the case to voters that they embody Islam’s inherent liberalism.

While the Moroccan PJD has articulated a moderate political agenda, it has left religious preaching to a sister organization called al-Tawhid wa 'l-Islah ("Monotheistic Action and Reform"), which is still ideologically strident. On the domestic front, al-Tawhid has called for the prohibition of music festivals and railed against Morocco's economically vital tourism industry as essentially oriented around sexual exploitation. It has also called for the imposition of a retrograde interpretation of Islamic law on Moroccan society. When al-Tawhid makes a statement that falls outside the realm of political civility, the PJD leadership reins it in through a critical public pronouncement. The two related movements are unable to unite in moderation, posing a structural problem for the PJD and, by extension, the population it now governs.

Going forward, the PJD needs to truly break with al-Tawhid’s extremist elements and discipline the remaining leadership. All must be on the same page and support a coherent, constructive strategy for addressing the country's high unemployment and economic insecurity, as well as advancing the values of pluralism and tolerance.

The Salafi Threat

Morocco is a society in transition which has fallen prey to the scourge of terrorism. Other, more dangerous Islamist elements have reared their heads, declared war on modernity and even looked to the Islamic Republic of Iran for inspiration. The radical Salafi community, essentially advocating a return to the seventh century, has sympathy among some elements of the population too. Radicals and reactionaries are also entitled to vote. How should the Moroccan majority engage the forces of Salafism and the like peaceably and constructively? What mechanisms are necessary to ensure that extremists do not exploit and subvert the democratic process?

In this context, it is surely helpful that the king has seen to fit to maintain his position as “commander of the faithful”—the ranking arbiter of religious authority in the country. This role enables him to continually fine-tune the practice and interpretation of Islam, ensuring that the public sphere is consecrated for a culture of tolerance and open-minded deliberation. He will referee the electoral process and weigh in on how and when Salafi leaders with a history of militancy should be integrated into the political game.

Salafi leader Mohamad Fizazi has already announced his intention to create a party of his own. Most liberals and a great many Islamists feel his agenda falls outside the realm of civil discourse: whereas the ruling Islamic PJD has disavowed the goals of monopolizing Islam and prohibiting divergent political views, Fizazi and his cohorts have yet to do so. Until they do, their agenda should be recognized as constitutionally ineligible. Any other response to an ideology built on divisiveness and hatred would amount to political suicide for the country, both domestically and internationally. And in a part of the world where money and weapons are always available to antidemocratic forces, Morocco is lucky a benign reformist leader stands guard.

Ahmed Charai is publisher of the weekly Moroccan newspaper L'Observateur as well as the French edition of Foreign Policy magazine. As an expert on Morocco and North Africa, he sits on the board of Trustees of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and on the board of directors of Search for Common Ground in Washington. He is a member of The National Interest's advisory council.

Image: Xiquet