More on Comparing Islamists & Gradualism

This blog does not generally or usually deal with Morocco. It is worth looking at James Asfa’s article on the Justice and Development Party’s recent performance in Morocco’s parliamentary elections. These were less momentous and exciting than the ones in Tunisia and Egypt given the tightly managed nature of the reform process there and the enduring strength of the monarchy; but they do fit into general trend in the region and point to interesting trends in the Maghreb. The piece can be looked at as a jumping point to think about some recent developments elsewhere in North Africa; in Algeria — where the regime’s efforts to lumber through this past year through managed reforms resemble Morocco’s to a certain degree — and in transitional Tunisia and Egypt, where change has obviously been more radical and where political polarization is more intense when it comes to religion than in Morocco. Asfa’s summary of the lessons the PJD has drawn from the Algerian experience are notable and worth reading. Indeed, as Paul Pillar writes, there is some danger in ‘sloppy thinking in failing to distinguish radical Islamists (who of course have represented the most salient and worrisome form of transnational extremist violence in recent years) from all other political Islamists.’ Asfa’s piece is worth reading in these terms.

The FIS’s extremism sets it apart from the Islamist trends active in North Africa today, one might draw some comparison with the most rigid elements in the Salafist parties which performed so well in the first round of Egypt’s recent elections. The parties that did poorly in Algeria’s famous 1991 election — the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated MSP and en-Nahdha especially — look more or less like the parties that have been successful in Tunisia and Egypt and Morocco. Their leaders now hope to perform well in next year’s parliamentary elections (more on this later; some fear Islamists like the MSP will be allowed to perform well and some newspapers are recycling lines popular in some quarters about the crypto-Islamism of FLN secretary Abdelaziz Belkhadem and president Bouteflika). They took this posture very early and were some of major beneficiaries of the crackdown on the FIS, along with some of the smaller secular parties including those that sided with the military’s coup that winter (as well as parties which did not like Lousia Hanoune’s PT). Algeria was and is of course more radically polarized than Morocco, as Asfa notes: this is also true of Tunisia and Egypt.

The impact of the PJD is also dampened by the religious and conservative nature of Moroccan society and politics. In other North African states, such as Tunisia and Algeria, there has been a long-standing state-sponsored secularism, and thus Islamist parties offer entirely different worldviews and political discourses. In this sense, an Islamist-led government could produce a profound political shift even if it only had limited power. This is not the case in Morocco. The king’s status as amir al-mou’mineen (“commander of the faithful”) means that religion already plays an important part in producing political legitimacy, and so Moroccans are used to Islam playing a central role in their country’s political discourse.

This what is so fascinating about the dynamics of opposition in Morocco; really popular and strident secular movements carry only slightly more support than republican movements, religious or secular. The monarchy has a level of traditional legitimacy and the king is probably more popular than Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria or any of the other autocrats in North Africa were this around time last year. While it is something of a stretch to say Algeria has a ‘state-sponsored secularism’ the distance between the FIS’s and FLN’s views of Algeria’s Islamic heritage were in 1992 was certainly much greater than the one between the makhzen and the PJD. The Moroccan regime has also done a better job at integrating elites oriented toward political Islam into its court than other Arab regimes; the Algerians had just about failed at this by 1991 (which partly explains the fervor of the FIS leaders, especially the younger cadres and activists who often came from opportunity-deprived arabisant backgrounds or alienated religious backgrounds), and the [former] Tunisian and Egyptian regimes  generally could not come round to this in time for it to have added to their staying power meaningfully. The PJD’s performance does not look to have caused the same alarm and humiliation Islamist victories elsewhere in the region have, probably because there has been no revolutionary transition in Morocco, its plurality was not as large as other Islamist parties’ and its program is rather modest.

The anxiety among non-Islamist Tunisians and Egyptians nowadays reflects this problematic trend. Similar, though more extreme, fear drove some Algerians who describe (and described) themselves as ‘liberals’ and ‘democrats’ to support the 199/2 coup d’etat. Something that sticks out from the way some Algerians in that camp describe the FIS and other Islamist tendencies are analogies made to the Nazis and fascists, heard from men like Khaled Nezzar and some hardline secularists. In this view the 1989-1992 political opening was a kind of Weimar, giving way to too much tolerance for an intolerant trend that required the army to ‘save’ democracy and compelled liberal democrats to support the war on the Islamists. In this narrative, the army ‘saved’ Algeria’s transition to democracy. The hysterical emotion this period provoked inside Algeria is understandable given the sorts of stakes it involved and the enormous social and cultural tensions that were ripping and tugging at Algeria at the time and how these had already led to violence and the formation of armed groups even before the cancelation of the elections. Today, the Islamist parties coming to the fore are somewhat different from the FIS and have drawn on a host of experiences in the interval since their emergence and the violent repression of the 1980s and 1990s (and 2000s). It is also important to note that while the Algerian case holds relatively little relevance for the Tunisian experience, where non-electoral variables within the state (the military, old elites) had much less control over the electoral process, the Moroccan and Egyptian examples resemble it much more in that these processes have been rather heavily managed by incumbent elites though in the Egyptian case they have comparatively less power than the Algerian military did in 1991 as a result of international and domestic factors; the Moroccans have significantly more control, the king and the makhzen having given up relatively little in the way of reforms.

UPDATE: In the comments, Issandr of The Arabist has a correction:

I think you get something wrong here:

>This what is so fascinating about the dynamics of opposition in Morocco; really popular and >strident secular movements carry only slightly more support than republican movements, >religious or secular.

– Electorally, pro-monarchy loyalist parties that are non-Islamist are actually the majority.
– Politically, probably the largest political force in the country is Adl wal Ihsan, which is banned not because it’s Islamist but because it refuses to recognize the religious underpinning of the monarchy: that the king is commander of the faithful. Some Adlistes are crypto-Republican.
– Stridently secular: if by this you mean the communists, yes they are insignificant. But you have large historic parties that are secular in the Moroccan tradition (i.e. not hostile to religion)

The question of religion is inextricably tied to the king in Morocco, since he is after all the first mufti of the country. It is questioning this on Islamic grounds that is the most radical, and dangerous for the monarchy, position to adopt —hence Adl is still banned despite repeated offers of legalization in exchange for dropping opposition to the commandship of the faithful.

One thought on “More on Comparing Islamists & Gradualism

  1. I think you get something wrong here:

    >This what is so fascinating about the dynamics of opposition in Morocco; really popular and >strident secular movements carry only slightly more support than republican movements, >religious or secular.

    – Electorally, pro-monarchy loyalist parties that are non-Islamist are actually the majority.
    – Politically, probably the largest political force in the country is Adl wal Ihsan, which is banned not because it’s Islamist but because it refuses to recognize the religious underpinning of the monarchy: that the king is commander of the faithful. Some Adlistes are crypto-Republican.
    – Stridently secular: if by this you mean the communists, yes they are insignificant. But you have large historic parties that are secular in the Moroccan tradition (i.e. not hostile to religion)

    The question of religion is inextricably tied to the king in Morocco, since he is after all the first mufti of the country. It is questioning this on Islamic grounds that is the most radical, and dangerous for the monarchy, position to adopt —hence Adl is still banned despite repeated offers of legalization in exchange for dropping opposition to the commandship of the faithful.

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