Meeting with Nadia Yassine: Non-Violent Islamists who Threaten the Regime in Morocco
By Fouzi Slisli
“Fil Maghrib la tastaghrib/In Morocco do not be surprised,” says an old Moroccan saying. This is true even in politics. Where else would one find the largest Islamist movement in the country having a woman as its most outspoken member? Where else would a grandmother preaching non-violence and democracy constitute the biggest threat to the regime? The lady in question is Nadia Yassine. The movement is the banned Islamist group Adl wal Ihssan – Justice and Spirituality Association (JSA). In August 2007, on the eve of the Moroccan legislative elections, I had the opportunity to visit and interview Nadia Yassine with colleagues from The Economist, BBC World, and MacClatchy Newspapers. At the time, the media was still debating her last court appearance, lips taped with a red X to symbolize the government’s attempt to silence her. She had declared to the press that monarchy was not suitable for Morocco, that she prefers a republic, and that the regime (known by its traditional name Makhzen) was near collapse. In Morocco, where the constitution defines the person of the king as “sacred,” Yassine’s statements were bound to get her in trouble. She and the editors of the weekly where her statements were published now face up to 5 years in prison.
Yassine invited us to meet her at her house in the poor city of Salé. She lives across the street from the infamous prison of Salé. She had moved there to be close to her father Abdessalam Yassine, founder and spiritual leader of the movement, when he was incarcerated by the late king Hassan II. Her husband, Abdallah Chibani, came to meet us by the prison. He is also in the party’s senior leadership, and had also been incarcerated in that very prison. In more than one way, Yassine and Chibani are not the typical Islamist couple. It was him who waited on us and brought us trays of tea and Moroccan sweets, while Yassine sat down and talked national, regional and world politics to us. As an Islamist party, Adl wal Ihsan is unique for having such a strong presence of women at the leadership level. The Women’s association that Yassine founded and built since 1983 is an energetic force within the party and is represented at the most senior level of party leadership.
Adl wal Ihsan is also unique in its style of militancy. JSA has been consistent, loud and unapologetic in its rejection of the king’s claim to power, and has actively worked to oppose it. “We undermine the system, slowly but surely,” Yassine was quoted saying in The Boston Globe, “we put into question the legitimacy of the Islamic claim of the regime. We contest the legitimacy of their power.” JSA, though, is a non-violent organization. It practices grassroots politics and has a huge network of charities, associations, and clubs spread across Morocco and at all levels of civil society. The party aspires to provoke concrete social and political change following Abdessalam Yassine’s concept of “qawma.” As his daughter explained, the word is used in reference to the Moroccan people and means overcoming of, or rising up against, “ignorance, enslavement, feudalism, poverty, and fears.” Rather than the concept of “revolution” which, she said, involves violence and blood letting, qawma involves a peaceful transformation of society. Long term educational programs, and patient grassroots politics and social work are the methods JSA uses to affect this transformation. The pursuit of this educational program and non-violent grass roots politics is considered by Nadia Yassine and her movement a jihad.
The group first came to prominence at the height of what Moroccans commonly call “Les Années de Plomb/ The Years of Lead” – the repressive era in the 70s and 80s under the late king Hassan II. Abdesallam Yassine, who was then a regional school inspector and a Sufi mystic, addressed an open letter to Hassan II challenging his legitimacy and requesting accountability. Incarcerations, house arrests and bans all failed to curb the party’s popularity, especially among the poor. Abdessalam Yassine was incarcerated for six years, and was then placed under house arrest. He regained his freedom again in May 2000 by order of the new king, Mohammed VI. Yassine immediately addressed another open letter. “Redeem your father from torment,” he demanded of the young king, “by returning to the people the goods they are entitled to.” The royal fortune, Yassine said, was equivalent to Morocco’s foreign debt.
Besides refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the king, Adl wal Ihsan also refuses to participate in elections or take part in the government. On the eve of new legislative elections, Nadia Yassine was categorical in her dismissal. The elections “are a non-event for us,” she said. While Morocco has taken important steps to democratize and allow wide participation in the political process, and while the legislative elections of September 2007 have been certified as clean and fair by international observers, the king still maintains the lion’s share of power, controls the most powerful cabinets, and his person, according to the constitution, is “sacred.” The king is executive leader of the state, military chief and religious leader all at the same time. Many Moroccans consider the elections no more than superficial ornaments in the king’s absolutist regime. In Morocco, as the French Libération succinctly put it in a headline, “the King Rules, Moroccans Vote.” JSA refuses to take part in a system that is, in Nadia Yassine’s words, “by definition rigged and does not allow true participation.”
JSA promotes democracy and remains interested in participating in politics, said Nadia Yassine, but not at any price. Her movement, she said, refuses to give the government the satisfaction of integrating them into the system. The strength of the movement is in its grassroots politics, and its closeness and attentiveness to the problems and needs of Moroccans. Participation in what she calls Morocco’s “theatrical democracy” and the king’s “politics of appearances” would alienate the movement from its grassroots. That, she said, is a price JSA categorically refuses to pay.
Nadia Yassine’s views on international politics were not predictable either. She considers the spread of Saudi Wahabism a sort of adolescence that the Islamic world is going through. It will eventually die away and sober political programs will come to replace it. The education and spiritual training that members of her movement go through, she says, makes them immune to wahabism. And while she supports the right of the Islamic resistance in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq to defend their land and their people from colonialism, she does not agree with some of their social programs, especially their attitudes towards women.
1. November 06, 2005.