A Discussion with Noureddine Benmalek, High Comissioner Authority, Morocco
Background: This conversation between Noureddine Benmalek and Katherine Marshall, originally spoken in French, was part of a December 17, 2007 symposium at Georgetown University's Doha Campus on "Global Development and Faith-Inspired Organizations in the Muslim World." In this interview, Mr. Benmalek speaks about his interest in non-violent Islamism. In addition to explaining his own views on Islamism, Mr. Benmalek offers insight into how Islamist organizations oriented toward development work are perceived in Morocco.
Interview Conducted on December 18, 2007
>> click here for pdf
A Moroccan colleague, Ahmad Abaddi, suggested that you were the ideal person to participate in our consultation about how faith-inspired institutions are evolving in their social roles and how they are linked to the political sphere, given your deep knowledge of the situation in Morocco and beyond. Can you give me an idea of the path you have taken and how it has brought you into contact with these issues?
I have lived through several quite different stages and seen these issues from different angles. I am 35 years old now. I discovered religion at a very young age, as it was practiced in my family, at the mosque, and also in the community (on the street). I was born in Kenitra, about 50 kilometers from Rabat, and religion was simply a central part of life. But it had no political character at the time. In a sense, I rediscovered religion when I was at secondary school (lycée) and it took on a quite different meaning. I came to have both a different understanding of its various currents and of its social mission. This new perspective came at first from contacts with professors and reading, then from a more political, activist engagement.
However, the 1991 first Gulf War was a very important marker in my milieu and my own life. Religion took on a far more political sense. There was much talk, at the lycée, of the politics of the war in very religious terms, thus anger at the United States and language of “Crusades” and the like. The idea of Muslims in opposition to Christians and vice versa began to emerge. I remember this both in the mosque and in my own family, as a marked difference from the time before.
I became much more politically active in this period, demonstrating in the streets, even given to burning, and my anger and protests were cast in terms of religion and the opposition I perceived at a geopolitical level. But at the same time I was reading and exploring to understand better the forces that were at issue. The political atmosphere at the time was tense and it was framed in a religious sense (I was still at the lycée).
I then went on to the University, in Rabat, where I was studying political science and law. I found that I deepened my views and I saw religion in yet again a different light, I sensed that religion could and should mean more than war and opposition. I was concerned to feel that Muslims were within a narrow confine, too oppositional, with too limited perspectives. I became more interested in politics and the ideas and themes that religious thinkers at the time were raising in that regard. The Huntington perspective was very much alive, the sense of civilizations in opposition, but it seemed to me a very narrow angle. I was particularly interested at the time in reading the many self-criticisms of Islamism that were emerging, particularly from Syria and Egypt, also Kuwait. There was a process of reflection underway that I was part of. My ambition then was to see a more rational, more religious approach to the vision of what was happening in the international political sphere. But even more I was looking to a different kind of lived Islam, the Islamic faith as an example for personal life & that Muslims could be an example to others in terms of ideals and values and the way to live life. I had been a political leader at the lycée, but at university, I stepped back from this role. I spent much time in reflection.
After I finished university, I began my career as a journalist. My first position was with Attajdid, an Arabic language, Islamist newspaper. I worked pretty much on all beats and subjects, but my central interest was on social policy issues.
Where did you see yourself on the political and religious spectrum at the time?
I was clearly in the Islamist “wing” of politics but with some concerns. The overall tone of debate was quite negative. I was not entirely comfortable with that. I had strong beliefs in Islam and in Islamism, as I understood it, which was a positive way to live life and understand issues. But I was uneasy with the tone of anger and calls to violence.
What did “Islamism” mean to you then?
Above all, it was a positive direction. For me, it was a way to look at life, a point of view. It had some resemblance to socialism, and other isms. But it was also a living process, like life, that changed with life, experienced illnesses and the like. It had youth, middle age, and old age also. It was human, also, with faults and virtues. It was no angel. I saw it more than anything else as a practical guide as to how to live life, daily life. But I also came to see faults in Islamism, particularly on the political side and I could not accept many of the political perspectives that were put forward at the time. I had particular reservations about the political methods that were being advanced then in the Moroccan context.
I decided to leave the newspaper I was working for, by coincidence, just a month after September 11, 2001.
What did you do next?
I worked then for a different newspaper, with a different focus, an independent paper: Assahifa. It is owned by a strong and wealthy individual, M. Jammii Aboubakar, someone with wide interests, and a wide international perspective (he speaks four languages), including interest in the Anglo Saxon world. The experience of working in this new environment was liberating, and I was able to feel independent, to think and work following my own beliefs. I explored from this new angle the issues of Islamism and terrorism, and Islamism and tolerance became my specialty. I worked essentially as an investigative journalist. I was the first journalist to penetrate some of the Islamist circles, those under largely Salafist influences, including the Jihadists, and gave them a voice.
And then in 2005 I changed course again and joined the High Communication Authority, working in a new area which was audio visual communication.
How does that work? Is it a public body? What are the criteria?
It reports directly to the King, and is charged with implementing the laws on communications. There is a comparable body of law and institutions in France as well as in other countries.
In my new life, my responsibility has been to oversee communications, with a view to control those that are dangerous, either to children (pornography) or public safety (terrorism). The focus is on dangerous content on radio and television, especially for young people. The criteria we use depends directly on the laws in force.
How do you see the picture in Morocco in relation to the issues we are discussing here & that is, the role that non governmental institutions especially with a religious character are playing and how they are changing?
It is very complicated. As a first part of the background, the overall situation has changed a lot since Mohammed VI became king. He has worked to change the social environment, taking a far more active interest and giving higher priority to social policies. He focuses on the poor and talks often about them. His approach has been to find a positive equilibrium with the Islamists, to meet them with their own arguments where social issues are concerned. He has also looked to the positive aspects in Islamism. But it remains a sensitive area.
There is also an important dynamic happening with sufi associations across Morocco. There are religious currents that are shaping many of the political parties, Islamist and other (PJD, MUR etc). In terms of the sufi brotherhoods, many are forming associations that are working both in rural areas and in the suburbs (banlieux). Some of what they do is quite traditional charity, along quite conventional lines& thus, building schools, hospitals, storage facilities, university housing. Some of this is individual but much is done through small groups. I see this as part of a renewal of religion, in a new form. And Islam is clearly the motivation.
Much has changed since our 9/11 & that is, the Casablanca bombings of May 16, 2004. One of the popular charities over time has been to support the building of mosques. Over the past few years this has become much more difficult, and there are very long delays in getting approval (from the government) for mosque construction. May 16 is what is behind the new surveillance. By extension, there is also much more careful scrutiny of the many activities that go on in and around mosques & journalism, political parties, publications, people. The Salafists are very active in many mosques.
What picture do you see of associations in Morocco? We were speaking yesterday about the explosion of NGOs of many kinds in Egypt & up to 26,000. Is a comparable phenomenon happening in Morocco?
The picture in Morocco is as complex but more difficult to describe. There is an increase in associations though probably no where near as many as in Egypt. They take many forms. Some are institutionalized, but many are not & they are thus largely invisible from an official perspective. It is also very difficult to pinpoint which have religious affiliations or even inspiration and which do not, because this is rarely reported or even discussed openly. What you are seeing is especially more focus on and work for traditional charity, though even that is affected by the mood of post May 16. For example, at this season of sacrifice, it was traditional to collect the fleeces of slaughtered sheep, going house to house, to distribute them to poor families, as a way of providing some shared benefits. That has been stopped.
How is this affecting the Sufi associations you were describing?
This again is hard to describe and the picture is complicated still further by the projections of media which are often distorted or just inaccurate. But the key thing is that they are very important; Sufism is very deeply rooted and it is growing and changing. I have done some research about how Sufism is increasingly active in the social realm. There are large numbers of associations, initiatives, for example building hospitals, especially in the east of Morocco, but also in Casablanca. Many of the orders are involved in such works, the Tijanniya perhaps most of all but also the others.
But above all it is important to remember that Sufism is effectively the religion of the State today in Morocco. Yet the relationships between the official and private are still complex and generally quite guarded. It makes it very difficult to say when an association or a project has a religious character and when it does not. The leaders of the tariqas may be involved in sponsoring works but their roles are often not clear. So, the system in Morocco is rather different and it is not easy to describe. That applies for all organizations, though perhaps most of all the sufi groups.
Can you give me an example?
The Association As Salaam might be a good organization to highlight, as it has the kind of complex blending of political and social that I was referring to. This is a social group that does social work. But it is well known that it is also associated with the political party, the PJD, but indirectly. And it describes itself as a religious and social group. The association works for the sick, with volunteer doctors. They give coupons that allow poor people to get treatment in the public hospitals. They provide material help to poor families, especially in Ramadan and when there are festivals (now, for example, they provide sheep for sacrifice). They also focus on the back to school times and provide help then. They operate both at the national and local levels. In general, though, their focus is very local.
What you have described so far sounds like quite traditional charitable work. What of organizations both involved in religion and in broader social transformation?
Yes, that is in many respects the most interesting transformation taking place and it is generally a positive force. In many places, particularly Fes and Marrakech but also Casablanca, religious associations are taking on new roles. In the past they were particularly focused on schools in cities but are looking now at rural education and education of girls. Because of long distances children must walk to get to school, many are building dormitories (Dar Taliba), especially for girls. They are also helping with school fees, or giving bonuses for good performance. There are similar developments in health.
What about the Islamic schools?
These were tremendously important, especially in rural areas, and there were thousands in the past. Generally their role has declined but there is an effort now to modernize them. The idea is to capture the best of what they offer and control or dampen the abuses and negative aspects. There is much about them that is not well known.
You have used various terms, and declined to use some others. I note that you do not like the term fundamentalist, but do use the word Islamist frequently. And you distinguish between “Islamiste Integreiste” and Islamiste Non-Integriste”. Can you explain to me how you see the differences and nuances?
Well, as I mentioned before, for me Islamiste is a positive term, meaning essentially a life lived true to the tenets of Islam. An “Integriste” is someone who is committed to the overall integrity of the faith & there are as many integristes in the secular as in the religious world. An Islamiste who is an “integriste” would be someone who believes in the integral whole of the faith but who recognizes that others may live their lives according to different beliefs. There is room for dialogue and discussion. The other, the “non-Integriste”, does not accept the alternative viewpoint. They have a tendency to live in a cell, without seeing or accepting alternative viewpoints.
In general what I prefer to do is to name and describe movements as they see and describe themselves. And I see dangers in the way the terms are used & Sarcozy recently used the term Islamiste in a very negative way, for example, and that kind of labeling creates a problem.
King Mohammed VI has used the term Islamiste in a very positive way, though some years ago. In one speech he said directly “I am an Islamiste”. The context was that he was saying the Integristes are Moroccans and they are Muslims and that many live their lives through the teachings of Islam; it followed, he said, that he also was an Islamiste.
Now political Islam is quite different but even here Morocco differs from, for example, Egypt. King Mohammed VI has worked hard to avoid a clash with Islamists. His aim is to bring different perspectives together, and to work for peace, within the religious context.