What can be learned from the state's confrontation with violent Islamist movements in the 1980s and 90s? Hossam Tamam*
sketches an essential checklist
Revisionism has gained momentum among Islamist groups that once espoused violence. The Egyptian group Jamaa Islamiya paved the way with the announcement in 1997 of its initiative to halt violence. Since then it has produced more than 20 books refuting the theological justifications for rebelling against the state and waging war against the regime. The model was soon emulated and its arguments adopted in the battle against jihadist thought as attempts were made to transfer the Egyptian revisionist experience to Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Libya and Morocco.
Click to view caption|
'The radical Islamist movement in Egypt, in all its organised manifestations, built its legitimacy upon its opposition not only to the regime but to the modern state itself. It presented its legitimacy as a rival to that of the state, and it sustained this even at its weakest moments'
To benefit from the Egyptian experience is a meritorious goal. The process, though, must be preceded by a close examination of the context in which the revisions occurred. Only then will it be possible to determine those aspects exclusive to an Egyptian context, and those that can be applied elsewhere in the Arab nation, particularly Morocco, where there has been much talk of repeating the Egyptian experience in dealing with jihadist fundamentalism.
The first question that needs to be addressed in any examination of Egyptian jihadist revisionism and its possible application to Morocco is the nature of the relationship between the religion and the state.
In Egypt, Islam is the official religion of the state and Islamic law a primary source of legislation. The government, however, is modern and quasi-secular. Its legitimacy is not founded on a religious basis. While Islam is the religion of the state it is not reflected in a concrete way within the political system. If the government uses religion to advance its political interests or to confront its adversaries, it does so while retaining a degree of religious neutrality, espousing neither a particular theological outlook nor a sectarian point of view. It may have co- opted religious institutions such as Al-Azhar, the office of the mufti and the Ministry of Religious Endowments, and attached them to the establishment but it has never been able to impose its full authority over the religious sphere, large areas of which remain outside its control and, often, under the control of its adversaries.
Morocco seems almost antithetical to Egypt in terms of the relation between religion and the state. The legitimacy of the Moroccan regime is founded on religion, in the form of the "Leader of the Faithful" and the rites pledging allegiance to the king and Islamic law, embodied in the constitution and the political system. The Moroccan state offers a clear and comprehensive vision for structuring the religious domain based on four pillars: the Ashaari School in creed, the Maliki School in jurisprudence, Sufism in comportment, and the Leader of the Faithful as the foundation of the political order.
Whereas the Egyptian regime remains neutral towards religious discourse as long as it does not present a direct threat to the political order the Moroccan regime is sensitive to any departures from its own religious perception. These are carefully monitored by powerful and effective religious institutions, most notably the Ministry of Religious Endowments which, like the foreign, interior and information ministries, is presided over by the king but which, unlike them, is the only ministry to have its head office in the grounds of the royal palace.
The Moroccan government's sensitivity to any alternative religious discourse is not connected to a threat to the political system. The government is perpetually vigilant to pre-empt such a scenario, assiduously containing any alternate discourse and, if necessary, uprooting it in order to safeguard what it defines as religious harmony. Recently the government went on the offensive against academic Salafism (fundamentalism). Last year it closed down institutes advocating Salafism, even though the movement had more often than not been used in favour of the regime and against its opponents. The government simultaneously moved against Shia discourse, institutions and leaders, before they could coalesce into a political entity.
The difference in the nature of the relationship between religion and the state in the two countries is reflected in differences in the relationship between the state and Islamist movements -- ie those religious actors generally independent of the state -- especially as pertains to concepts of legitimacy.
The powerful Egyptian state has been successful in co-opting religious institutions and authorities and, to some extent, in asserting its control over the religious sphere. The process began with Mohamed Ali Pasha, founder of modern Egypt, who took control over the institutions of Al-Azhar and the religious endowments, and continued through Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who took such decisive measures as introducing laws reforming Al-Azhar, abolishing independent religious endowments and banning religious courts. In spite of such inroads, the state never managed to completely dominate the religious sphere, which it ultimately had to share with community groups and associations, and with Islamist movements and organisations. If the state sometimes succeeded in weakening or dismantling such movements it has nevertheless failed to bring them completely to heel. They have continued to contest the political legitimacy of the state, at times attempting to extend their own legitimacy over the social domain when they failed politically. The radical Islamist movement in Egypt, in all its organised manifestations, built its legitimacy upon its opposition not only to the regime but to the modern state itself. It presented its legitimacy as a rival to that of the state, and it sustained this even at its weakest moments.
Perhaps the Moroccan Islamist movement attempted something of this sort at the outset. However, it quickly realised the futility of such an endeavour under conditions in which the state so dominates the religious realm as to leave no openings to anyone but those willing to work through and in the service of the state's religious apparatus. This is why Islamist movements in Morocco moved to build their legitimacy not on the basis of a reconciliation with the state, but on the basis that the state, itself, is the source of their legitimacy. Rather than portraying their legitimacy as independent of the state they look to the state as a source of that legitimacy. As diverse as Morocco's Islamist groups are there are only minor differences between them in this regard. The differences are purely quantitative, a result of the strength and deeprootedness of the religious legitimacy of the Moroccan monarchy and its ability to regenerate itself.
In the Egyptian case Islamist movements have managed to assert their control over public space and subject it, as well as the government, to their logic. In general, the public now subscribes to Islamist principles with no need for prompting by Islamic movements. Egypt has become Islamist without Islamists being in control of the state. This is far from the case in Morocco, where Islamists do not control the public space and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future. The Moroccan state is powerful and fully in control. There are strong, and historically influential, left-wing trends, and there are influential Western, and particularly francophone, lobbies capable of promoting their perceptions in the public and social space. The influence of the Islamists is relatively weak.
The government in Morocco completely dominates the public space. It remains powerful enough to control the religious space, including its Islamist and Salafi components. The state can impose its logic on the Islamist scene, including the activist element, on the grounds of the need to defend "Moroccan Islam", a magic formula that pulls the rug from beneath Islamist and other opposition forces, leaving the state as the foremost authority on the form Islam adopted in the country.
The Salafi movement has not been immune to the gravitational pull of the legitimacy of the state and its concept of Islam. Ongoing discussions on the relationship between the Salafism and the Ashaari School, in which many Moroccan Salafists maintain that their dispute is not with Abul-Hassan Al-Ashaari, the founder of this school, but with subsequent generations, reflect a desire, never openly stated, on the part of Salafist leaders to come to terms with the official creed of the state. If this is the case, the state could use it as a springboard for absorbing the Salafi movement instead of regarding it as a potential threat to the official religious outlook.
With regard to the desire to transfer the Egyptian experience in jihadist revisionism to Morocco, there are certain important differences that may make the Moroccan situation easier and may even obviate the need to emulate the Egyptian experience from the outset.
In Egypt, as in Algeria, there was a large, ideologically and organisationally structured, jihadist movement that not only defied the authority of the state but its very raison d'être. Such was the surge in this movement in Egypt that it bred paramilitary organisations like wildfire and succeeded in recruiting tens of thousands of young people. There are no accurate statistics on the number of members of jihadist groups in Egypt though it has been estimated that more than 30,000 were in detention in the 1980s and 1990s and that the Jamaa Islamiya, alone, acknowledged that 12,000 of those detained were members. Alongside this large militant Islamist organisation there were dozens of others such as the Jihad, the Fatah Vanguard (Tala'e Al-Fatah), the Shawqiyin (named after its founder Shawqi El-Sheikh), the Redeemed from Hell (Al-Najoun min Al-Nar), and Hizbullah. These organisations had a huge social base, networks operating through mosques, religious societies and community associations, and an overwhelming presence in the universities and popular districts. So powerful were they that in some poorer areas whole quarters came under their administration. Tales told of the "Republic of Imbaba" may contain quite a bit of hyperbole but they are still indicative of the ability of Jamaa Islamiya to gain control over extensive neighbourhoods and run them as though they were a state within a state.
The jihadist groups in Egypt also generated a body of literature upon which to base their insurrectionist ideology. In building their theological and jurisprudential ideological arsenal they looked beyond the intellectual legacies of Abul-Ela Al-Mawdudi and Sayed Qotb to more recent contributions by Saleh Sariya, Mohamed Abdel-Salam Farag and Sayed Imam El-Sharif, not to mention collectively authored works such as the Charter of Islamic Action.
The Egyptian state thus faced a major revolutionary movement. Its project did not stop at protest or opposition, which might have led to negotiation. Its aim was to overthrow the state itself. It succeeded in assassinating president Anwar El-Sadat in 1981 and engaged in numerous bouts of violent confrontation against the state, inflicting considerable economic losses by means of its attacks against tourist targets.
There is no substantial comparison to be made between the jihadist wave in Egypt and the so-called Salafi jihadist movement in Morocco. The latter does not have a significant popular base, lacks financial and religious support networks and has no distinct ideological or organisational structure. Many question whether the term "Salafi jihadism" actually applies, not only because its leaders reject the application of the term, but also because their literature, which consists of a handful of sermons, is closer to intellectual Salafism and, perhaps, to conventional fundamentalism. It appears very remote from the jihadist outlook.
The furthest the jihadist trend has gone in Morocco is the May 2003 bombings and the Casablanca bombings of 2007. As appalling as these were, they proved the work of small, isolated cells, which may continue to exist but which nevertheless are not indicative of a situation or movement that could threaten the state.
What merits closer consideration in the Egyptian jihadist revisionist experience and which could perhaps be applied elsewhere is the legacy of the state in managing the jihadist revisionist process.
The Egyptian state seized on the idea of jihadist revisions and worked to promote them at a time when political elites and the intelligentsia dismissed the idea in favour of sustaining the ideological struggle against militant Islamism. The state, which had refused to talk to Islamist groups during the period of violent confrontation lest its prestige be undermined by being seen to make concessions, intercepted the signal delivered by the Jamaa Islamiya's revisions after the group was militarily broken and responded positively in order to halt further attrition and armed confrontation. This is the legacy of the state: it deafened its ears to the cries of the elites that wanted to step up the confrontation in order to eliminate the Islamist movement entirely, and not just the jihadist trend. The state also persisted in fostering a revisionist experience against the tide of international opinion so hawkish towards jihadist ideas and trends that it obviated any possibility of managing revisions which require an accurate and subtle reading of intricate ideological maps.
Other Arab countries face the same challenge, though without the legacy of the state or its institutions. Indeed, following the 11 September attacks against the World Trade Center, it is sometimes difficult to tell where the state ends in its relationship with the jihadist movement.
* The writer is an expert in Islamist movements.