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2012-05-18

Morocco pursues salafist reconciliation

By Mohamed Saadouni for Magharebia – 18/05/12

The recent return of Moroccan salafists to the public arena is reviving the issue of how former prisoners can encourage others to repudiate extremist beliefs.

On Monday night (May 14th), Moroccan radical clerics Hassan Kettani and Omar Hadouchi were stopped at the Tunis-Carthage airport and denied entry onto Tunisian territory. They had been invited to by "Dar Assalam" ("House of Peace") in Bizerte to hold lectures on Islamic science and attend a May 20th Kairouan conference on Sharia.

Despite Tunisia's unwillingness to allow the former prisoners into the country, the two radical preachers have been outspoken in their rejection of extremism.

"Morocco chose to undertake reforms, averting the horrors and tragedies that have occurred in other Arab countries," Kettani said after being freed from prison last February, as part of a Mouled royal pardon.

"Any change can only be done through a comprehensive national reconciliation," said Kettani, who was serving a 20-year sentence for inciting the 2003 Casablanca suicide bombings.

For many in Morocco, his remarks signalled that a new page was opening between salafists and the government.

"The state is holding out an olive branch... to prisoners who have proven and expressed their willingness to make a positive contribution to public life and shun extremism," Justice Minister Mustafa Ramid said after the pardon.

Moroccan cleric Mohamed Abdelouahab Rafiki, known as Abou Hafs, also received a pardon last winter. Like Kattani, he was serving a 20-year sentence in connection with the deadly Casablanca terror attacks.

A long-time jihadist ideologue, Rafiki was among the first Moroccans to be sent to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet army. Upon his return to Morocco, he launched a campaign to promote religious ideas modelled on Wahhabism.

He was also named at the top of a list of prisoners al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) hoped to swap for three Spanish aid workers held in Mali.

In an exclusive interview with Magharebia in Casablanca, Rafiki insisted that as a preacher, he has always called for moderation.

"Extremism is similar to moral decadence in that both destroy societies delay reforms, and prevent the realization of goals," he now says.

Rafiki was the first high-profile Moroccan prisoner to speak out in support of the 2010 reversal of policy by the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG).

The document known as the "LIFG revision" was ground-breaking. It was the first time that a well-known al-Qaeda affiliate publicly denounced the terrorist organisation for its "indiscriminate bombings" and "targeting of civilians".

After the LIFG doctrinal review appeared, Rafiki issued a statement from prison praising the Libyan paper and calling for copies to be distributed to Salafia Jihadia inmates. His remarks commending the LIFG rejection of al-Qaeda were widely circulated on jihadist websites.

Moroccan salafist prisoners wishing to write ideological revisions must agree to certain conditions: "renouncing violence", "accepting the monarchy" and "not making any propaganda for any foreign jihadist ideology".

"I always support revisions, rationalisation or corrections; you can call it whatever you want," Rafiki tells Magharebia.

Ideological revisions "are a Sharia-based, intellectual, rational, and moral duty for the individual, institution, movement, group, organisation and current," he says. "They are also necessary for reforms and revival."

"I do a semi-daily revision of all my ideas, concepts and attitudes," he says. "I'm not embarrassed to admit my mistakes and back down on them if I find out I was wrong."

The former prisoner adds, "Giving priority to arrogance and claiming a monopoly on truth are obstacles to progress and ambitions."

Revisions vary as much as their writers, Rafiki notes. "If armed groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Yemen said they were backing down on armed action, well, it suits them and their course," the sheikh says.

"This is because they were organised groups that carried arms, fought the regime, killed and were killed, and then found out that this course was futile or illegitimate." Morocco, he argues, is entirely different.

"I never believed in armed action, never promoted it, and never saw it as a means of change," Rafiki continues. "I never accused Muslims of kufr, or deserted their mosques or institutions, and I never called for destabilising the regime or overthrowing it."

Extremists have new tools today, he warns. The Salafist leader points out that the internet, absent any controls or interaction, can be used for indoctrination. There is a still a place for preachers, he says.

"Religious scholars can guide young people on the correct path and prevent them from sliding into deviation," he notes.

It is in the best interest of the state to encourage prisoners to produce ideological revisions, and to facilitate their release and subsequent integration into the community, Mountassir Hamada, a researcher in Islamic groups, tells Magharebia.

He is particularly concerned by the desperate financial conditions for the families of jailed salafists.

"Their wives often resort to begging or selling off their belongings. In many cases, they take their own children with them," he notes. "Such cases can only aggravate social tensions and feed the discourse of extremism."

To reunite families and reintegrate political prisoners, Hamada argues, ulemas should take part in encouraging revisions.

"What we now need is to use these religious scholars to speed the resolution of these prisoners' cases, so as to focus on major reforms facing the country in the Arab Spring," he says.

Any question about the merit of ideological revisions can be answered by comparing the positions of Morocco's jihadist sheikhs several years ago and those of the same sheikhs today, Hamada says.

"The comparison will show that there has been much progress and a trend towards expressing more moderate positions," he adds.

One example is Hassan Khattab, convicted in 2008 for leading the "Ansar al-Mahdi" terror cell and currently serving a 30-year-prison term. He is leading an effort among Salafia Jihadia inmates to repudiate the movement's extremist tendencies.

In an online letter to King Mohammed VI published last September, Khattab presented his "revisions". He renounced violence and introduced an initiative called "Munasaha and Reconciliation", aimed at fellow salafist inmates.

"The Salafist Jihadist current today truly believes in the importance of realising dialogue and debate with open-mindedness and an understanding of other cultures," he wrote.

"It also believes in the need…to combat the wrong habits and concepts, extremism, and close-mindedness that have been practiced within the community for decades."

Today, Khattab says, "We're prepared to help build a new Morocco."

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