In a turbulent world of violent extremism, Salafism has become a catchall term for irrational dogma and violent zealotry that can neither be reconstructed nor accommodated. Even in stable contexts in which excluded and fringe groups have been integrated, the cropping up of Salafists inspires trepidation.
For example, in Morocco, the growing public visibility of Salafists who have embraced mainstream politics still astounds and agitates many people. In 2016, the decision of the moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) to have Hamad Kabbaj, a stalwart Salafist, lead its electoral list in Marrakesh sparked controversy, leading to the invalidation of his candidacy by the Interior Ministry. For some, the enlistment of Kabbaj either exposed the true ideological colors of the PJD or showed Salafism creeping into moderate political Islam. The reality, however, was much more complex than such labeling suggested.
The paradoxical mutations of Salafism in Morocco provide a useful illustration of this complexity. For decades a traditionalist current in Salafism had remained wedded to a vision that enforced doctrinal and ritual purity and prohibited all forms of religious activism. Yet this changed under the pressure of local and regional events. The May 2003 terrorist attack in Casablanca and the emergence of the February 20 Moroccan pro-democracy movement in 2011 shook the traditionalist current to its core, raising fundamental questions about the adaptability of the movement’s activities and methods of activism.
The first event, marked by a regime crackdown on Salafi activities and institutions, mainly Quranic schools, yielded diverse responses that saw young traditionalist Salafists grow gradually more responsive to political sensibilities and interests, even as they remained dedicated first and foremost to doctrinal purity and peaceful proselytization. This created tensions and contradictions in Salafi thought, which were compounded by the 2011 Arab uprisings and their chaotic aftermath. The end result was the factionalization of the traditionalist Salafi current into a camp that reverted to conformity with traditional doctrine and another that persisted in pursuing a reformist path, charting a middle ground between Salafi strictures and political engagement.
This great rift within traditional Salafism is best illustrated by the course taken by two of the most prominent figures of the traditionalist current and the critical stages that have influenced their ideological approaches, relations with the regime, and adaptability to local and regional changes.
For decades, Mohamed Maghraoui has been the most dominant and influential figure of traditionalist Salafism in Morocco. Hamad Kabbaj gained visibility as Maghraoui’s deputy, a position from which he recently resigned to protest against his mentor’s position on the coup in Egypt. He is best known for providing the intellectual and religious backbone for the development of traditionalist Salafism towards a mix of Salafi Da‘wa, or the Salafi Call, and political and social activism.
Their bifurcating paths, however, reveal the mutations, paradoxes, and adaptations of traditionalist Salafism. That’s because the Arab uprisings nudged the traditional Salafi current to chart a far less ambivalent course towards political engagement. A few holdouts notwithstanding, especially within the Madkhaliyyah current, named for the religious scholar Sheikh Rabi‘ al-Madkhali of Saudi Arabia, which denounced street protests in 2011 as acts of sedition, the general trend welcomed the fresh breeze of openness that the revolts brought with them.
Indeed, Maghraoui, who once rejected any form of street activism as an inexcusable transgression of royal prerogatives, affirmed the legitimacy of most of the demands of the February 20 youth protest movement—a loose coalition of Moroccan leftists, liberals, and Islamists. To be sure the protest movement never called for the overthrow of the king and the latter’s quick and positive response to the protests on March 9, 2011, made it more publicly palatable and less costly for traditional Salafists to readily adjust to the new realities.
The Salafists’ foray into the political arena came with their support for the PJD’s candidates in the November 2011 parliamentary elections. In the unpredictable context of popular agitation, the rapprochement with the PJD, at least in the early phases of the Arab Spring, seemed to be a win-win formula. This calculated turnaround of traditional Salafism did not draw from any clear doctrinal guidelines. Maghraoui had tried to make the theological case for limited political activism, but his rationale left several gray zones, for instance on when protests were and were not permitted, and their role in promoting the right message of Islam.
Whether by design or not, this ideological ambiguity gave the traditionalists the flexibility to always backtrack and readjust depending on how the political situation evolved in Morocco. The moment that supporting the PJD electorally turned out to be a losing gamble, it became a matter of survival to fully line up behind the regime’s preferences.
It is notable that the Islamists’ presence in government did not prevent the closure in 2013 of Quranic schools affiliated with Maghraoui and his Association for the Quran and Sunna. The regime raised pressure on Maghraoui’s current almost as soon as the traditionalists’ rapprochement with the PJD turned into electoral support for the party, eventually forcing Maghraoui to revert to unstinting subservience to the regime. This turnabout, however, led to serious cracks within traditionalist ranks.
The defining moment that forced a reconfiguration of traditionalist Salafism was the 2013 military coup in Egypt. Maghraoui’s blessing of the military overthrow of the country’s first democratically-elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, led to several defections, including that of Kabbaj. The latter has since engaged in honing the theological arguments that allow for political activism within the confines of the Salafi creed. The capacity of Kabbaj’s current—which draws its strength from a group of educated and middle class youths who joined Maghraoui in the 1990s—to continue on this trajectory is not a forgone conclusion.
As developments within the Maghraoui current have shown, the politicization of Salafism does not proceed along a linear path. Kabbaj’s experiment in adapting Salafi doctrines to shifting socio-political contexts still needs to mature. However, as it continues unfolding, this effort will face several challenges, including the continuing resilience of quietist Salafists and the regime’s wariness of activist Salafism.