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ALMA Reviews Blog: A Sociology of Islamism in Morocco

The Godfather and the Heirs: A Sociology of Islamism in Morocco (Le Parrain et les Héritiers:  Une Sociologie de l’Islamisme au Maroc)

By Dr Mohamed Fadil

Published in 2022 by Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal

Available at: https://www.pum.umontreal.ca/catalogue/parrain_et_les_heritiers_le

In 1975 Omar Benjelloun, an official of the Moroccan leftist Social Union of the Forces of Progress, and Abderrahim Meniaoui, from the secretariat of the Moroccan leftist Party for Progress and Socialism, were assassinated. The Palace-oriented political establishment in Morocco, known as the makhzen, blamed the killings on the Islamic Youth (al-Shabiba al-Islamiyya, henceforth al-Shabiba), the first Muslim Brotherhood–oriented Islamist organisation in Morocco. A widespread crackdown on al-Shabiba promptly followed, and its leaders, including its founder, Abdelkarim Mouti, were arrested or forced into exile.

Yet two decades later, former al-Shabiba luminaries undertook a striking volte-face. They integrated themselves into Morocco’s formal political system by establishing the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (hizb al-‘Adala wa-l-Tanmiyya, henceforth the PJD). In doing so, they formally disavowed the revolutionary violence and clandestine mobilisation and confrontation of al-Shabiba. Instead, through the PJD they reconciled themselves with the monarchical system and positioned themselves as being in favour of the status quo. They also accepted the Moroccan king’s claim to ultimate religious and political authority in the Kingdom. As a result, the makhzen allowed the PJD to run in the 1997 parliamentary elections. By 2011, the PJD had become the largest party in Morocco’s parliament, leading two coalition governments between 2011 and 2019.[i]

In his new book, The Godfather and the Heirs: A Sociology of Islamism in Morocco [Le Parrain et les Héritiers: Une Sociologie de l’Islamisme au Maroc], Mohamed Fadil seeks to explain this dramatic “evolution of clandestine Islamism”, from the anti-system and revolutionary praxis of al-Shabiba in the 1970s into the loyalist, gradualist, “moderate and legalist Islamism” (p. 191) of the PJD party by 1997.

As Fadil concedes, there is no dearth of excellent scholarship on this subject matter (see, for instance, Mohammed Tozy (1999) and Mohammed Darif (1999)). What is novel about Fadil’s intervention, however, is that he draws on a large body of predominantly Arabic-language primary sources – biographies written and published by adepts of these movements and newspaper articles – together with in-depth interviews with these figures and their current-day acolytes and former colleagues.

Since the late 1990s and early 2000s, scholarship on Islamist politics in the Southwest Asian and North African (SWANA) region has shifted away from studying Islamist activism via actors’ internal ideas and ideology towards greater attention to how institutional politics and socio-political context drive Islamist ideology and behaviour. This is in part a result of the fact that, during this period, authoritarian states in the region began to allow (Islamic) actors to participate in formal institutions and procedures (Brown 2014). Fadil’s book builds on this literature by attending to the explanatory role of shifting socio-political contexts in driving these changes within Moroccan Islamism between 1975 and 1996. In particular, Fadil underlines how the dissolution of al-Shabiba and the exile and imprisonment of its leadership, and the broader context of regime repression following the 1975 assassinations, led to ideological revisions amongst al-Shabiba’s leaders. This also opened space for the emergence of a new generation of younger, critical Islamist ideologues in the 1980s and 1990s, who began to “question their project to Islamise” (p. 189).

At the same time, however, Fadil draws on the “methodological individualism” of the sociologist Raymond Boudon in demonstrating the role of the intellectual revisions and “personal, intellectual, and activist biographies” (p. 191) of this new generation of Islamists – particularly Ahmed Raisouni (President of the PJD’s social wing, the Movement of Unity and Reform, until 1993), Abdelkrim Benkirane (Prime Minster of the PJD-led government from 2011 to 2017), and Saaddine Othmani (Prime Minister of the PJD-led government from 2017 to 2021) – in driving Moroccan Islamism’s ultimate turn towards non-violence, democracy and multiparty and institutional politics. In this interpretation, external structures are “parameters to be taken into consideration rather than causes” (p. 191). The history of al-Shabiba can “in no way be read separately from” these ideologues’ biographies (p. 191).

Fadil’s study is therefore tied to broader debates about the development of what Olivier Roy and Asef Bayat have termed “post-Islamism”, whereby state repression led Islamists to become “aware of their discourse’s anomalies and inadequacies” (Bayat 2013, p. 8). Through intellectual revision, these Islamists forewent their long-standing aim of seizing state power and implementing shari‘ah law (Roy 1992; Bayat, 2007, 2013). Instead, they increasingly accepted compromises vis-à-vis the political status quo and so pursued more modest political agendas (Lauzière 2005). In this respect, Fadil’s illuminating book might have slightly more clearly discussed how his explanatory account builds on and diverges from existing scholarship (in Arabic and French, but also English) on Islamist (and post-Islamist) politics in the broader SWANA region. Furthermore, the first chapter’s extensive introduction to the contested meanings of Islamism and political Islam could perhaps have been more focused on the specific focus of the rest of the book: viz., the nature and drivers of shifts within Islamist praxis and thought in Morocco.

Nevertheless, located at the nexus of historical, political and religious sociology, Fadil’s book builds admirably on Mohamed Tozy’s classic 1999 work, Monarchie et Islam politique au Maroc, in providing a fascinating account of how these revisionist ideologues in Morocco were constitutive of a “more general critical trend” across the SWANA region in the 1980s and 1990s: the emergence of a new generation of Islamist ideologues, such as Hassan Tourabi in Sudan and Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia (p. 188). These figures challenged, rethought and departed from the ideas of the “first-generation” (ibid.) of Islamist scholars, such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb in Egypt and Sayd Abul A’La Maududi in Pakistan.

[i] The PJD’s share of seats in the Moroccan parliament dropped from 126 in the 2016 national parliamentary elections to 13 seats in 2021. The PJD is therefore no longer part of the government.


Reviewed by: Guy Eyre


Additional Works cited:

Bayat, Asef. 2007. Making Islam Democratic: Social Movements and the Post-Islamist Turn. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

_________. 2013. Post-Islamism: The Changing Faces of Political Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, Nathan. 2014. “Facing the Cruel Palindrome: Moving Beyond Sauve Qui Peut”. Evolving Methodologies in the Study of Islamism, Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS).

Lauzière, Henri. 2005. “Post-Islamism and the Religious Discourse of Abd Al-Salam Yasin.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 37 (02): 241–61.

Mohamed, Darif. 1999. al-Islamiyyûn al-maghariba: hisâbât as-siyyâsa fi al-‘amal al-islâmî 1969-1999 (Les islamistes marocains: les calculs politiques dans l’action islamiste 1969-1999). Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques.

Roy, Olivier. 1992. L’échec de l’islam politique. Paris: Seuil.

Tozy, Mohamed. 1999. Monarchie et Islam politique au Maroc. Paris: Presses de la Fondation nationale des sciences politiques.


Published works by Dr Fadil:

Amor, Samia & Fadil, Mohamed. 2015. L’Islam - Regards en Coin. Hermann Publishers.

Fadil, Mohamed. 2017. “The religious diversity conundrum in Morocco: The case of the National Commission for Dialogue on Civil Society and New Constitutional Prerogatives”. In Solange Lefebvre & Patrice Brodeur (eds), Public Commissions on Cultural and Religious Diversity: Analysis, Reception and Challenges. Routledge London.

Fadil, Mohamed & Lefebvre, Solange. 2021. “The Role of Mass Media and Social Media in Islamist Violent Extremism”. In Stefano Bonino & Roberta Ricucci (eds) Islam and Security in the West. Palgrave Macmillan.


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