Another way of understanding Moroccan extremism. By Mohsine El Ahmadi


In the years since the terrorist attacks that shook Casablanca on 16 May 2003, a number of observers posited a causal relationship between the existence of slums and the unleashing of terrorist violence based on a warped interpretation of the Qur'an. According to them, social deprivation is the ideal breeding ground for violence, particularly violence in the name of religion.
The existence of slums in Morocco is fairly old, dating back to the colonial days of the 19th century. At that time, new cities were built especially to accommodate French, Spanish and Portuguese settlers. And, in a mass rural exodus, former inhabitants of the Moroccan countryside left their homes in order to take advantage of these cities' emerging economies. But it proved impossible at the time for the cities to absorb them all.
The "Petits Marocains", as the expatriates used to call the economically displaced persons, invented a new type of neighbourhood: slums. These shantytowns proliferated around large cities: Casablanca, Rabat, Meknes, Fez, and others.
Slums are where so-called vulnerable social classes congregate, deprived of the most basic social amenities: water, electric power, health, education, transport, etc. Such deprivation, say observers, is at the root of the antisocial behaviour of slum dwellers. Being economically marginalised, they develop a counterculture, which more often than not results in a rejection of the dominant culture and its value systems.
In the past, these areas where law and order had broken down, most notoriously in the huge Casablanca shantytown of Carrière Centrale, were already the breeding ground for the poor Moroccans who rose up against French occupation with the nationalist movement in the years preceding 1956, when Morocco gained independence. After 1956, this district became a hotbed of working class agitation against the power of the state.
Today, the slums play the same role of social protest, but this time the ideology mobilising the protests is embedded in religion. This type of Islamism–or political Islam–has taken the form of both an ideology of social protest and a religious ethic that lays claim to power. It promises justice for all in this world, and salvation in the next one.
It came to replace socialism and communism, by giving the have-nots a means of expressing their refusal to continue to suffer. This rejection was recently expressed in the most extreme form through the bombings and attempted bombings in Casablanca, particularly those that were masterminded in the slums of Sidi Moumen, Douar Toma and Douar Scuela.
A full explanation of the roots of extremism may include poverty and unemployment. But these social factors do not tell the whole story. The Moroccan countryside, although subject to the same conditions for example, does not resort to terrorism.
Rural areas are still structured along traditional lines, with strong hierarchies, social and religious rituals and tribal values that anchor life in the Moroccan countryside. This is simply not the case of slums, which are totally disconnected from formal institutions and mainstream Moroccan society, thus being more susceptible to extreme ideologues of political Islam.
Thus the few shantytowns-dwellers who have turned to terrorism are not only a product of poverty, but also of social isolation that makes them easy prey for organisations such as Ansar Al Mahdi or Takfir wa al Hijra, that disseminate Al Qaeda ideology in Morocco in order to groom young people for violent crimes in the name of Islam.
Liberating Moroccan youth from those who would take advantage of their situation to indoctrinate them with extreme views necessarily implies an overall reform of the educational system, the religious sphere and society more broadly by means of economic empowerment and social justice. In so doing, the socially isolated inhabitants of Morocco's shantytowns have a better chance of becoming properly enmeshed in the country's social and political fabric.


* Mohsine El Ahmadi is a Fulbright and visiting scholar at Georgetown University. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

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