The politicization of Salafis has been conducive to their pragmatism, but also deepened their fragmentation, which will weaken their political influence.
Morocco’s political opening in 2011 led to the politicization of the Salafis, after a decades-long boycott. Since then, Salafis have adopted a pragmatic approach in dealing with political changes manifested in the call for voting on the constitution and running for or supporting various secular and Islamic parties.
However, their ideological justification has produced unstable political standpoints and their ambiguous positions led to an ideological perplexity within the Salafi body resulting in internal ideological contradictions giving birth to splits within its ranks. This also led to the emergence of the so called “reformist Salafis”, who seek to play greater political roles. Lastly, their indeterminate positions restored the conservative movement back to its classic a-political positions.
Despite the pragmatic approach of the Salafis, they have not escaped the authorities’ attempt of limiting and pre-emptively controlling their integration according to fit the regime’s agenda. This was achieved through directing the Salafis to weaken the State’s ideological rival, the Islamic Justice and Development Party (PJD).
Ultimately, the dispersion of the Salafis debilitates their ability to maneuver and influence public policies. Hence, enabling the regime to retain the same approach in dealing with them indifference to the non-politicized Salafis and oppression of the others.
Before the Arab Spring, most Salafis were not concerned by political activism. Due to their adherence to a strict ideological understanding, Salafis rejected the idea of partisanship and focused instead on preaching and ideological indoctrination of their followers. However, this trend shifted after the Arab Spring when they ascended to the center stage and became a visible force. In Tunisia, they established legal parties, and in Egypt, they formed a strong presence in the parliament.
Morocco was no different, Salafis joined political parties and participated in the recent elections. As a matter of fact, the traditional Salafi movements in Morocco, especially the Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Maghraoui movement, expressed a remarkable pragmatism, as it shifted swiftly from total rejection of political participation to a supportive one. Salafi activists took part in the protest marches in 2011 and supported the PJD candidates before they turned against it in 2016 and started supporting its political rival, the Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM). These political attitudes reflected a marked shift in the Salafis’ political positions that are in stark contrast to their previous positions of boycotting the political process and just spreading the Salafi ideology.
But how did politicization affect the cohesion of the Salafis? And how did this impact their relationship with other political and social forces?
The case of the politicization of the traditional Salafi movement in Morocco provides a distinctive model to study the ideological and behavioral transformations of Salafis. The developments in the events pushed the Salafis to the furnace of political action, and to adapt to its requirements, without compromising the conservative traditional Salafi mindset. Although the decision to participate in politics has been perceived as a rupture in their behavior, this did not reflect much on its conservative mindset, especially their position on women as well as other ideological opponents.
This paper argues that the pragmatic approach of traditional Salafis is primarily related to their desire to take advantage of the political opening to improve their legal status and political relevance without compromising the core Salafi ideology. However, this pragmatic approach gave unexpected outcomes in terms of ideology. It was manifested primarily in deepening the internal disagreements between its components, leading to secessions. In 2015, this led to the emergence of a more politicized version of Salafism, called the “reformist Salafism.”
Moreover, the pragmatism and flexibility of the Salafis’ positions have not been significantly reflected in their ideology. They have resisted attempts to abandon preaching and engage in political action, yet, they have considered political action merely a tool for the Salafi da’wa (preaching). Hence, one might understand such positions not only by analyzing them as an Islamic party, but through considering that the political action is merely a tool of pressure in favor of a religious organization whose goal is essentially to change society from the bottom up.
The Roots of Traditional Salafism
The Quranic schools linked to the ‘Da’wa ila Quran wa sunnah’ (call for Quran and Sunna) association represent the most prominent actor in the traditional Salafi movement. It was established in the mid-seventies and is mainly active in the city of Marrakech. It has relations with dozens of similar associations all over the country.
As mentioned earlier, Salafis were not concerned by politics, and considered it, at best, a tool for splitting up Muslims. In their understanding, the concepts of democracy and elections are incompatible with the fundamental principle of ‘tawhid, or monotheism, : which not only means the acceptance of unification of divinity and the establishment of the requisites of Islam, but extends to considering the Islamic legislation model as an exclusive divine competence that firmly rejects any role of the human mind, logic or desires. Yet, despite their hard-liner stance on democracy and elections, they refrained from criticizing the Moroccan regime publicly, in line with the other quietist Salafis’ beleifs that the legitimate ruler should be obeyed in all cases, even if he is unjust, despot, or is not strictly committed to the requisites of Shari’a (Islamic law).
Accordingly, this kind of Salafism does not follow a direct political agenda, but interacts with political events in accordance with their conservative vision of society. In their view, the best way to change is through the process of tasfia wa tarbia, spiritual purification and education, which is intended to re-Islamize society by preaching and teaching what is considered the correct Islamic dogma and inculcation according to the original model of Islam. Which explains the Salafis’ interest and focus on Islamic sciences and doctrinal instruction rather than politics.
This clarifies why Salafis were reluctant to express their positions before the Arab Spring and instead focus on preaching and charitable activities. Since its establishment in the 1970s, Sheikh Al-Maghraoui has generally ensured a state of harmony for quietist Salafis.
During the 1980s and 1990s the traditional Salafi movement expanded widely due to a plethora of favorable opportunities. First and foremost, the solid relations between Rabat and Riyadh. Accordingly, hundreds of Moroccan students traveled to study in Saudi universities, especially the Islamic University in Madinah. The Salafi books were widely distributed in book fairs and bookstores. Because of their indifference to political issues, Moroccan authorities were nonchalant with this current and exploited it in the state’s struggle with its political and ideological opponents, especially the leftist parties; the Shiite movement influenced by the Iranian Revolution; and Al Adl wal Ihsane,Justice and Spirituality group. Many Salafis also believe that the generous financial support received by the traditional Salafi current from some Gulf states, particularly Al-Maghraoui associations, has provided important resources for the spreading and expansion of the Salafis, however this is difficult to confirm.
Despite their political neutrality and pro-state positions, the Salafis experienced restrictions from the regime. In 2003, a sporadic crackdown on the Salafis followed the terrorist bombings in Casablanca. The trend had reached its peak in 2008 by shutting down dozens of Quranic schools affiliated with the Al-Maghraoui movement; with a fatwa published on his website, permitting the marriage of young girls, as the reason behind the crackdown. This fatwa led to criticism from women’s associations and gave Moroccan authorities the justification to close down the schools. Sheikh Al-Maghraoui fled to Saudi Arabia and stayed there until 2011, after the eruption of the February 20 movement he returned after a settlement with the regime that allowed him to return from his voluntary exile, under the condition of not participating in the February 20 protests.
Politicizing the Salafis
Yet, the 2011 political dynamics caught Salafis by surprise. Most of them dealt carefully with the protest of the February 20 movement. Despite the opposition of some sheikhs to the protests, Sheikh Al-Maghraoui supported them and considered it an opportunity to alleviate the authorities’ pressures on his NGOs. Other Salafi sheikhs softened their positions in order to benefit from the political opportunity provided by the 20 February movement.
These emerging positions within Salafis reflect a pragmatic adaptation. The most notable of it was to praise the February 20 movement demands and call for voting on the new constitution and in the legislative elections. Sheikh Al-Maghraoui justified his positions vis a vis the February 20 protests by the fact he does not condemn protests in countries he considers ‘non-Islamic’ – those that do not apply the Shari’a (Islamic law) and which do not criminalize protests such as the case was in Morocco. His condition, however, was the boycotting of secular and leftists’ groups, which he regarded as ‘absolute evil’. In addition, a number of Salafi sheikhs issued fatwas to vote on the righteous person and cooperate with Islamist parties. They also expressed support for the electoral vote of the party closest to them in an effort to not to leave the seat empty, in a clear reference to the PJD.
Moreover, Salafis participated in the public debate on the constitutional amendments in Morocco in 2011. This served as the bridge through which the Salafis accessed the political sphere. Their argument was to protect the Islamic identity of the state and to confront secular currents. However, despite the doubts expressed by Salafis, the association of Da’wa wa Sunnah called for a positive vote on the constitution, “in order to take into account the supreme interests of the state during these sensitive circumstances, and that the constitution guaranteed the strengthening and the promotion of the Islamic identity.”
The Relationship with the Islamists
The 2003 state-led campaign against the Salafis prompted them to adopt defensive positions and reorder their priorities in terms of these new variables. The struggle with Islamists, Sufis and Shiites, and the justice and spirituality group, moved toward the secularists, who were considered the spearhead behind their oppression and thus constitute the real opponent to be confronted.
As a reaction to the harassment by the authorities, the PJD and its partners especially the Al-Tawhid wa Al-Islah, the Unification and Reform Movement, or MUR, became the natural ally of the Salafis. This is mainly due to the fact that the Salafis have benefited from support from the PJD and the MUR during the crisis between the Makhzen, the governing institution in Morocco and the Salafis in 2008. The Attajdid newspaper, the tribune of MUR, adopted a supportive stance to reopen the Quranic schools through its media coverage. Also, the Al-Karama Human Rights Forum, a close association to the PJD, represented the closed associations and provided them with legal advice, while the PJD took the issue to parliament. It is believed that Mustapha Ramid, the former minister of Justice and Liberties, was able to persuade the minister of Interior in 2012 with the lawfulness of reopening the closed Quranic schools, and also played a liaison role between the Makhzen and the Salafis.
More broadly, a group of Salafi figures such as Sheikh Zuhal, Sheikh Barhoun and others, participated in the religious training of a group of the youth belonging to the Assah’wa Al-Islamia, the Islamic Awakening, who subsequently became leaders within the Islamic Movement. Some of them now hold leadership positions within the PJD, like Saad Eddine El-Othmani, Mohammed Yatim, and Abdelilah Benkirane. This doctrinal kinship contributed in one way or another to a state of empathy between these two components.
This interaction intensified during the second half of 2011, mainly with the issue of identity and the position of religion in public life during the discussions that accompanied the constitutional amendments of July 2011.For instance, the Islamic student factions of MUR and the Youth section of the PJD played a role in facilitating the rapprochement process by involving some of the Salafi leaders in their activities within the stands of Moroccan universities. Some Moroccan Parliament members from the PJD in Marrakech also supported the Salafis after the shutting down of the Quranic schools in 2013.
Accordingly, the Salafi sheikhs were convinced that supporting the PJD was their best option during the first phase of post 2011 protests. The PJD had institutional recognition and representation in parliament, it had achieved “a number of positive gains from its political participation,” and both shared the same ideological reference. Hence, as one Salafi described it “its support will serve as a protective shield against the seculars’ harassments.” The PJD considered the Salafi vote for the party as a “kind reward” to pay them back for defending the Salafis’ right to exist and also for disclosing the mistakes made by the conservative part within the Makhzen, which targeted the Salafis’ Quranic schools.
On the other hand, the Salafis were looking at the state’s religious policies, especially the supposed role of the Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs in these restrictions. As a result of this feeling, the Salafis launched a campaign on social media against the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs during the summer of 2013, considering the latter as a promoter of secularism and shirkiyat (blasphemies) and also as an oppressor. The tension reached its peak after the shutting down of a number of Quranic schools affiliated with Sheikh Al-Maghraoui in 2013, which led some Salafi activists to call for the dismissal of the Minister of Awqaf through a petition on Internet, arguing that the Ministry of Awqaf was restricting Muslims from practicing religious duties and rituals.
Adaptation and Taming
In the midst of Morocco’s political protests in 2011, the monarchy needed popular support to strengthen its religious and political legitimacy, which was influenced by the wave of protests. The monarchy called for support from various social forces, mainly the traditional ones to reinforce its position as a central player within the political and social sphere. It also worked to weaken the protest movement by dismantling its components and isolating the forces that could join the protests. This was done with a number of non-institutional actors, including the Salafis. During 2011 and 2012, the King of Morocco issued an amnesty to include dozens of Salafi detainees. Sheikh Al-Maghraoui was also allowed to return from Saudi Arabia in April 2011. The Ministry of Interior reopened the closed Quranic schools, as part of the arrangements to isolate the traditional Salafis from taking part in protests and to calm their anger. The Supreme Religious Council also organized a symposium on Salafism in April of 2015, and invited some prominent Salafi figures, such as Sheikh Mohammed Zuhal. This was considered by some Salafi sheikhs a positive sign of openness to the Salafi current, and an official recognition of the existence of an authentic Salafi identity in Morocco.
Still, the regime did not approve the Islamists – Salafis alliance, so it tried to compel them to support pro-palace parties, particularly the PAM and the National Rally of Independents. Officials of these parties met with Al-Maghraoui to seek his support in elections, the meeting included implicit threats if Salafis continued to support the PJD.
As part of the tug-of-war between the regime and the Salafis was the shutdown in July 2013 of the Salafis’ Quranic schools. This time the Ministry of the Interior targeted the Al-Maghraoui headquarters in Marrakech that was founded in 1976. The decision provoked controversy within the government itself, while Mustafa Ramid, then the Minister of Justice and Liberties, denounced the decision and called to review it; however, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs justified the decision that the Salafi associations do not abide by the law of traditional education, and that the decision was issued “in accordance with the law.”
Under the pressure of the authorities, Al-Maghraoui had only one of two options: to support a pro-palace party or to commit to political neutrality. In the beginning, he adopted the option of political neutrality. His NGO issued a statement in March 2014 announcing the retreat of all previous steps in favor of political participation, while at the same time attributing the politics as too far from “Islamic legislation”.
Using his pragmatic sense, Sheikh Al-Maghraoui realized that the Makhzen is benefiting from traditional Salafis to by using them to confront violent extremism. Therefore, he put forward his association as a bulwark against extremism. He began to lecture against ISIS and started to support Rabat’s policies in the fight against terrorism and extremism, which led to a small breakthrough between the two. Al-Maghraoui then entered into negotiations with the Moroccan authorities to re-open the closed Quranic schools, in exchange of countering extremism among the youth. In order to respond to his request, the authorities required the re-drafting of a new basic law of his association, as well as the removal of some of the “hawks” from the association, mainly Sheikh Hammad al-Kabbaj, the former spokesman of the association.
Moreover, as a result of the authorities’ pressure, Al-Maghraoui called his followers to support the pro-palace party PAM in the 2016 legislative elections, a remarkable shift in the position of the Salafis, which was completely hostile to secular parties. He justified this decision to immunize the Salafi preach against its enemies. Just after Al-Maghraoui’s support for the PAM, the Ministry of the Interior reopened the closed Quranic schools. All of this was considered by other Salafis of the result of a ‘deal’ between the state and Al-Maghraoui.
This shift in position can be explained in terms of cost and benefit calculations. The followers of Al-Maghraoui realized that the shutting down of the Quranic schools was due to their political positions in favor of the PJD. The expectations on which they have based their pro-PJD stance have not been realized. It is the Makhzen which holds the final decision to close or open the Quranic schools. Thus, betting on the PJD to protect the Salafis from the authorities’ pressure was useless.
Secession and the Birth of Reformist Salafism
These developments had serious internal repercussions on the Salafis. Al-Maghraoui shifting positions by calling to vote o the 2011 constitution, the electoral participation and the voting for the PAM triggered controversy among the Salafis, as they perceived it as opposite to the Salafi manhaj, or method. This fueled internal conflicts between a conservative current that wants to preserve the purity of the Salafi method and a reformist current which was not happy with Al-Maghraoui and were eager for more participation in public life. Although Al-Maghraoui initially sought the best of the conservative and politicized currents, the pressure exerted on him after the shutting down of the Quranic schools in 2013 pushed him to adopt a more conservative position.
Since the summer of 2013, the divisions have become clear among the traditional Salafis, especially between the Al-Maghraoui group and the group led by his disciple Hammad Kabbaj. The differences widened after the military takeover in Egypt on July 3, 2013, and the alleged Saudi role in isolating the Muslim Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi. Sheikh Adel al-Rafush, a young leader of the reformist Salafi current who was close to Sheikh Al-Maghraoui before the split, wrote a poem in which he harshly criticized the Saudi regime for their supposed support of the “military coup in Egypt.” He was supported by a group of reformist sheikhs. He then received a reprimand from Al-Maghraoui who called on him to apologize to Saudi Arabia and published a statement on behalf of the association of Da’wa wa Sunnah, in which he renounced the poem and renewed his allegiance to the Saudi regime. Some Salafis claim that Al-Maghraoui’s position was taken under the pressure of the authorities and for fear that the Gulf support to his associations would stop. However, it remains difficult to ascertain this claim.
This tension led to the resignation of a group of sheikhs and followers from the Dawa wa Sunnah association, and to their separation from Al-Maghraoui group. These dissidents established a new current under the name of the “Reformist Salafism,” which adopts positions in favor of political participation and greater interest in issues of public affairs.
The dissidents also conducted a series of intellectual reviews that were mainly related to their position with regard to the regime, the constitutional issue and political action in general. The reformists have shown relatively open positions with regard to political participation, while the conservatives have maintained their traditional positions of political action.
While Al-Maghraoui supported the PAM in the general elections of 2016, the reformist Salafis supported the PJD. Sheikh Hammad Kabbaj ran for the party, but after pressure from the authorities dropped his name from the list he headed in Marrakech. Moreover, this current does not hide his admiration of the Turkish experience led by the Justice and Development Party and the success of the Turkish Prime Minister in leading his country towards greater freedom and openness in addition to his political positions on Arab issues.
The Future of Political Salafism
It seems that the trajectory of Moroccan Salafis is neither clear nor stable, so it is difficult to predict their political future, especially with the recurrent secessions inside of it. The trajectory of the relations between the palace and the PJD will inevitably have an impact on the future of the Salafis, both in relation to the regime and/ or the PJD, as well as its ability to maintain its internal unity.
At most, Al-Maghraoui and his conservative supporters will resort to the previous positions that reject political participation and will stop supporting the PJD. While the reformist Salafis might continue in political participation by supporting the PJD or engaging in an existing political party, as the possibility to establish a Salafi party is far from being realistic at this time because of the regime’s desire to control the pace of Salafi inclusion in the political arena.
As a result, Salafis are unlikely to play major political roles in the foreseeable future, but will likely be retained as a reserve player to adjust the balance of the Islamist political situation to restrain the PJD or to counter the threats from the Justice and Spirituality Movement and Moroccan Shiites. It should be noted that although Al-Maghraoui was opposed to the PJD in the 2016 general elections, he could not influence the voting base of the PJD. This suggests the limited influence of the Salafis on elections.
Certainly, the position of political participation will perpetuate the division inside of traditional Salafis, especially between the reformists and the conservatives. It will even deepen the internal competition to attract Salafi followers.
 The focus in this paper will be on the preaching Salafi (or traditional) current because it represents the most well-organized and quantitative current, and because it is a frame of reference of transformations that reflect the process of conservatism and reform that most social movements have known. We have excluded here what is known as Jihadi Salafism because it is subject to a different process related to the trajectories of religious violence.
 Stephan Lacroix, ‘Egypt: The Pragmatists Salafis’, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2016.
 Quintan Wiktorowicz, ‘Anatomy of the Salafi Movement’, Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, 2006, 29:3, p: 207.
 See: ‘The concept of: A despot ruler better than a lasting ‘Fitna’. Islam Web site. Fatwa number: 149387, date: 13-2-2011.
 Mohammed Abu Rumman, ‘past in the present .. Albani’s purification and education in’ . In the book Rimah As-Sahaef : Albanian Salafism and its opponents – Al-Misbar center for studies and research. Dubai, 2013, pp. 81-115
 ‘The role of the Islamic University in Madinah in reproducing the religious ideology of Moroccan Salafi activists’, Arab Journal of Political Science, Issue 25, Winter 2009.
 Dr. Abdul Kabir Al-Ala Al-Madghari, former Minister of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs for TelQuel: I gained the trust of the Islamists, Al-Tajdid newspaper, 22 November 2004.
 ‘Salafism in Morocco .. Balances and exploitation’, Al Jazeera.net, 29 May 2007.
 Author’s interview with A.Sh a former Salafi activist, Salé, 10 August 2014.
Author’s interview with Salafi activist, 2013.
11 Al-Maghraoui: ‘Protesting in the country of Islam is not permissible’, Hespress, April 15, 2011.
23Mohamed Al-Maghraoui, Interview with Al Mashhad Weekly, July 27, 2011.
28 See the link:
29 Hammad Kabbaj, “the implications of the official symposium on Moroccan Salafism”, Hespresse 14 April 2015. http://www.hespress.com/writers/261001.html
33 “PJD Parliamentarians with Al-Maghrawy and against Al-Tawfiq”, site le360.ma, 01 July 2013. http://www.le360.ma/ar/societe/1289
34 “Sheikh al-Maghrawi rejects politics and demonstrations”…, Islam Maghribi website, March 10, 2014, http://www.islammaghribi.com/archives/2012-09-12-17-31-42/2012-10-09-16-50-29/3196-2014-03-10-14-18-47.html
35 The Maghrawis followers attacking the ISIS from Marrakech”, Al-Ahdat Al-Maghribia newspaper, 12 September 2014 http://ahdath.info/20022
37 “Al-Maghrawi calls students and imams in Marrakech to vote for PAM”, YouTube site, October 5, 2016 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHhldHlJYM4
38 Moroccan Salafis disguise a Salafi Sheikh Because of Elections “, Arabic 21, 06 October 2016 https://arabi21.com/story/951599/سلفيون-مغاربة-يتبرؤون-من-شيخ-سلفي-بسبب-الانتخابات
39 Iman Agunan, “Kabbaj: The Maghrawi Agreement and the ” PAM” Behind the Decision to Re-Open the Schools of the Qur’an”, alayam24, 03 October 2016. http://www.alayam24.com/articles-29098.html
42 Interview with JA, a Salafi close to Hammad Kabbaj. Rabat on 18 August 2013.
43 Hammad Kabbaj, the foresight and wisdom, preface by Hassan Wjaj and Mohamed Maghrawi. Sabeel Publications, Rabat, 2012.
44 “Moroccan authorities rejects the candidacy of Sheikh Salafi for the elections”, Al-Jazeera.net, 16 September 2016.
45 Interview with Jalal Aouita, Salafi activist, Rabat, 23 July 2013.