Despite the media controversy surrounding the question of Moroccan Shiites, their political influence remains limited.
On 1 May, 2018 Morocco closed the Iranian Embassy in Rabat as a response to what the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs considered as “providing military support to the Polisario Front and forming an alliance targeting Morocco’s security and its supreme interests.” This time, the justification was different than 2009 when Morocco closed the Iranian embassy in Rabat because of what it perceived as Iran threatening “Morocco’s spiritual security”, accusing it of working to spread Shiism among Moroccans. The 2009 dispute was followed by a large campaign of arrests among Moroccan Shiites. Since then, authorities have tended to further restrict Shiites activities with the justification that they represent a threat to the “spiritual security” of Moroccans. Despite diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Tehran, a number of Shiite groups are operating in Morocco secretly. The Moroccan Shiites represent a sectarian minority unrecognized by the government; it includes Moroccans who have converted from Sunni Islam to the Jaafari Imami doctrine. As a result of the Moroccan authorities’ restrictions, most of the activities of the Moroccan Shiites are mainly concentrated in the virtual world, through websites, and social media platforms, as well as organizing their religious ceremonies in domestic homes.
It appears at first glance that the Moroccan Shiites represent a homogenous bloc, but a deeper examination reveals an internal diversity that is divided over a number of trends that are ideologically linked but divided in terms of religious reference. Each stream follows a jurisprudential source outside Morocco consisting of at least four streams of theological reference which will be detailed later. The 2011 constitution stipulates the freedom of belief; however, authorities often ban the activities of Moroccan Shiites because of their perception as a religious and political threat. Nevertheless, since 2011, some of the Moroccan Shiites, known as the Ressali Line (al-Tayyar al-Risali), have been trying to get involved in the public sphere, contending that the amendments made by the 2011 constitution give greater scope to religious diversity. Furthermore, they considered the post-Arab Spring climate of political openness in Morocco as an opportunity that would facilitate their active engagement and secure their recognition as full-fledged citizens, as explained by the positions declared by this current. Opposed to these attempts, most other Shiite currents eschewed participation in public life.
This paper is an attempt to survey the evolution of the Shiite current in Morocco by examining its political and sectarian roots and the impact of the Iranian revolution on this development. It also attempts to monitor the organizational structure of the current and their cultural practices and activities. Data available in open sources was collected in order to compile documents and analyze them. This paper also draws on data collected through fieldwork conducted in the summer of 2017.
From Political to Ideological Shiism
The 1979 Iranian Revolution had a significant impact on Islamic trends in Morocco. The success of the revolution led by Ruhollah Khomeini provided the Moroccan Islamist movement an opportunity to achieve its goal of restoring the dream of the “Islamic Caliphate”, especially in a political environment characterized by a tense relationship with the regime of late King Hassan II on the one hand and with the Moroccan left on the other. The Islamic revolution in Iran represented, to a number of Islamists, a practical alternative to the left-wing revolutionary ideas that the Islamists viewed with suspicion. The first result of this theoretical and organizational cross-fertilization between the Moroccan Islamists and the Iranian revolution was the birth of Jund al-Islam organization in the early 1980s, which was inspired by Shi’i political thought. The organization worked on formulating a distinctive outlook that sets it apart from other Islamist currents. It first considered itself a Moroccan Sunni organization that is no different in its religious and doctrinal authority from other Islamist movements. It has, however, distinguished itself in style and strategy of change by adopting what is termed among its members as “the theory of change”, a method of political activity that mixes Marxist ideas with religious authority emulating the Islamic Revolution model in Iran, and aims to adopt a peaceful method of change encompassing the fields of politics, religion, culture, media and many more, through political participation, advocacy and intellectual influence in society.
Given the clandestine nature of the organization’s activities Moroccan authorities have always viewed the movement with suspicion and questioned its loyalty and motives and therefore subjected it to pressure, prompting the conversion of Jund al-Islam leaders towards a new project in the late 1980s dubbed “Islamic Choice” (Al-Ikhtyar Al-Islami) under the leadership of Mohamed El Marouani and Mustapha Moatassim. This new project sought to represent a rupture with secrecy, and promised a new era of openness towards society and participation in political life. The experience of the “Islamic Choice” was characterized by the diversity of its sources and its theoretical references. In addition to being influenced by Marxist thought, Pan-Arab Nationalism, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology; the movement’s literary references were full of vocabulary and concepts drawn from the leaders of Shiite political thought, such as Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Ali Shariati and others.
“Islamic Choice” leaders sought to alter the “theory of change” from its revolutionary dimension in favor of integration in society, participation in public life, and the creation of parallel organizations. The establishment of the Movement for the Nation (Al-Haraka min Ajl al-Umma) in 1998 and its precedent the Association of the Civilizational Alternative (Al-Badil al-Hadari) in 1995 was an embodiment of the path of political openness, as well as the establishment of a student sector within the university under the name of “Students of the Charter” (Talabat al-Mithaq). Although the project aspired to merge with the rest of the Islamic organizations in the context of a comprehensive organization called the “Islamic Front” (Al-Jabha Al-Islamiyya), this has never materialized.
Shi’i thought and Iranian Revolution’s influence on the “Islamic Choice” organization is not limited to the political dimension but extends to doctrine and creed. A number of members of the organization moved from political Shiism to doctrinal Shiism without jeopardizing the internal organizational structure. However, this will change in the mid-1990s, when disagreements began to affect the organization’s leadership with the emergence of internal opposition calling for the adoption of a more Salafi doctrine. This has caused internal tensions leading to splits within the organization of the “Islamic choice” and the production of new currents, which paved a new path independent of the organization.
By the end of the 1990s, part of the Shiite movement in Morocco had moved to creating local associations with the aim of bringing Shiite activists together and creating a social identity that would help them practice their religious beliefs away from the eyes of the authorities. In this regard, four prominent Shiite groups can be observed, all of which belong to the Twelver Ja’fari (Ithnā‘ashariyyah) school of thought. Other currents can be observed but are weak in terms of media presence, and they follow the non-prominent jurisprudential references in the Shiite arena. They are as follows:
The Ressali Line: this is considered the most prominent among Moroccan Shiite expressions and the most open to the Sunni doctrine. Among its most prominent leaders at the national level, we can find Kamal Al Ghazali and Isam Hmaidan. It was publicly announced in January 2012 and it tried to find itself legal organizational frameworks through repetitive attempts to create associations and institutions that would represent its movement. The most prominent of these was the “Ressali Progressives” (al-Taqadumiuwn al-Risaliuwn) association project launched in October 2013, which is active in the cities of Tangier and Tetouan, something the Moroccan authorities have prohibited. The prohibition has led the movement to establish the “Foundation of the Ressali Line for Studies” in 2015. In addition, a new legal formula was chosen through its establishment as a commercial entity instead of a civil society association. The movement also has an official website under the name of the “Ressali Line”, through which it publishes its news and activities, as well as articles and analyses of current events, as well as its papers and reference literature.
The Shirazists: considered one of the most radical Shiite currents in Morocco, it does not hide its support for the controversial Kuwaiti Shiite Sheikh Yasser Habib, who gives his lectures and lessons from Britain through his satellite TV channel Fadak. Initially known as the “Tangier Shi’a Authority”, it would later change its name to “Imam Muhammad al-Shirazi’s Commission” in April 2012 for two reasons: to avoid conflict with the rest of the Shiite groups in the city of Tangier, and the desire of the current’s activists to highlight their jurisprudential reference Mohammed Shirazi. The religious discourse of this trend is characterized by the direct confrontation with the Sunnis, which has resulted in a tense relationship not only with the Moroccan Sunnis but also with other Shi’a groups who were trying cautiously to evoke Moroccan religious specifity and not clash with Sunni Muslims.
The Khomeinists: The activities of this trend are confined to the virtual world, through social media platforms and networks, such as Facebook groups established for the purpose of discussion of the creed, and “enlightening converts” in Shia jurisprudence matters that require a religious framework. The intersection of this religious reference with the political leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran has led the members of this trend to retreat from appearing in the media and publicizing their presence and expressing themselves publicly, for fear of any security consequences that may question their political loyalty to the monarchy. Furthermore, they have no known religious or organizational leadership in Morocco.
The Sistanists: Followers of this religious reference are considered among the weakest in terms of their presence in the virtual world. Their activities can be monitored through some of the forums and websites that follow their reference such as the Sistani Religious Research Center, which assigns one of its doors to Moroccan Shiites to share their stories and publish their articles and books.
Signs of Politicization
As noted above, Moroccan Shiites do not constitute a homogenous bloc, but live in a state of disunity because of the differences in jurisprudential authority. Most of the Shiite currents in Morocco are limited to outreach and religious work, except for the “Ressali Line” which in recent years has tended towards politicization and is constantly working on organizational formulas for participation in public life. This can be explained by the political roots of this trend, since scores of its members have already worked within the framework of the “Islamic Choice”, and they define themselves as an extension of this “Islamic project”.
The Ressali Line, the only one among the Shiite groups that calls for public political participation, is considered to have bypassed the pattern of the rest of the currents in terms of religion and propaganda. Since its establishment in 2012, it has launched a website that includes an array of articles expressing its views and positions on various political, religious and cultural issues that concern Moroccan public opinion. Among these articles, one entitled “What Do We Want?” has displayed the group’s ideological identity as well as its positions regarding a plethora of matters, including religion, rites, the constitution, national unity and the political system, as well as Islamic movements and other actors in Moroccan society, and issues of equality, women and political participation, as well as external issues.
Perhaps the most prominent positions declared are those associated with the political system and political participation. This current benefited from the political openness in 2011 to declare itself officially, especially with the promulgation of the new constitution. The members of the current considered that the new constitution provides a greater outlet for the expression of religious identity and the right to political participation as one of the basic rights guaranteed by the constitution to all Moroccans. The Ressali group sees the monarchy as having political legitimacy as long as it stems from the will of Moroccan people. Furthermore, the current recognizes the Moroccan constitution and the different political institutions resulting from it. It has also expressed its public desire for political participation, considering it a “national responsibility” and that the form of such participation will be determined by personal and political conditions whether in the government or opposition.
As a response to the situation of division, the Ressali Line issued in August 2014 a statement calling for unity, freedom and national cohesion. The current also called for widening freedoms and rights and expressed its desire to engage in the political and social arena away from confessional politics. This statement has resulted in a meeting held in the same month at the headquarters of the New Democrats Party (al-Diymuqratiuwn al-Judud) during which Isam Hmaidan, the leader of the party, gathered with the party’s secretary-general, Mr. Mohamed Darif; who declared the meeting an opportunity to introduce the newly formed party and an example of the call for dialogue with political parties which was announced in the current’s statement.
This political dynamic is what the current seeks to reinforce on different occasions. In January 2017, the current issued a statement to commemorate the fifth anniversary of its establishment, in which it renewed its political position and vision based on the creation of a political environment that would enable the establishment of a “civil state”.
Do Moroccan Shiites Constitute a Political Force?
Despite the media controversy sparked by the question of Moroccan Shiites, their political influence is limited, not only because of the repression they face from the authorities but also because of the small population and internal divisions that characterize the Shi’i currents in Morocco. This weakness in influence can also be explained by means of the concept of Secrecy, as one of the central concepts of the Shiite discourse.
The concept refers to the process of concealing religious belief and not declaring it to the public for fear of repression. It is a technique used by the Shiite minority to avoid direct clash and escape social boycott, and even as a strategy to avoid government repression. Hence, the principle of secrecy that surrounds the Shiite activity in Morocco forces many converts to hide their religious tendencies, fearing legal prosecution on the one hand and conflict with the other social and religious groups on the other hand. For all the foregoing reasons, few of the Moroccan Shiites are openly outspoken, have gone public and have tried to find organizational structures to accommodate their activities. Consequently, their census process is extremely difficult.
However, some international reports provide estimations of the numbers of Shiites in Morocco. The State Department’s report on religious freedom in the world indicates 3,000 to 8,000 Shiites, who are divided between Sunni convert Moroccans and foreign Shiites, especially from Lebanon and Iraq. The 2009 report noted that foreign Shiites constitute a majority in this minority. Subsequent reports confirm these figures, or give possible proportions, such as the report issued in May 2018 and considered that Shiites constitute less than 0.1 per cent of the Moroccan population.
With the exception of this report, there is no accurate official census of the number of Shiites in Morocco. The general population census in Morocco does not include religion as one of the questions for the population. Hence, the exact number of Shiites in Morocco remains unknown. Moroccan Shiite leaders try to exaggerate by saying that their potential numbers are estimated at tens of thousands, but it is difficult to verify this. Hence, based on their activities and geographical location, their estimated numbers do not exceed a few hundred or a few thousands spread in various Moroccan cities. This makes their political influence limited.
The activities of the Moroccan Shiites are concentrated in specific geographic areas. Some cities are more active than others, especially metropolitan ones such as Casablanca, Rabat, Tangier, Meknes, Fez, Oujda, among others. The “Ressali Line” is active in the northern city of Tangier, and includes an unofficial office of Isam Hmaidan, who presents himself as an agent for Fadlallah’s reference, as well as the “Imam Mohammed Shirazi Authority”, which follows the Shirazi authority. The city of Meknes, in the center of Morocco, is also witnessing a significant dynamic of the Shiites, where a number of them have established cultural and religious associations and frameworks, but the repression of the Moroccan authorities has failed these initiatives, most notable of which is the attempt to establish the Ghadir Cultural Association in 2000. In addition, the descent of a number of Shiite figures from this city is considered one of the elements contributing to the high level of Shiite activity in it. Some of these descends include Idris Hani, one of the most prominent symbols of the Shiites in Morocco. The city of Casablanca also enjoys a strong Shiite activity, as it is the largest city in terms of population and area, and has previously included a Shiite library called the “Library of Science” (Maktabat al-‘ilm) which was closed in 2009, after the arrest of its owner in a campaign of arrests that targeted followers of the Shiite movement in Morocco; this library played a prominent role in communication between the Moroccan Shiites themselves, and also for study abroad.
It should also be noted that Moroccan Shiites living abroad, especially in Europe, are more active and dynamic than those living in Morocco. Belgium is witnessing an increasing growth of the Shiites among the Moroccan community. What is more, Shiite religious centers and mosques are crowded with large numbers of Moroccans, who take turns attending lessons and lectures, and participate in various organized religious and cultural activities both at home and abroad through the different visits to Shiite shrines in Iran and Iraq. Reports in this regard indicate an annual Moroccan participation in these occasions, which reached in 2017 a number of about 300 Moroccans, most of whom come from Belgium. Moreover, the Moroccan Shiites in Belgium have established a number of associations that organize their religious affairs and through which they celebrate events and rituals such as “the Association of Peace”, “the Association of Zahra,” “the Husseini Zahra,” and “Al-Thaqlin Cultural Association”. Moroccan authorities estimate that Belgium alone is home to a Moroccan Shiite population of around 20 thousands who have converted from the Sunni rite in favor of the Jaafari Imamite one, although it is difficult to confirm this information from an independent source.
This dynamic of the Moroccan Shiites abroad and its weakness at home can be explained by two factors. The first is linked to the freedom of belief in Europe; this facilitates the exercise of rituals and travel to the “holy places” without fear of the legal consequences of the practice of religious belief. The second is linked to the Shiite presence among Arab and Islamic communities in Europe, especially Iran and Iraq, which open their religious and cultural centers to the Moroccan Shiites and others; this helps in the process of religious transformation.
Authorities’ Responses to Political Shiism
In general, the relationship of the authorities with the Shiites is characterized by duality. They are sometimes at odds and other times in harmony depending on International Relations. For example, when the relationship between Morocco and Iran was strained in 2009, this negatively impacted the Moroccan Shiites through a campaign of arrests targeting several Moroccan Shiites in several Moroccan cities, but at other times they knew some kind of appeasement. One manifestation of this is when followers of the Ressali current received a license from the official authorities in 2014, after the registration of the “Ressali Line for Studies and Publishing” in the form of a company and not an NGO, which enabled them to break free from the control of the Ministry of the Interior, and to obtain a license from the Commercial Court in order to establish an economic institution subject to corporate law as well as allowing the publication of a newspaper in the year 2016 of the current of “Ressali Citizen” (al-Muwatin al-Ressali) led by Kamal al-Ghazali, dissident of the Ressali current, under the name of “the voice of the citizen,” (Sawt al-Muwatin) but the largest distribution companies in Morocco refused to distribute the newspaper.
This fluctuation in the relationship is due to the fact that the Moroccan authorities view the Shia as a dual challenge. Shiism is not only seen as a political challenge, but also a religious one. This is due to the fact that it contradicts the official religious identity of the Moroccan state, which is based on the Maliki rite and the Ash’ari doctrine and the method of Junaid, which are the cornerstones of Morocco’s religious ideology. This challenge poses itself through the competition that the Shi’i sect may represent to Moroccan religiosity, since they both derive from the same religion.
It also depends on the historical heritage of Moroccans which is linked to allegiance to Ahl al-Bayt (the people of the house), meaning the descendent of the prophet. This is what intervenes with the religious legitimacy of the Monarchy in Morocco, considering that the ruling dynasty in Morocco is descendant of the fourth caliph Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the first imam of the Twelve imams in the Twelver Shiite doctrine (Ithnā’ashariyyah). In addition, the political and religious belief of Moroccans is historically linked to this since the establishment of the first independent state from the Caliphate in the Levant, the Idrisid dynasty, 12 centuries ago.
Moreover, Shiism is perceived also as a challenge to Morocco’s foreign policy in the religious sphere, especially in Africa. Morocco has exported its religious model abroad since 2008, a strategy that has diplomatic and political dimensions, but also highlights the efforts of Rabat in asserting its religious authority. This effort has culminated in the establishment of the Mohammed VI Institute for the Formation of Imams in 2014. Mohammed VI Foundation of African Religious scholars was founded in July 2015 with the aim of “unifying and coordinating the efforts of Muslim scholars in Morocco and other African countries to introduce, disseminate and consolidate the values of tolerant Islam.”
Despite the intermittent repression practiced by the state against the Shiites, its behavior does not indicate a desire to systematically eradicate Shiism in the country, as it tries to absorb and contain this phenomenon in a clear form that is subject to its security and strategic calculations. Individual Shiism does not pose a threat to its spiritual security in as much as the collective tendency and inclusion in Shiite organizations does. The latter is what the state looks at with suspicion; it believes that these organizations’ loyalty and advocacy of foreign regimes and organizations such as the Iranian regime and “Hezbollah” will have political implications on the inside.
In response to the Ressali line’s desire in public action, the government does not seem enthusiastic about the politicization of the Moroccan Shia. Three considerations can help understand this prohibition. First, there is what the Moroccan authorities consider as “preserving the spiritual security of Moroccans” and preventing any disruption to their beliefs; this includes, in addition to Shiites, all religious orientations, whether Christian, Baha’i or Ahmadiyya. Second, there is the attempt to control the Shia presence in the country. The state seeks to prevent any organizational or cultural friction between the Shiites and Moroccans as an attempt to preempt any long-term sectarian competition in the country, as it is the case in other Middle Eastern countries. Third, there is the political consideration based on not allowing space of bilateral political allegiance to the Moroccan Shiites, especially since all jurisprudential references are concentrated between Iraq and Iran.
However, the authorities’ dealings with the Shiite issue in Morocco through security lenses hinder their public engagements. In this regard, the Moroccan experience with the former Salafi-Jihadis is illustrative. Since 2011, Morocco has been opening up to a number of former Salafi-Jihadis figures, which has carried out ideological reviews inside the prison, changing their political positions and recognizing the constitutional and political institutions of the country. This inclusive approach has enabled them to join political parties and to participate in the public scene through the establishment of NGOs and contributed in attracting dozens of members from the streams of former “Salafi-jihadis” inside and outside the prison to political action and many of them have abandoned their radical ideas. For all the foregoing reasons, the openness of the state to the moderate stream of Moroccan Shiites may help this trend to engage in public life and legal political participation.
 Abdel-Hakim Abu El-Louz, “Changes in the Official Moroccan Position of Shi’ism (1981-2014)”, The Mabar Center for Studies and Research, May 2017, link: https://goo.gl/9Lp7xh
 Such as Ressali Line, the Ressali citizen, the site of the Shiites of Tangier, and pages on Facebook (Shiites Ahl al-Bayt in Amazigh Morocco, Al-Ahrar channel: the voice of the Shiites of Morocco, the Shiites of Morocco) among others.
 This data was elicited from a field research carried out by the researcher in 2017, and published as part of an MA thesis under the title: “Religious Transformation and Identity Building: A Field Study of the Paths of the Moroccan Shiites”, Academic Year 2017/2018.
 The official website of the Ressali Line, “what we want”, link: http://www.ressali.com/what_we_want?language=arabic
 Mohammed Guenfoudi: “Religious Transformation and Identity Building: An Empirical Study of the Paths of Moroccan Shiites”, Master’s Thesis, Mohammed V University.
A sample of seven people (Moroccan Shi’a) was interviewed from different Moroccan cities (Rabat, Oujda and Casablanca).
 Mohammed Akkidh: The Shiites in Morocco and the Methods of Polarization and the Paths of the Elite, “in a group of researchers: Iran and the Maghreb: The Shiite Question ‘Book 115, (Dubai: Masabar Center for Studies and Research, July 2016), p. 99.
 Interview on 28/07/2017, with Kamal al-Ghazali, a leading figure in the Shiite Ressali Line, a former member of the Islamic Choice or Jund al-Islam, and one of the founders of the Shiite Ressali Line in Morocco.
 Kamal al-Ghazali, Ibid.
 Special dialogue with the former leader of the Islamic Choice Movement and leader of the Alternative Civilization Party Dr. Mustafa Al-Masoudi, The Intellectual Newspaper, Issue: 1093 Monday 29/06/2009, link: http://www.almothaqaf.com/hewar/2425.html
 The most prominent designations that were issued to members of Shiite orientation were the “Ressali current” or “Iranian current.” Relative to the Lebanese Shiite cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.
 Noureddine Alloush, Ibid.
 These currents are the prominent front of Moroccan Shiites, although most of them do not enjoy clear organizational structures. Their activities are characterized by secrecy and ambiguity due to the sensitivity of sectarian affiliation and the fear of being imprisoned or prosecuted by the security authorities, such as the 2009 incident where a number of Moroccan Shiites, from various religious authorities, were arrested.
 In 2014 there was a dispute between Humaidan and Ghazali, which led the latter to establish a new current known as “The Ressali Citizen”.
 The concept of “clairvoyants” is used by the Shiites to denote those who have converted from other rites to Shi’ism.
 Interview with a Shiite activist from the Khomeini Line on 25/07/2017
 The site of the missionary line, what do we want ?, Link: http://www.ressali.com/what_we_want?language=arabic
 United States, Department of State, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2009, Link: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/140693.pdf
 United States, Department of State, Annual Report on International Religious Freedom 2017, Link: https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/281242.pdf
 As a result of his repeated achievements and also his published books, the most prominent of which is “The Succession of the Assassinated Crisis of History or the Crisis of the Historian?“, And the book “I was designated by Hussein”(the difficult transition in the doctrine and the deceased)
 I met the owner of the library (Haj Ali), who tried to explain the nature of the Shiite activity in Morocco, as well as the role played by his office to facilitate communication between the Shiites of Morocco, and organize their material and also private affairs (such as fun marriage).
 Interview with H. A., on 21/07/2017, owner of the Science Library.
 Interview with Kamal al-Ghazali, Ibid.
 See Salim Hmimnat, Morocco’s Religious “Soft Power” in Africa: As a strategy supporting Morocco’s stretching in Africa, Moroccan Institute for Policy Analysis, March 2018. Link: https://mipa.institute/5496
 Abdul Hakim Abu Al-Louz, Ibid.