Thanks to Mullah
King Mohammed VI, on horse, held a ceremony of mutual allegiance in July in Tetouan in the north, a hotbed of extremism.
CASABLANCA,Â Morocco â€” Morocco has long been viewed as a rare liberalizing, modernizing Islamic state, open to the West and a potential bridge to a calmer Middle East that can live in peace with Israel.
But under pressure from Islamic radicalism,Â King Mohammed VI has slowed the pace of change. Power remains concentrated in the monarchy; democracy seems more demonstrative than real. While insisting that the king is committed to deeper reforms, senior officials speak instead of keeping a proper balance between freedom and social cohesion. Many discuss the threat of extremism in neighboring Algeria.
SinceÂ a major bombing of downtown hotels and shopping areas by Islamic radicals in 2003, and a thwarted attempt at anotherÂ bombing campaign in 2007, there has been a major and continuing crackdown on those suspected of being extremists here.
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In 2003, anyone with a long beard was likely to be arrested. Even now, nearly 1,000 prisoners considered to be Islamic radicals remain in Moroccan jails. Six Islamist politicians (and a reporter from theÂ Hezbollah television station,Â Al Manar) were jailed recently, accused of complicity in a major terrorist plot. The case was full of irregularities and based mainly on circumstantial evidence, according to a defense lawyer, Abelaziz Nouaydi, andÂ Human Rights Watch.
In a rare interview, Yassine Mansouri, Morocco’s chief of intelligence, said that the arrested politicians “used their political activities as a cover for terrorist activities.”
“It was not our aim to stop a political party,” he said. “There is a law to be followed.”
Morocco is threatened, Mr. Mansouri said, by two extremes â€” the conservativeWahhabism spread by Saudi Arabia and the Shiism spread by Iran. “We consider them both aggressive,” Mr. Mansouri said. “Radical Islam has the wind in its sail, and it remains a threat.”
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, especially active in Algeria, remains a major problem for Morocco, Mr. Mansouri said. Officials say it is appealing to the young and has recreated a training route to Afghanistan through Pakistan, and it just sponsored a suicide bombing in Mauritania.
Foreign Minister TaÃ¯eb Fassi Fihri said: “We know where the risks to our stability are. We know kids are listening to this Islamic song, so we have to act quickly.”
King Mohammed, who celebrated his 10th year on the throne this year, has vowed to help the poor and wipe out the slums, called “bidonvilles,” where radicalism is bred. One such slum, Sidi Moumen, where the bombers lived, is being redeveloped. Half of it has already been ripped down, and some 700 families shipped to the outskirts of the city, where they are provided a small plot of land at a cheap price to build new housing.
Hamid al-Gout, 34, was born in Sidi Moumen and built his own hovel here. Nearly everyone has been to prison, he said, and Islamist political groups quietly hold meetings. “Sometimes we talk, 12 or 14 people, about our lives,” he said, then added carefully, “But there is no radical thinking here now.”
Abdelkhabir Hamma, 36, said that he had been told that if he and his family did not leave by the end of the year, they would be thrown out. He said that while many respect the king, few trust other authorities.
The king sees himself as a modernizer and reformer, having invested heavily in economic development, loosened restraints on the news media, given more rights to women and shed light on some of the worst human-rights abuses of the past. These are remarkable steps in a region dominated by uncompromising examples of state control, like Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Because the king, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is also revered as the “Commander of the Faithful,” challenges to Moroccan Islam are taken very seriously.
In March, theÂ king cut diplomatic ties to Iran, accusing Tehran of “intolerable interference in internal affairs” by trying to spread Shiism in Morocco and recruiting Moroccans in Europe, especially in Belgium, to participate in acts of terrorism, Mr. Mansouri said.
The king has tried to be more inclusive, traveling for instance to the north of Morocco, where his father had refused to go. The north is also a hotbed of extremism and home for many of the Qaeda bombers of Madrid. The king held a traditional ceremony of mutual allegiance, or baiaa, this year in Tetouan and highlighted significant development funds there.
But Morocco’s response has also been to slam the brakes on reform, even of the corrupt judiciary and of laws governing women’s rights, in order not to inflame conservative and traditional views of Islam, especially in the countryside and among the poor, where extremists fish. For that reason, too, the king has not put Morocco forward as an interlocutor between Israel and theÂ Palestinians, as his father did. The view here is simply that Israel â€” and other, harder-line Arab states â€” must move first, before Morocco exposes itself.
The crackdown has also damaged Morocco’s human rights record. Muslim prisoners are treated roughly in jail, sometimes sodomized with bottles, said Abdel-Rahim Moutard, a former prisoner himself, his hands broken during interrogations. He runs Ennasir, a rights organization for prisoners. But when they emerge from prison, they get little help, even from the mosques or Ennasir.