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Guardian CIF: What does Abdessalam Yassine’s death mean for Morocco?

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Link to the original piece on the Guardian website, here
abdessalam yassine funeral

Mourners surround the coffin of Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, who led the Justice and Spirituality opposition movement, in Rabat, Morocco, last Friday. Photograph: Abdeljalil Bounhar/AP

Islamism is often thought to be antithetical to Sufism, but in Morocco, a Sufi-inspired Islamist movement has represented the most potent opposition to the monarchy since the 1980s. The death of its mystical leader, Sheikh Abdessalam Yassine, last Thursday has left many asking what direction Morocco’s informal opposition will take.

Tens of thousands of people converged on Morocco’s capital, Rabat, to mourn the passing of Yassine, 84, the founder and spiritual leader of Morocco’s largest Islamic opposition movement, Justice and Spirituality (al Adl wal Ihsan), a nonviolent group committed to the peaceful overthrow of the monarchy.

The sheikh’s age and ill health had meant his public appearances had grown increasingly infrequent. Some even speculated that he may have died earlier and his death kept a secret from his devoted followers. According to Michael Willis, fellow in Moroccan and Mediterranean studies at Oxford University, Yassine’s death is a pivotal moment in the evolution of the movement: “The movement grew around him, all members read his key writings, he was at the centre of things – but the movement had been preparing for his death for the last decade or so – there are structures in place.”

The central ideologue and spiritual guide, Yassine’s appeal combined religious and political leadership, something the movement will struggle to replace. Whether his successor’s legitimacy is premised on political or religious credentials could affect the nature of the movement and its popular appeal. In recent years, Yassine’s daughter Nadia, a media regular and French-educated author, has grown in public prominence. Like her father, her public defiance of the monarchy, including a 2005 statement that Morocco would be better off as a republic, saw her prosecuted and kept under surveillance. However, despite her popular appeal and charisma, it is unlikely she will take the helm in a deeply conservative country, where female leadership remains contentious. An interim successor has been appointed in the shape of Mohamed Abbadi, current head of the movement’s guidance council and No 2 in the movement.

The burning question for observers is whether the movement will reconsider a cornerstone of Yassine’s thinking – the rejection of the monarchy’s religious and political legitimacy. Such a move, favoured by younger members, would allow the movement to enter the political fray, but could ultimately undermine its oppositional appeal.

As for the monarch, the passing of such an inveterate opponent will be regarded with muted glee. For decades, the sheikh represented the face of popular dissidence, refusing to recognise the legitimacy of the monarchy and sending a succession of impudent letters to the successive kings, accusing them of squandering the people’s wealth and calling on them to return to the path of God. One such letter saw Yassine imprisoned in a psychiatric ward because it is alleged former king Hassan II could not conceive that any sane man would challenge his authority so brazenly. On Mohammed VI’s ascension in 1999, Yassine advised him to use his personal wealth, currently estimated at $2.5bn (£1.5bn), to eradicate the national debt. In a country with over 40% illiteracy and where more than a fifth of the population live in extreme poverty, the fact the king’s 12 palaces reportedly cost $1m a day to operate provides some fodder to Yassine’s call for social justice.

What’s more, in 2011, Yassine’s movement temporarily joined forces with Morocco’s pro-democracy 20 February movement, swelling crowds and increasing pressure on the king to undertake political reforms at a time when longstanding leaders were being deposed across the region. It was these protests that saw the enactment of constitutional reforms and the bringing forward of legislative elections, in which a rival Islamist party, the Justice and Development party (PJD), won a majority of seats. The concession of an Islamist government is widely considered to be the regime’s “last card” in its efforts to avoid relinquishing meaningful power.

With his potent message of Sufi piety and political dissent, Yassine embodied a truly Moroccan form of political protest in one of the most enduring authoritarian states, where window-dressing reforms have long tempered international criticism. His death is undoubtedly a blow to the movement’s religious leadership, but it remains to be seen whether it will negatively affect its political might. According to Michael Willis, “both Al Adl wal Ihsan and the 20 February movement are waiting for the PJD to run into trouble and support to ebb. Then the palace will have to turn to either one of them.” Yassine’s movement may yet have its day.

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Written by Myriam Francois

December 20, 2012 at 14:55

Blood and Gore: Finding Our Human Dignity

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While gruesome images of Gaddafi’s bloody corpse hit the headlines here, in Libya, people were queuing to see his body, largely in order to ascertain for themselves, that the tyrant who ruled for so long, was indeed gone for good. The choice to print graphic close up images, or play on loop the final moments of a seriously injured man in the hands of an understandably angry mob, was shocking to many, not least those of us who had to explain the images to young children. But rituals of death also tell us a lot about the living. So what does our portrayal of Gaddafi’s death say about us?

Some of the most explicit and disturbing images of Gaddafi’s slumped body seem to play to our base desire for retribution and punishment, transforming our media networks into modern day coliseums, where morbid fascinations are given free rein, the sobriety of death sacrificed at the altar of ratings or high print runs.

There were undeniably serious journalistic challenges to covering Gaddafi’s demise, as the BBC’s editors’ decision to dedicate a post to the topic testifies. Specifically, were graphic images an essential part of telling the story or were they merely victory porn, dehumanizing both the watcher and the watched through a desensitazation to images which should otherwise be deeply distressing and disturbing? Are we revelling in the death of our enemies, the Bin Ladens and Anwar al Awlakis, in our very own rituals of atonement, where human sacrifice is still the ultimate price to be paid for ‘evil’?

Gaddafi’s death, like Bin Laden’s or al Awlaki’s raises significant questions over the appropriateness of extra judicial killings, due process and the human rights of war criminals – but what about basic human dignity? To be convinced that Gaddafi or anyone else should be afforded this, is in no measure an apology for their actions, but surely a marker of unfailing commitment to the very values which underpin our society.

The ethics of journalism have surely been tested by the latest technology which means we have access through camera phones to a dying man’s final seconds. The real question such footage poses is, whether the choice to air it is guided by journalistic concerns or profit margins. And more broadly, whether we don’t demean our own humanity, by the gratuitous parading of bodies like war trophies.

Ultimately, it is how we deal with people in death, as in life, which defines our commitment to human dignity.

(this article can also be found here )

Written by Myriam Francois

October 26, 2011 at 17:58

Bin Laden: Beyond a modern Mephistopheles

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Public reaction to Bin Laden’s bloody demise offers an incisive window into our relationship to violence. In response to the news that celebrations had erupted in New York and Washington, the Vatican issued a sobering statement, which ought to have universal resonance: “Faced with the death of a man, a Christian never rejoices but reflects on the serious responsibility of each and every one of us before God and before man, and hopes and commits himself so that no event be an opportunity for further growth of hatred, but for peace.” The message of introspection, responsibility and reflection in order to avoid the perpetuation of hate is a crucial one and should lead us to assess how the very violent end of a very violent man, can be the seeming cause of celebration. It would suggest, there are indeed, certain types of violence which are acceptable, justifiable, worthy of gaiety even?

Clearly, the modern sensibility is not horrified by all types of pervasive violence – some are considered justified, carpet bombing Germany and Japan during the second world war, drone missiles causing “collateral” damage in Pakistan and Afghanistan, Israeli air raids on the most densely populated strip in the world, Nato’s bombing of Mizrata, despite the casualty implications, can all be explained away as rational violence, the violence which characterises modernity. What irks the modern sensibility is violence which is deemed senseless, in other words, violence which cannot be explained by notions of progress. This later type of violence is discussed, Mahmood Mamdani tells us, in two basic ways, in cultural terms for pre-modern society, and theological terms for modern society. Examples of the cultural explanations can be found in a plethora of articles discussing anything from the Sudanese conflict to the Rwandan genocide – it is “ethnic” conflict, the roots of which are located in the DNA of those involved, something in the very essence of the Hutus, which made them massacre the Tutsis – nothing to do with power or control, but something tribal, something primal.

Political violence which doesn’t fit the narrative of progress is discussed in theological terms to avoid having to take stock of the real factors within our modern society, which may be implicated in the crime at hand. That’s why rather than assessing Hitler as a product of a neo-Darwinian, post-colonial climate, his actions are merely dubbed “evil”, their cosmic basis beyond rational assessment, the holocaust assessed ahistorically, outside the context of imperialism, colonial genocide and racial theories which not only characterised the era, but were applied to the decimation of native populations across the world, the Native Americans, the Maoris, the Hereros… “The Holocaust”, Mamdani tells us, “was born at the meeting point of two traditions that marked modern Western civilization: “the anti-Semitic tradition and the tradition of genocide of colonized peoples.” For Mamdani and others, moving beyond the essentialization or reductivism involved in explaining away non-“progressive” forms of violence, is the only real way to guarantee these types of violence are not replicated. In essence, it is only when we truly assess the root causes, the factors and influences within ourselves and our society which have led to the emergence of any given evil, that we can truly claim to be seeking to eradicate it.

What is striking about the death of Bin Laden is that the rapturous applause and spontaneous celebrations point to the fact that Bin Laden has come to be viewed as the human embodiment of evil in our time, bin Laden was no longer merely a man, he had become a symbol both for his supporters and his detractors, elevating his importance far beyond the almost marginal role he had come to play within the loose network that is al Qaida, and conferring upon him an almost mythical status, which has seen attributed to him, more atrocities than even he could have dreamt of committing. But this larger than life depiction of Bin Laden has proven a serious impediment to assessing what exactly he does represent. Just like the best of humankind do not appear in a vacuum, but are the product of a multiplicity of influences which have forged their outlook and path, the worst of mankind are also a product of ideas, philosophies and events which helped forge them. To essentialise our understanding of Bin Laden’s actions as merely “evil”, is to overlook the important factors which helped nurture him. If we are to avoid a thousand Bin Laden’s in his wake, we need to look deeper than the idea of “senseless” violence rooted in some sort of cosmic evil, to the context which shaped the Bin Laden phenomena.

How does for example, Al Qaida fit in with the Middle East’s history of colonialism, dictatorships and modern day imperialism? How do the violent tactics advocated by Bin Laden fit with the flip side of colonialism, after the settler’s violence against the native, the native’s violence against the settler, in other words, to use the phraseology of Revolutionary theorist Franz Fanon himself, with the idea that “the colonized man liberates himself in and through violence.” For Mamdani, anti-colonial violence is not irrational, but belongs to the very script of modernity the settler had come to propagate, in this sense, the violence itself becomes a “midwife of history”. The native’s violence, the violence of the former victim, was according to Fanon, the violence of those who’d chosen to become masters of their destiny, not victims of other people’s. In many ways, it was a learnt tactic, which when applied, would shift power relations and place the former colonised on an equal footing with the former coloniser. Roy Arendathi sums up the relationship between the two types of violence when she discusses the link between the concepts of war and terrorism, both words used to refer to types of, at times, indiscriminate violence: “Terrorism is vicious, ugly and dehumanizing for its perpetrators as well as its victims. But so is war. You could say that terrorism is the privatization of war. Terrorists are the free marketers of war. They are people who don’t believe that the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” Arendathi doesn’t argue that there is no alternative to terrorism of course, the alternative she states, is Justice. But establishing this laudable ideal is somewhat more complex and requires some serious soul-searching as a nation.

According to Mamdani, there “is huge resistance, both moral and political, to exploring the historical causes of the Nazi genocide”, largely due to the implications such conclusions could have for the philosophies and ideas which continue to guide our lives and which, having been ignored through the essentialization of the Holocaust as strictly “evil”, have failed to be adequately scrutinized. The continued presence of anti-Semitism, joined in recent years by rising islamophobia should be an indication enough that the historical and theoretical demons which underpinned Nazi ideology should never have been laid to rest, but unpicked, deconstructed, demolished. Similarly, in the wake of Bin Laden’s death, we should move beyond the temptation of essentialising the figure and in so doing, reifying the factors which led to his birth, not as the 54th son of a billionaire Saudi family, but as the symbol of modern day violent resistance to perceived Western imperialism.

The story of Bin Laden began long before his birth, his roots stretch from the shores of pre-partition Palestine to the bloody borders of Iraq to the mountains of Algeria. His ideas are as much indebted to a skewed reading of the Quran as they are to the strategies of the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla tactics of South America and the American concept of collateral damage. Bin Laden was a global figure, not only in the limited but real appeal he held for the disillusioned, but in the factors which helped create the myth beyond the man. When we fail to assess what aspects of modern culture are complicit in forging the man who’s come to represent our modern Mephistopheles, we fail to stop his potential for perpetual renewal.

Written by Myriam Francois

May 4, 2011 at 23:41