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Morocco Wages "Soft" War Against Islamic Extremism In Prisons

Launched in 2017 to combat radicalization, the Moussalaha program is finding success by helping those incarcerated for terrorism by providing counseling, reducing their prison sentences and following up after release.

Black and white photo of the Hassan II Mosque in Casablanca, Morocco Wednesday March 4, 2020. Completed in 1993, it is the largest mosque in Africa and the only one in Morocco that non-Muslims are allowed to enter

Morocco Casablanca Hassan II Mosque

Fadwa Islah and Soufiane Khabbachi

RABAT — In Europe, deradicalization policies are often highly contested and their effectiveness is regularly questioned. But Morocco, a majority Muslim country, has become a pioneer in these sorts of programs. To face the terrorist threat on its territory, the North African kingdom is not content with preventing attacks and neutralizing actors. A security source contacted by Jeune Afrique spoke of a "multi-dimensional strategy that does not rely solely on the security approach.”

Unlike in Western democracies, King Mohammed VI's status as "Commander of the Faithful" offers undeniable leeway for developing a religious counter-discourse. In association with his partners in the Sahel and West Africa, he has been allowed to set up the training of imams at the Mohammed VI Institute.

The 2014 reorganization of the Higher Council of Ulemas, the only body authorized to issue fatwas (rulings on Islamic law given by a recognized authority), has made it possible to effectively combat the issuers of fatwas belonging to radical Islam.

Questioning dogma

But it is the Moussalaha (reconciliation in Arabic) program, launched in 2017, that constitutes the most original practice in Morocco in terms of counter-terrorism. Its principle: to care for and accompany detainees incarcerated for terrorism-related reasons.

Mohamed Damir, a 48-year-old Moroccan father of three, is a former beneficiary of the program. Damir was sentenced to death for terrorism following the 2003 attacks in Casablanca — in which he did not participate — at the age of 26. After the attacks, Moroccan authorities responded with a crackdown on circles tied to radical Islam.

Only one person who participated in the program has re-offended on a common law offense

Damir, who frequented unarmed groups and mosques where fundamentalist messages were common, was among those arrested. He spent a total of 15 years and 13 days in prison. He blames his radicalization on "a lack of maturity combined with a lack of scientific and cultural education.”

His first years in prison reinforced his radicalization; he continued to learn passages of the Koran by heart, without trying to contextualize or interpret them. Then came loneliness and doubts. Alone with himself, Damir began to question the dogmas he had mechanically assimilated and took the first steps to carry out his studies remotely.

Fit to reintegrate

He began by studying international law in French. Since it was mandatory to attend classes in person to pursue a master's degree, he had to give up his plan. But the study bug never left him. He enrolled in a sociology degree in Rabat, then in the department of psychology in Salé, and finally in a theology degree at a university in Tetouan. During detention, he claims to have read more than 1,500 books in three different languages.

At first, his death sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison. Then came Moussalaha, which for him was the "consecration of his own efforts."

On the docket is a vast economic and social reintegration program, as well as the creation of an individual project to become independent and "learn to manage a home."

Judged fit to reintegrate into civil society, he was released after 15 years behind bars. Of the first 25 people in the program, 15 have had their sentences reduced. To date, only one person who participated in the program has re-offended on a common law offense.

The release is accompanied by individualized psychological counseling. According to Damir, all the released inmates have "found a path to peace." This is an undeniable success, far from the controversies raised in Europe by deradicalization programs.

Place Outa El Hammam With The Great Mosque On The Left At Dusk; Chefchaouen Province Morocco

Place Outa El Hammam With The Great Mosque On The Left At Dusk; Chefchaouen Province Morocco

Ken Welsh/Design Pics/ZUMA

Search for meaning

For Abdellah El Youssoufi, born in 1990, everything began outside of Morocco's borders. Originally from Al-Hoceima in the Rif mountains in the north of the country, he decided to leave Morocco for Tunisia in 2011 in the hope of finding a job and better living conditions.

In Tunis, El Youssoufi joined the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia, one of the most prominent Salafist organizations of the moment. The Islamist political party Ennahdha made its comeback after the fall of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. According to El Youssoufi, fundamentalist preaching became commonplace in the country and those who did it were not worried about the local police interfering.

He found within these structures a form of self-esteem that he had never experienced before: "With the Salafist organizations, I found hope for a better future. They offered me a dignified job in commerce, and then little by little, they trusted me and gave me more and more responsibilities. With these people, I felt for the first time that my life was not in vain.”

He made several preaching calls to join the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia, where he vehemently criticized the Moroccan state.

What changed was my way of reading and interpreting the sacred texts

"Beyond the search for meaning, extreme poverty, the lack of professional prospects and, above all, the lack of consideration and respect when you come from a disadvantaged background in Morocco are all factors that played a role in my radicalization," he explains.

It was a video posted on YouTube that alerted the Moroccan authorities, who decided to contact their Tunisian counterparts. Arrested and interrogated in Tunisia for 10 days, El Youssoufi was sent back to Morocco, where he was sentenced to three years in prison in 2014.

His incarceration in turn pushed him to introspection. He said prison was a period of great questioning. It allowed him to reflect on what he experienced during his years within the Salafist movement. He saw “the limits of the responses provided by these movements to the political and social problems of our countries, as well as their contradictions with Islam and the message of our Prophet.”

Still a Muslim

Having also taken part in the Moussalaha program, El Youssoufi’s deradicalization is part of the same path as that described by Mohamed Damir — the culmination of a maturation process.

"Moussalaha was a chance and a golden opportunity for me to start a new life, on a healthy and balanced basis. But it was preceded by a long work of self-questioning, a personal effort to turn the page of this period which is for me a failure at all levels," he says.

While he says he was constantly supported and encouraged by the penitentiary hierarchy, he also received pressure from several of his fellow prisoners, who perceived his ideological shift as a "betrayal.” This did not prevent him from obtaining a degree in computer science.

Since its inception, 207 prisoners have participated in Moussalaha and 116 have been granted a royal pardon. Damir says he never lost his faith during his detention: "What changed was my way of reading and interpreting the sacred texts," he says.

Today, he believes that reading allowed him to break free from his ideological straitjacket: "Without reading, you can't access anything.”

After leaving prison at age 41, he was able to obtain a master's degree and is currently studying for a doctorate at Hassan-II University in Casablanca. He is not yet sure of his future, but he knows that he wants to be involved in the fight against religious extremism.

Deradicalization is accompanied by moments of doubt, the feeling of betraying God and Islam

For his part, El Youssoufi is married and has a one-year-old child. He is currently studying for a master's degree in political science and international relations at the University of Rabat and is about to defend his research paper.

He also joined the Rabita Mohammadia des Oulémas, a general interest association created by the king in 2006 with the mission to promote a tolerant and open Islam. Its secretary general, Ahmed Abbadi, is a highly respected intellectual in Morocco who plays a major role in this deradicalization operation. He not only pilots the Moussalaha program, but also reaches out to its beneficiaries.

"The fact that Abbadi came to meet us, that he answered our questions from a spiritual point of view, had a positive effect, especially since deradicalization is accompanied by moments of doubt, the feeling of betraying God and Islam. Talking with him allowed me to reconcile with myself and with Islam. Today, I am still a Muslim, but my reading and practice have changed. It has become a personal matter."

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