Islamizing Modernity, Modernizing Islamism

Adl wal Ihsane and its challenge to the Moroccan state

Featured Image: The Tour Hassan in Rabat, one of the largest mosques in the world.

By Henry Robinson


Nabil Belkabir remembers the power they brought to the streets.

The young activist – part of the Rabat-based Tilila collective – was heavily involved in what was known as the February 20 Movement, anti-government demonstrations that rocked Morocco from 2011-2012. Marching alongside him were members of an Islamist group that the Moroccan government had formally banned: al-Adl wal-Ihsan (“Justice and Spirituality”).

Belkabir had never encountered them before, but they seemed all right; they saw him as their comrade and protected him. And what was more, they were a force to be reckoned with. “They were the most organized, the most numerous,” he says. “They were really disciplined, courageous, fierce.”

“When they join a movement,” he adds, “they are game changers.”


al-Adl wal-Ihsan (AWI) is one of – if not the – largest opposition political movements in Morocco, with a network of adherents that stretches throughout the country. Founded in 1987 by Sheik Abdessalam Yassine, a renegade member of Morocco’s Boutchichiyya Sufi brotherhood, AWI advocates for the country’s peaceful transition from a monarchy to a democracy under the rule of Islamic law. They emphatically reject the Moroccan king’s claim to be Amir al-Mouminin, or “Commander of the Faithful”; Yassine attracted attention when, in 1974, he wrote a letter to the king personally urging him to step down. (In response, the king had him confined to a mental institution.)

Such claims are not wholly new; the Moroccan monarchy, according to Mohamed Chtatou (a professor at Rabat’s Université Mohamed V) has historically been subject to contestation. “Challenge has always been part of the Moroccan political system,” he says, citing instances of monarchic overthrow that date back to the 16th century. “Being the Commander of the Faithful does not mean that you cannot be evicted or forced to leave your position.”  

Nonetheless, the scope of AWI’s challenge is substantial even by historical standards. The group has played a major part in many of the country’s largest recent political upheavals – from the February 20 Movement, to the nationwide anti-corruption protests of 2016-2017, to recent demonstrations against the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem. Although the organization is officially illegal, the government tolerates it in practice, allowing it to organize the public and maintain a vigorous online presence. Per a report by Vish Sakthivel of the Washington Institute, the group’s membership (although difficult to quantify, since no exact numbers are available) is anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000, and is on the rise.

Jamal Amiar, a freelance journalist based in Tangier, sums up the scope of their clout elegantly – “every time there are elections in this country,” he says, “the question is, will Adl wal Ihsane participate?”


How has AWI become so powerful, in the course of its relatively brief existence? One of the most compelling explanations is that the organization provides social services where the state has failed to measure up. In many of Morocco’s poor urban centers, AWI provides literacy training and welfare; they also offer high-quality health care and assistance with religious rites. Their activism has an ongoing, interpersonal component beyond marches and demonstrations.


Members of Adl wal Ihsane speak during a nighttime demonstration outside a mosque.


But according to Chtatou, AWI has also attracted so many followers because it has maintained a degree of integrity that few other opposition movements have been able to. “One of the weapons of mass destruction that [the Moroccan government] has in its arsenal,” he says, “is co-optation” – the integration of opposition movements into the mainstream structures of power, and the gradual watering-down of their demands and credibility with the public. He cites, as one example, the Marxist-Leninist student movements that gained footholds in Moroccan universities in the ‘70s. Many of the movement’s members were imprisoned, but after their release “lots of them became ministers, they became rich.” With evident exasperation in his voice, he says that “in the end, the monarchy always wins.”  

But AWI, unlike many of the other opposition movements in Morocco, is rejectionist – it refuses to participate in electoral politics and advocates a complete overhaul of the country’s political order. Speaking to Esen Kirdiş of the University of Minnesota, Abdelouahed Moutawakil (a spokesman for the group) said that he anticipated “a critical point where the regime cannot stand anymore. We are preparing for this. Then, there will be a new beginning…After this, then we can talk about elections and participation.”

Chtatou is well aware of this. AWI is “not interested in being co-opted,” he says; as he sees it, they’re “the only credible opposition.” This kind of principled radicalism is what makes the movement so attractive to a sizable portion of the country’s population. They refuse to water down their power by becoming a part of the political system, instead exerting influence at the grassroots level.

But what exactly does their radicalism entail?


In certain key areas, AWI has been able to align itself with members of Morocco’s leftist opposition – particularly in denouncing the monarchy’s corruption, and demanding constitutional reforms during the February 20 Movement. Belkabir’s Tilila group – which, to an American college student, is more immediately recognizable as “radically left” – did, after all, march alongside them, alongside a constellation of left-leaning groups.

But even during the marches, Belkabir had reservations. He noticed that the women and men of AWI would walk separately – an impression of religious conservatism that was borne out when Sheikh Yassine died in 2012 and his daughter (who wanted to lead the organization in a more feminist direction) was forced out. “A more conservative leadership is controlling [AWI],” he says flatly. “Most hardcore activists don’t like them.”

Politically and religiously, AWI occupies a strange and shifting ideological ground that mingles theocratic, religiously-conservative impulses with more liberal, even far-left ideas. The organization envisions, on the one hand, a Morocco governed by Sharia law, carrying out its political mandate according to Islamic precepts. But it also, as Sakthivel points out in her report, believes that such a society is impossible unless the impulse to create it is truly popular and democratic – not top-down – and unless poverty, illiteracy, and underdevelopment are eradicated. In certain areas – such as Islamic jurisprudence – it is open to competing interpretations of the Qur’an. It also holds firmly anti-Western views in foreign policy, opposing foreign intervention and the West’s cultural and political hegemony in Morocco – positions with which many leftists could readily sympathize.  

AWI is skeptical of many of the modernizing, Westernizing trends that have occurred in Morocco in recent years. Although Morocco retains many of its monarchic traditions, Anouar Majid – a professor at the University of New England’s campus in Tangier – describes the country as a “Sultanic democracy”: a country that has “stay[ed] broadly within the parameters of Islamic political thought and at the same time tries to implement structures of modern political behavior.” Even though the monarch himself assumes the title of Commander of the Faithful, Morocco has nonetheless oriented itself significantly toward Western sociopolitical models, promoting human rights, women’s equality, social liberalization, and religious tolerance.

In certain respects, AWI’s brand of liberalism is aligned with these progressive social developments. But in one respect, the group’s ideology is dramatically different – it envisions a much more thorough integration of religion and political life, and sharply criticizes the divide modernization has erected between the two. In his book, Islamizing Modernity, Yassine bemoaned the fact that modern life “wants religion confined to the private sphere, while the public sphere is left to politics”; by pushing for an “Islamic democracy,” the organization seeks to correct that.

Ultimately, then, the movement may not have the interests of the whole people at its heart – certainly not those of people like Belkabir, who is not a Muslim. To the West, the organization presents a challenge to our conventional notions of Islamist movements – in its rejection of violence, doctrinal flexibility, and support of democracy – but it retains a space within Moroccan political discourse that, to quote Belkabir, “is not so clear.” As it continues to exert pressure on the country’s political and social spheres, it remains to be seen whether its ideological program will become clear – and if so, what form it will take.

Henry Robinson ‘19 is an English major in Silliman College. Contact him at