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Last updated: February 23, 2016

In Maghreb, an irresistible tug of religion and tradition

Banner Icon Maghreb Dr Mohamed Chtatou outlines how the road towards modernity in the Maghreb countries ended with the surge of Islamism and, what he calls, growing "orientalisation".

After independence from French colonialism, Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria, in the mid fifties and early sixties of the last century, moved towards modernity, cautiously but surely. Women were offered education on equal footing as men and the path was cleared for future equality. In Tunisia, this equality was made even more real, right away, under the leadership of President Habib Bourguiba, the national hero of independence, who offered women a family law, considered to be the most daring and advanced of its kind in the traditional, tribal, patriarchal, and conservative Arab world.

By the early 1970s there was a surge of socialism and communism with the aim of toppling the monarchy in Morocco and creating socialist entities in Algeria and Tunisia. The grand design failed in Morocco and Tunisia but succeeded in Algeria. Nevertheless, the three countries were on their way to modernity but not democracy. In Morocco, after the military coups, the executive monarchy turned repressive, a period that was labeled “The Years of Lead”; in Algeria the Boumedienne socialist absolutism became normal practice; while Tunisia was transformed into an enlightened dictatorship.

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Boumédiène (centre) negotiating the 1975 Algiers Agreement between the Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and Iraqi vice-president Saddam Hussein. (Credit: Wikipedia Commons)


In 1979, with the advent of the Iranian Revolution and the takeover of power by the Mullahs, the Arab region was in for a big change: the surge of Islamism. This surge was made inevitable by two important events: the determination of the Iranian theocracy to export its revolution to the rest of the Muslim world and the Soviet takeover of Afghanistan in 1979.

Threatened by The Big Bear in the north and Persian Shiism in the east, the Arab Gulf States reacted by bankrolling Salafist jihad to fight: first the Soviets in Afghanistan, and later on the Shiite influence in the Middle East. And thus, the birth of the notorious and ill-reputed al-Qaeda.

This was the beginning of the orientalisation (shar9anat) of the Muslim world through religious practice, dress code and extensive predication (da3wa), using the nascent satellite TV and the Internet to spread radical Islam and Wahhabism, calling for the return to the benevolent tradition of the good and pious Muslims of the past (salaf sali7).

As this return to the past was taking place in the Middle East, the Maghreb countries decided to fully Arabize the educational curriculum in order to counter French cultural influence. This move dictated by pure nationalism was going to have dire consequences in the Maghreb later on.

In Morocco, the rise of Islamist militant fervor with Shabiba Islamiyya, founded by Mouti, and Al Adl Wal Ihsan denied the Alaouite monarchy its religious and historical legitimacies. The leader of the latter movement, Abdessalam Yassine, had already sent Hassan II a letter (in 1973) entitled: “Islam or the downpoor” in which he asked candidly the monarch to abandon modernity: “Sweep the political parties aside and come hither to sit together: you, myself and the army.” Infuriated by this gross lèse-majesté the autocratic monarch ordered the Sufi Cheikh to be put in psychiatric internment.

In Algeria, the FIS (Front of Islamic Salvation) was founded in 1989 and soon won more than half of the valid vote in the municipal elections in 1990, and achieved almost a landslide in the legislative elections of 1992 on the slogan: “Islam is the solution.” Threatened by this movement, the army annulled the results of the general elections, disbanded this Salafist party and interned its cadres in 1992. This led to a bloody civil war that lasted until 1998 and claimed the lives of 250,000 people.

In Tunisia, the senile President-for-life Bourguiba was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the ambitious general and Prime Minister Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 1987, who immediately set out to strengthen Tunisia’s modernity through a tribal form of presidency built on corruption and repression. His ambitious and highly personified republic was immediately rejected by the Tunisian Islamists who called for the re-Islamisation of Tunisian society. Ennahda, the flag-bearer of Tunisian political Islam came about in 1980, highly influenced by the religious thinking of Sayyid Qutb and Mawdudi. This Islamist party, under the leadership of Rashid Al Ghannouchi, is probably the most democratic and moderate of the whole Arab world upholding political pluralism and dialogue with the West. Its moderate attitude, however, would not save it from being banned in 1989, and eventually, the imprisonment of 25,000 of its activists in 1992. Exasperated, Ennahda and its leadership relocated to England, where they were given asylum until their triumphant return in 2011, after the advent of the Arab uprisings.

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Yusra Ghannouchi, daughter of Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi


Besides the political impact of Islamism on the Maghreb since 1985, probably the most important impact of the return to tradition and the orientalisation (shar9anat) of this region can be felt on the massive return to religious practice and belief, especially among the youth who reject Western culture through steadfast re-Islamisation. This expresses itself unequivocally in the following manner:

Dress code: 9amis or 3abaya for men with a turban or sheshiyya as headwear. Hijab for young ladies and Ni9ab or Burka for married women (total Hijab).

Alternative medicine: Use of tibb nabawi (Prophet’s medicine) instead of conventional medicine and wide utilisation of medicinal plants and religious medicine (ro9ya char3iya).

Islamic TV: Watching Islamic broadcasts that spread popular preachers’ messages, Koran-reading and religious songs (anashid).

Religious language: Use of religiously inspired expressions such as Jazak Allahu khayran instead of Shukran. Use of Salam u alaikum instead of Ahlan. Use of Allah ikhalik instead of men fadlek, etc.

Prayer: Undertake most prayers on time and in the mosque even during work hours. Shops are closed during prayer times and on Friday.

Mosque-building: Help collect money to build mosques everywhere.

Zakat Collection: Help collect zakat (Islamic tax of 10% of annual gain) and use the money to help the poor pay for education, health or start a business.

Food distribution: Organise collective fast-breaking (iftar) during Ramadan and distribute free rams to the needy for the Feast of Sacrifice (3id al-ad7a).

Open Koranic schools: Help collect money for opening Koranic schools to allow children to get free education and religious orientation and advice from able religious sheikhs, whose only aim in life is the glory of Islam and the spread of its rightful word.


Any views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East

Mohamed Chtatou
Dr. Chtatou is a Professor at the university in Rabat. He is currently a political analyst with Moroccan, Saudi and British media on politics and culture in the Middle East and Islam. Chtatou has lectured in education at Mohammed V University since 1984, and has conducted over 200 trainings in education, literacy, empowerment, culture and development in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. He has published several books on language and culture.
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