‘Moussalaha’ is Morocco’s winning recipe for de-radicalisation

By Fadwa Islah, Soufiane Khabbachi
Posted on Thursday, 6 January 2022 19:56

Moroccan faithful pray on the esplanade of the Hassan II Mosque on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Casablanca
Moroccan faithful pray on the esplanade of the Hassan II Mosque on Laylat al-Qadr during the holy month of Ramadan, in Casablanca August 15, 2012. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Launched in 2017 to combat radicalisation, the Moussalaha programmne seems to be bearing fruit. We meet with Abdellah el-Youssoufi and Mohammed Damir, two Moroccans who have benefited from it.

To face the terrorist threat on its territory, Morocco is not content with simply preventing attacks and neutralising the actors. Instead, a security source spoke to us about a “multidimensional strategy that does not rely solely on the security approach.”

The kingdom is thus one of the pioneers of de-radicalisation policies, which are highly contested in Europe, particularly in France, where their effectiveness is regularly questioned.

But in Morocco, King Mohammed VI’s status as “Commander of the Faithful” offers undeniable leeway to develop a religious counter-discourse. This in turn has allowed him to institute, in association with his partners in the Sahel and West Africa, the training of imams at the Mohammed VI Institute.

The reorganisation in 2004 of the Higher Council of Ulemas, the only body authorised to issue fatwas, has made it possible to effectively combat the issuers of fatwas belonging to radical Islam.

Taking charge

But it is the Moussalaha (reconciliation in Arabic) programme, launched in 2017, that constitutes the most original experience in Morocco in terms of counter-terrorism. Its goal: to take charge of and accompany detainees incarcerated for terrorism-related reasons.

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

Damir, who frequented unarmed groups and mosques where inflammatory speeches were common, was among those arrested. He will spend a total of 15 years and 13 days in prison. He blames his radicalisation on “a lack of maturity combined with a lack of scientific and cultural background.

His first years in prison reinforced his radicalisation; he continued to learn passages of the Koran by heart, without trying to contextualise or interpret them. Then came loneliness and doubt. Alone with himself, Damir began to question the dogmas he had mechanically memorised, and took steps to study at a distance.

Incarceration and introspection

He began by studying international law in French. Obliged to physically attend classes to be able to pursue a master’s degree, he was forced to give up. But the study bug never left him. He enrolled in a sociology degree in Rabat, then in the faculty of psychology in Salé, before starting a theology degree in the faculty of Tetouan. He claims to have read, during his detention, more than 1,500 books in three different languages.

At first, his death sentence was commuted to 30 years in prison. Then along comes the Moussalaha device, which will be the “consecration of his own efforts”.

On the menu, an extensive economic and social rehabilitation programme, 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 programme, 15 have had their sentences reduced. To date, only one person who participated in the programme has committed a repeat offence.

The release is accompanied by individualised counselling. 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 de-radicalisation programs.

For Abdellah el-Youssoufi, born in 1990, everything began outside Moroccan borders. Originally from al-Hoceima in the Rif mountains, he decided to leave his native country for Tunisia in 2011 with the hope of finding a job and better living conditions.

Search for meaning

In Tunis, Youssoufi joined the ranks of Ansar al-Sharia, one of the most prominent Salafist organisations of the moment. The Islamist political party Ennahdha made its comeback after the fall of Ben Ali.

According to Youssoufi, fundamentalist preaching was then commonplace in the country and those who held them were not worried by the local police.

He found within these structures a form of self-esteem that he had never experienced before: “With the Salafist organisations, 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 useless.”

He gave several preaching sessions in which he called for jihad and vehemently criticised the Moroccan state. “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 radicalisation,” he explains.

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

His incarceration pushed him to introspection: “Prison was a period of great questioning, which allowed me to conduct a work of reflection on what I experienced during my years within Salafist movements, but also on 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.”

Golden opportunity

Having also taken part in the Moussalaha system, his de-radicalisation is part of the same dynamic as that described by Mohamed Damir, that is to say the culmination of a maturation process.

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

“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 much work of questioning, a personal effort to turn the page of this period, which is for me a failure at all levels”, he says.

If he affirms to have been constantly supported and encouraged by the penitentiary hierarchy, he recognises to have undergone pressures from several of his fellow prisoners, who perceived his ideological mutation as a “betrayal”. This did not prevent him from obtaining a degree in computer science.

Since its inception, 207 prisoners have participated in the Moussalaha program, and 116 have been granted a royal pardon. Mohamed 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 it is reading that has allowed him to break free from his ideological straitjacket. “Without reading, you can’t access anything,” he says.

After coming out of prison at 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.

For his part, Youssoufi is now married and has a one-year-old child. He holds a master’s degree in political science and is a research student in political science and international relations at the University of Rabat.

He also joined the Rabita Mohammadia of Ulemas, a general interest association created by the King in 2006 whose mission is to promote a tolerant and open Islam. Its secretary general, Ahmed Abbadi, a highly respected intellectual in Morocco, plays a major role in this de-radicalisation operation. Not only by piloting the Moussalaha program, but by reaching 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 deradicalisation 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 issue.”

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