Moroccan authorities arrested on the 17 of March, the Salafi Sheikh, Abou Naim, following a video he posted earlier in which he accused the Moroccan state of apostasy. In this video, Abou Naim denounced and called for action against the Moroccan state following the decision to close all mosques as preventive measures against the spread of COVID-19. The charges against him included diffusion of hate speech and threat to the public order. The Sheikh has previously been well-known for his radical positions and attacks against civil society actors and human rights activists which he called in previous videos: “dogs and monkeys”.
Beyond the circumstantial nature of this arrest, the proliferation of a radical religious discourse unveils serious challenges impacting the religious dynamics in the country. It is often argued that the Islam practiced in Morocco is a moderate one with emphasis on practical daily aspects and with long standing Sufi tradition. While there is some truth to this claim, historical development is more complex and nuanced. We can note for instance that Sultan Moulay Slimane as early as the 19th century opposed popular Sufi Islam and called for more puritan and strict religious practices. A century later, the nationalist movement which led the fight for the Moroccan independence from the French occupation included Salafi influential members. During the 70s, the Moroccan Salafi movement was no longer a monolithic block and more jihadi fractions emerged. The proximity of some Moroccan Salafi Sheikhs with Saudi Arabia, the war in Afghanistan and more recently the extensive use of internet and social media have reshaped and deeply transformed the Moroccan Salafi movement which now includes factions ranging from apolitical tendencies to more jihadi (militant) and takfiri (apostastic) ones. To counter terrorism risks posed by the jihadi factions of the Salafi movement, Moroccan authorities have developed a robust security approach based on active surveillance and early dismantling of terrorist cells.
While terrorism is the most extreme materialisation of a deadly ideology, the proliferation of takfiri fatwas (religious ruling), intimidation against artists, civil society actors, intellectual and the society at large create a toxic climate which threaten the very fabric of society itself. In an attempt, to tackle this situation, Morocco engaged in what is often termed as the reform of the religious sphere which included among others, efforts to consolidate the Sunni Maliki religious identity of the country as a way to counter what is often termed as imported radical interpretation of the Islamic religion. The reform approach is based on providing training to imams, greater control over the Friday Sermon, more transparent management of mosques and more autochtone TV channels and programs dedicated to religious matters.
Today, and at this technological era marked by the large use of social media, the adequacy of those efforts deployed by the Moroccan authorities as a way to counter radical discourse and jihadi hate speech is very questionable. Sheikh Abou Naim and other radical voices are indeed more than ever exploiting social media platforms to spread their messages and build their audience. Today, we can no longer continue to be oblivious to this reality. More efforts should be deployed to build a comprehensive response to radical hate speech on the cyberspace. Such response should go beyond the legal approach to also include cyber education, timely response and online awareness raising campaigns. The topic remains largely under-researched in Morocco and more is needed to seriously address the issue with the appropriate tools and not with anachronistic approaches that continue to ignore the digital space.