Towards a Better Understanding of Yassine’s Thought and Attitudes

Dr. Abdelouahad Motaouakil

Ladies and gentlemen: Assalamu aleikum

I would prefer to give this speech in Arabic, a language with which I feel more comfortable, but I have been asked to use English to enable non-Arabic speaking attendees to follow at least some speakers directly at this conference. I hope I can get through without too much sweat.

First, allow me to introduce myself. I am A. M. I have known Imam Yassine for nearly 36 years and am familiar with all his writings and speeches and my PhD subject is close to the theme of this conference. I also know the “secrets” behind his success to found an organisation deemed today the largest Islamic movement in Morocco. Thus, I guess I am in a better position to provide some tips that cannot be ignored to achieve a better understanding of Yassine’s thought and attitudes towards a number of controversial issues, including the one you are going to debate in this conference. I will divide my talk into three sections:

On the theme of the conference and its importance in the thought of Sheikh YassineOn Yassine’s writings and style and how to identify the true position regarding the issue to be examinedThe risks of accepting second-hand criticism, whether it is supportive or dismissive

Let us take each in turn.

Reasons for choosing the theme of reform (or change) for this conference

There are a number of reasons, I guess, why the organizers have chosen this theme for this conference.

1) A dominant theme in the Arab and Muslim World

There is no doubt that the issue of reform is one of the hottest topics in most, if not all, Arab and Muslim countries. Wherever you go in these countries, you will find that the question with which most people are concerned and which has been subject to so much debate is how to get rid of authoritarian rule considered the root cause of all the major crises facing these countries. Books, articles, TV and radio programmes, research centres’ reports, round table discussions, conferences dealing with this subject are too numerous already; yet, the debate is likely to continue to draw the attention of people from various disciplines inside and outside these countries.

Such being the case, it is no wonder that Sheikh Yassine, a prominent thinker and scholar, should have been concerned with this topic for many years. In fact, he had invested a lot of effort and energy, even before he moved on to set up his organisation, until he developed his own vision on how to achieve the required reform and overcome the present predicament in which most Arab and Muslim countries have found themselves because of a long history of mismanagement and corruption.

I do not mean that the proposed vision is ideal or above criticism; rather what I would like to underline is that whether we agree or disagree with it totally or partially, it has won the appreciation of a large number of people inside and outside Morocco and is thus worthy of study. As he himself pointed out on numerous occasions, what he proposed was the outcome of long years of reflection, research, reading and an in-depth study of world history and culture and reform experiences of many countries. The intention of the organisers of this conference is to invite intellectuals, researchers as well as activists to find out about this line of thinking and to see how far it could go to provide a plausible answer to the crucial question facing Arab countries, that is, how to reform government and society peacefully.

2) Different theories

What makes this subject of special interest is that it has triggered a prolonged debate and theories seem to differ widely. Those who start from a secular worldview have their own ideas and concepts and those who start from an Islamic point of view also have their own ideas and concepts. It is worthy of note here that neither the secular nor the Islamic camp is a monolithic block and that differences in opinion and perspective do exist within each camp. It is, therefore, important for researchers to be cautious so as not to make any rash conclusions.

Consider the theme of this conference for example. It involves exploring a number of questions. What is exactly meant by reform which many people in Arab countries are talking about and yearning for? How can it be achieved? Which is more appropriate, top down or bottom up approach? Should the focus be on the human being, the system of rule or society? Does it require evolution or revolution, continuity or discontinuity? What obstacles are likely to encounter any reforming attempts and what is the nature of these obstacles? And how could they be overcome?

These are just a few examples of a plethora of questions that should be explored in order to capture the position of the different players regarding the reforming issue. The same thing applies to other issues. Authors and researchers will find in the writings of Sheikh Yassine enough material to be able to assess his contribution to the current reforming debate as well as other contemporary issues.

3) The politics of suppression and its consequences

Not much is known about Yassine’s thought abroad and particularly his views regarding social and political reform in Morocco. This is due to various reasons. First, the Moroccan authorities have adopted a policy of restrictions from the outset, that is, since he started in 1979 to publish his new ideas in the early issues of al-Jamaa journal which was soon shut down. Printing houses were also ordered not to deal with him. A lot of effort was made in order to circumvent these restrictions and have his books printed and distributed from hand to hand. Though the situation improved a little later because of other alternatives to spread one’s ideas provided by the new technologies, the Moroccan authorities have never lost hope to stifle what they consider a disturbing voice.

Second, smear campaigns have been launched regularly against him in order to distort his image and mock his ideas. Many people, all of whom are linked directly or indirectly to the regime or just to join effort to combat a “common enemy”, have taken part in these campaigns using all sorts of means: printing material, audio and video recordings, and websites to keep the public away from what is described by some as “venomous views”. Strangely enough though, these attacks in most cases feed on futile rumours and unfounded allegations, they did have their impact and were sometimes believed even by some authors connected to well-known research centres (some examples will be cited later on).

Third, the opportunities to reach out to a wider audience have been reduced extensively since he regained his freedom in March 1978. Thus, when he started al-Jamaa journal a year later, it was soon banned. In 1983 he made another attempt and issued a new publication called as-Sobh (the Dawn), but it was shut down immediately after its second issue. The same thing happened to al-khitab (The discourse) newspaper launched in January 1984. When Yassine’s movement al-Adl wal-Ihsan tried later on to overcome these arbitrary measures through the use of the Internet, its websites were frequently blocked, which was denounced at the time by domestic and international human rights groups. The authorities backed up for a while but only to devise other strategies to pursue the same unfriendly policy.

These and other factors, combined together, have obstructed the dissemination of Yassine’s ideas especially outside Morocco; yet, paradoxically enough, they have not prevented his movement from growing continuously nor have they undermined its appeal.

Notes on Yassine’s works and writing style

There are a number of points that should be taken into account in order to ensure a better understanding of Yassine’s writings.

1) The need to be sure of his final position on the subject to be investigated

Sheikh Yassine has left more than forty books, in prose as well as in poetry, in Arabic as well as in French and hundreds of audio and video recordings, and it is important for anyone keen to build his analysis on accurate information to know how to approach these sources. It would be an error, which is quite common, to confine oneself to one of Yassine’s books and be sure of his final position on the issue under discussion. It all depends; it may be so and it may be not. Therefore, one has to be cautious in order to use the right source and not make any hasty conclusions.

2) The need to be attentive to the chronology of Yassine’s works

The point here is that one should pay heed not to the date of publication but rather to the date when the work was completed. This is important not only to follow the evolution of Yassine’s thought but also to make sure of the final stance towards the issue to be examined. For instance, Yassine was initially against pluralism in Islamic activism. He believed at the time that all Islamic groups should be united under a single organisation. This is what he says in the first edition of one of his major books entitled Al-Minhaj An-Nabawi (The Prophetic Method). However, Yassine changes his opinion regarding this point and in the second edition of his book he argues that pluralism is not only permitted but unavoidable. Thus, using the right edition is crucial to know the true position.

The same could be said about other issues. To cite one more example, some degree of cautiousness is necessary when one refers to the writings of Yassine before 1977. Many of his ideas have evolved a lot since then, particularly in the political sphere. At that time he used to be “reformist” in his approach and expected the initiative to be taken at the top by the monarchy. But when what he had hoped for did not occur, he changed his strategy. Thus those who focus on the works completed in that period to know about his political views should know that they are relying on the wrong sources.

In the same way should the repetition of some chapter titles in some of his books be examined. Repetition of titles does not mean that the chapter contents are identical. Furthermore, to take into account the date of completion should not be ignored in order to know what comes first and what comes later, and if what comes later is meant to modify or elaborate further on what was raised earlier or merely to corroborate a previous point of view with new findings.

3) The need to be attentive to Yassine’s writing style

A careful reader cannot fail to notice the variety of topics raised in Yassine’s writings and particularly the way of approaching those topics and thereby the audience and readers. This is due to his wide reading in several cultures and languages and his interest in various fields of knowledge, Islamic and non-Islamic. However, the most striking aspect in all of his works is his focus on he what he considers the crucial issue of the human being, that is, the meaning of their existence and their fate in the hereafter.

His emphasis on this issue has led him to keep some distance from what he regards as dry intellectual discourse and to adopt instead a multi-dimensional style. He believes he has a message to convey effectively and to do so he needs to argue, analyse, describe, preach, persuade, warn of the dangers besieging the Umma and spread the good news of the rise of the Muslim world after centuries of decline. He is aided in all this by a remarkably full command of Arabic, sharp intelligence and broad knowledge (all of these traits can be identified easily in his writings). Yassine is not unaware of the usual methods of writing, but inspired by what he calls the Quranic style, he has devised his own method. That is why whether the subject of debate has to do with modern systems of rule, economy or development or any other issue, he would not let the opportunity go without reminding his readers of their Creator and invite them warmly to think seriously of what would make their lives more meaningful and bridge the gap between life on earth and the hereafter.

Yassine and his critics

I have had the chance to see most of the studies and articles on Yassine and his movement undertaken by authors from Morocco as well as other places such as Europe, Asia, USA and Canada. Broadly speaking, they can be classified into two categories. Some authors have tried to steer a middle way and be fair as far as possible. They have tried to gather as much information as they can and, despite the barrier of language for non-Arabic speaking writers, have produced pieces worthy of respect. Whether you agree or not with their conclusions, you feel that a sincere effort has been made in order to understand the subject of their research and not spoil their analyses by bias. By contrast, other authors are far from fair or objective in any significant manner. This is why their works are found to suffer from serious flaws and unscholarly features two of which will be mentioned here as an illustration.

1) Rash judgments and preconceived ideas

Let us consider the following example. In an attempt to prove that Sheikh Yassine was “everything for his movement”, that is, he made all the decisions and the followers merely executed the orders of their master who ran the movement “as his personal fiefdom,”[1] one researcher argues that Sheikh Yassine used to “nominate [all of] the heads of the cells”.[2] This is a gross error, to the say the least, which reveals a glaring lack of information on how a large organisation is being run. Is it conceivable that Imam Yassine or any other person, however talented, could manage a large movement like al-Adl wal-Ihsan on his own and appoint thousands of persons to lead small groups each of which is composed of a number ranging from five to ten people. Even if he had thought of the idea, it would have been practically impossible for him to carry it out. Furthermore, this a small issue in which even a provincial leader is not expected to interfere.

A second example is even stranger. One researcher has tried to show, for some reason which to this day I cannot figure out, that there are certain curious points of similarity between Prophet Muhammad and Imam Yassine. He claims that the former has an only daughter and so has the latter and he sets out to analyse this striking point of similarity. The gentleman seems to be unaware that through this peculiar comparison, he has chosen to ignore the hard fact that Prophet Muhammad has four daughters and three sons and not an only child and that Yassine also has three daughters and three sons who are all still alive. A shameful error, you may say, especially when we know that to get the required information is not hard or out of reach. Why the writer has not sought for the right information casts a shadow of doubt upon the innocence of his motives.

2) A tendency to believe unfounded explanations

Two examples would be enough here. In the first, some critics try to explain why Yassine sent his famous letter, Islam or the Deluge, to the late king Hassan II. They claim that Yassine was craving for leadership and that the only way to fulfil his dream was to address the monarch openly and in such a powerful manner as he actually did. This would help him to acquire the image of “the righteous man who defies the unjust sultan” to build the necessary charisma he needed for his political success.[3] One has to put his mind aside in order to believe such nonsense! It is as if to write to a monarch like Hassan II and in such a clear and powerful way were a pleasant exercise or a safe game which anyone could try without fearing for their lives. I leave it there for you, especially those who knows Hassan II well, to make your own comments.

The second example is from a book by a Tunisian professor in contemporary Islamic thought and life at Harvard University (a big name, isn’t it?) and is described as an expert in Islam and Islamic movements. We are therefore referring to a person of high calibre, but please see how she translates the following sentence from Islam aw at-Tufan (Islam or the Deluge) before she tries to explain to her readers its alleged significance. The Arabic text reads as follows:

إلى المولى الحسن بن محمد ... المبتلى بالجلوس على "عرش أجداده"...[4]

This is how it is translated:

To His Highness al-Hassan ibn Muhammad... tired from occupying (Italics mine) the “throne of his ancestors”...[5]

Does it make sense? Have you ever seen or heard of a king who is tired from occupying the throne of his ancestors? If only we had such a king! We would not be so cruel as to keep him in spite of himself.

These examples, and there are many more, show that when the intention is to attack and undermine others’ works, anything will be used even if it is glaringly inappropriate or irrelevant. I am not talking here about the yellow press or biased media, but about a phenomenon which is also pretty widespread in the academic world where a significant degree of prudence and objectivity is deemed of great importance. Therefore, we need to be cautious when we have to deal with second-hand criticism, for it may unwarrantedly be dismissive or supportive, and in either case, this would not serve in any meaningful way sound scholarship.

To conclude, Imam Yassine has offered a vision of comprehensive reform which, given the increasing support it still enjoys in Morocco, needs to be explored. However, to ensure a better understanding of this vision, some prerequisites are in order. First, one should know where to go and how to get the right information; second, a significant degree of cautiousness is crucial in order not to yield to others’ conscious or unconscious biases or misinterpretations.

Thank you.

[1] Quoted in Francesco Cavatorta, “Civil Society, Islamism and Democratisation: The Case of Morocco,” The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol.44, no. 2 (June 2006), p. 214.
[2] Muhammad Tozy, Monarchie et islam politique au Maroc (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1999), p. 199 and p. 215; see also Kassem Bahaj, “Moroccan Islamists : Between Integration, Confrontation and Ordinary Muslims,” Middle East Review of International Affairs(MERIA), vol. 15, no. 1 (March 2011), p. 44.
[3] Evan Christopher Anhorn, “Nasiha and Ideology: Evolution in Religious Authority in Post-Colonial Morocco,” MA Thesis, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada, July 2010, p. 37. For more detail, see Henry Munson, Religion and Power in Morocco (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).
[4] Abdessalam Yassine, al-Islam aw at-Tufan [Islam or the Deluge] (Maarrakech: n.p. 1974), p. 1.
[5] Malika Zeghal, Islamism in Morocco: Religion, Authoritarianism and Electoral Politics, trans. George Holoch (Princeton: Markuz Wiener Publishers, 2008), p. 98.