Monday, June 19, 2006

RABAT, Morocco — Police have arrested more than 500 Islamist activists since late May on accusations that they were planning a coup to replace Morocco’s pro-U.S. monarchy with an Islamic state.

Most were released swiftly, but the arrests revived fears that the country’s largest Islamic movement, Al Adl wa al Ihsane, or Justice and Charity, is preparing to take up arms to fulfill predictions from the group’s own Sufi mystics that Morocco’s monarchy will fall this year.

The group, which already has Islamized higher education in Morocco, wants to replace the monarchy with an Islamic state and cut all political, cultural and economic relations with the West — moves that it argues will end poverty and corruption in Morocco.

So far, its hundreds of thousands of followers have been content to patiently wait for an Islamic state to emerge. However, as the group’s mystics churn out religiously inspired visions at an ever-faster rate, analysts fear the group will have to take action or risk losing credibility.

“There are hundreds of visions that foresee a great change in Morocco in 2006,” said Nadia Yassine, the group’s public face and daughter of its founder, Sheik Abdessalem Yassine. “These are true visions, and we believe in them completely.”

Sheik Yassine added that, for 14 centuries, “politics and spirituality have been kept apart by the Arab elites. And we have been able to reconnect these two aspects of Islam — and that is why people fear us.”

George Joffe, a North Africa specialist at the Center of International Studies at Cambridge University, said Al Adl wa al Ihsane “may not be directly threatening violence, but their subtext is that the government is creating conditions which might cause violence to erupt.”

“Through these visions, they are plugging directly into Moroccan traditions and history to directly challenge the monarchy,” he said. “The government is already facing increasing tensions over high unemployment, and these arrests are an attempt to deflate the Islamists.”

Al Adl wa al Ihsane is illegal and boycotts elections. However, it has taken control of the country’s universities and the national student union and uses these institutions to radicalize young Moroccans.

“They have changed the universities into places of intolerance — against girls, against gays, Jews, alcohol — against almost everything,” said Jamal Berraoui, editor of Voice of the People, a Casablanca newspaper. “They hold the universities hostage. They have created a climate of intellectual terrorism.”

The Al Adl wa al Ihsane-run student union has forced the government to remove secular subjects such as philosophy from university curriculums. The group also has campaigned successfully for new university mosques, which it then staffs with radical Islamic preachers.

“When we talk with the Ministry of Education, we insist that our education conform to Islamic standards,” said Mohamed Belkasmi, an economics student and head of the student union at Casablanca University. “We insist that our country’s laws and teachings consist only of the Koran.”

In addition to banning all “un-Islamic” events from campuses, they organize pro-Hamas exhibitions and force students and teachers to strike in support of jailed members of the movement.

Within the universities, the group operates as a secret police, crushing dissent. When a reporter interviewed students about Al Adl wa al Ihsane, the discussion repeatedly was interrupted by the group’s bearded activists who patrol the campus.

“The Islamists are not the majority in Morocco, but they are the strongest and best-organized,” Mr. Berraoui said. “If they want to take over, they will not hesitate to use violence and to terrorize everyone else.”

The government appears powerless to control the group. In 2000, pressure from international human rights groups forced the government to release Sheik Yassine from house arrest.

“In Morocco, image has become more important than reality,” Mr. Berraoui said. “Stopping the Islamists taking over would look like repression and that would make the government look bad.

“Morocco is no longer a dictatorship but not yet a democracy. This moment of transition is the most dangerous part.”

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