Moroccan Islamists search for path to power

Morocco's largest Islamist group will boycott Friday's national election. Another group is running for office.

Fathallah Arsallan lives in a part of the Moroccan capital that never makes it into Western guidebooks. There are no tree-lined boulevards here, or opulent royal palaces. Instead, a glance out Mr. Arsallan's apartment window reveals shantytowns made of corrugated iron, where raw sewage runs in the streets and children rummage through trash piles in search of something to eat or sell.

"We are drowning here in Morocco," says Arsallan, who serves as the spokesman for Morocco's largest and most vocal Islamist organization, Justice and Charity. "The King and the government have failed the people. The Islamists are the only ones with any credibility now."

And while Justice and Charity challenges the government from outside the system, another Islamist group, Justice and Development, is seeking political power through electoral politics. Justice and Development is contesting more than half of the 91 constituencies at stake in Friday's national elections, and is expected to increase – some say even double – its strength in the Chamber of Representatives. It currently holds 14 of the 325 seats.

Conversely, Justice and Charity shuns the ballot box. Because they formally reject the King and the Moroccan Constitution, they are not allowed to participate as a party. The group's leader has told his followers to stay away from the polls completely.

Not surprisingly, the Islamist challenge has never gone down well with the Moroccan monarchy, or the powerful court hierarchy that surrounds it. And now, with Justice and Charity's strength apparently on the rise, Moroccan authorities are more concerned than ever about the banned group's activities and influence. Many in Moroccan politics share the government's fear of the group's ascent.

"The Islamists are far from liberty and democracy, and close to fascism," says Mohammed El Gahs, the editor of one of Morocco's leftist dailies, Liberation.

"They exploit the religion to enter people's personal lives, and force one vision of the world on everyone."

Justice and Charity's vision is the handiwork of Sheikh Abdelsalame Yassine, a former school inspector who in, the late 1960s, became interested in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islamic thought. Mr. Yassine first made waves in 1974, when he sent a 120-page letter to King Hassan II. In that missive, Yassine questioned both the ruler's secular authority and his claim to be directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed.

King Hassan II responded by throwing Yassine into a mental hospital for three years. But by 1981, Yassine was released, and he and a group of followers formed Justice and Charity. Almost immediately, the government banned the association.

Over the past two decades, the government has repeatedly seized the group's publications and many of its leaders have spent time in jail.

Despite these obstacles, Justice and Charity has continued to organize local and regional cells, and recruit new followers. They now function as a kind of umbrella group for many Islamic charity and welfare organizations, supplying social services, food, and medicine to Morocco's poor. They have even been known to arrange marriages.

Analysts say that it's almost impossible to measure Justice and Charity's membership – estimates range from between 50,000 to 500,000, and the group's appeal is especially high among Moroccans under 30. Officials in the organization say they don't keep count.

But what is clear is that the group is growing bolder in its criticism of the Moroccan government. "We still have no right to speak normally, no right to have speeches and give discourses," says Arsallan. "Our communication is stopped because the government knows it is dangerous."

The situation is complicated, too, by the US war on terrorism. New questions are being asked about where and from whom Justice and Charity gets its funding, a subject that the group has been notoriously tight-lipped about in the past.

But officials inside Justice and Charity say they have no information that links any of their members to the events of Sept.11, or to Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda organization.

"We know that some Moroccans have connections with Al Qaeda, but they're not members of Justice and Charity," says Arsallan. "Remember, those groups criticize us for not being Muslim enough."

• Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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