x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Crowds mourn Moroccan reformist cleric

Abdelsalam Yassine, a veteran religious leader and a vocal political critic who called for reform in the kingdom for nearly four decades was remembered by thousands yesterday. He died Thursday at age 84.

Mourners carry the body of Moroccan activist Abdeksakan Yassine yesterday. He died Thursday at age 84.
Mourners carry the body of Moroccan activist Abdeksakan Yassine yesterday. He died Thursday at age 84.

RABAT, MOROCCO // Tens of thousands of people gathered for funeral prayers yesterday for Abdelsalam Yassine, a veteran religious leader and a vocal political critic who called for reform in the kingdom for nearly four decades.

Mourners massed in orderly lines outside the Sunna mosque in the Moroccan capital as the call to prayer rang out, spreading prayer mats in the scant shade of palm trees and the mosque's minaret in the tree-lined square.

Yassine, who died on Thursday at the age of 84, headed the Adl wa Ihsane (Justice and Charity) political and religious movement.

He became famous for his criticism both of the current king, Mohammed VI, and of his father, Hassan II, in particular for his stern rebuttals of their claims to be defenders of the faith.

Those who came to pay their respects spoke of being inspired by his spiritual guidance and his political calls for change.

People knew he wanted to reform the government, said Marieme Misbah, a government employee who lingered behind after prayers with thousandsof women who were not permitted by the tenets of Islam to join the men at the graveside.

"It will be difficult to replace him, but not impossible ... of course we want the reforms he called for to happen. He gave the foundations, and it's up to the people to build on it. We will persevere," she said.

Ms Misbah, like many others at the funeral, had participated in short-lived demonstrations that sprang up in Morocco last year after the fall of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt.

Morocco is a constitutional monarchy where the king wields considerable power both officially and behind the scenes, although there have been gradual reforms and some increases in political freedoms in the past 10 years.

"He was against the beliefs and thoughts of the government," said Omar Monafih, an artist who said he had met Yassine years before at an exhibition of his paintings, and found him friendly and well-informed on artistic matters.

"You would be hard pressed to find anyone else who would question the monarchy in terms of its religious legitimacy of the monarch and try to challenge it," said Mohammed Daadaoui, an associate professor at Oklahoma City University in the United States, who said that Yassine's death was a loss for the country's political and religious dialogue.

But he added that over time, Adl wa Ihsane had seemed less willing to take a position of open opposition to the country's monarchy.

"He also recognised that this was so impregnable in a sense that he had to modify his rhetoric," he said. Mr Daadaoui added that after Yassine was released from years of house arrest in 2000, "he was the image of quiescence, he once said his group was not a political one but a religious one".

Omar Radi, an activist who helped organise the demonstrations that began on February 20 last year said that Adl wa Ihsane members were a very important part of the rallies - making up perhaps half of those who attended. But after elections were called, a constitution rewritten and extensive reforms promised by the king, thegroup withdrew from the protest movement, which quickly lost steam.

Although Adl wa Ihsane is often referred to as an opposition movement, Mohammed Darif, a professor researching Islamist movements, who was attending the funeral, questioned the idea.

"People say it is a radical movement, butit is not at all," he said.

And Mohsen El Ahmadi, a professor of sociology at the International University in Rabat,pointed to the location of the funeral and nature of the prayers as a sign that the group could not be as furiously opposed to the government as some suppose.

The funeral was held at the largest mosque in Rabat, a "semi-official" building barely a mile from the palace of the royals in whose side Yassine was such a thorn, said Mr El Ahmadi.

It was a piece of political theatre that indicated that a deal had been done between the movement and the authorities, he said.

He added that the burial in the Martyrs' Cemetery, where prominent national figures are buried, may indicate an effort to "control the memory" of Yassine, and prevent him becoming a rally figure for the opposition in death.

But many there were keenly aware of the reformist roots of their support for the group.

Hasnaa Alawi, an unemployed woman who attended the prayers, explained that the goal of the movement was, "to achieve social and economic justice and the distribution of wealth," while moving towards an Islamic state in Morocco and beyond. However, she said, to nods of approval from her friends, she recognised that this could take generations.

"We are aware that our goal is not happening immediately," she said. "But we are laying the foundations."