Moroccan woman favors cultural revolution

Nadia Yassine helped organize demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians.
Nadia Yassine helped organize demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians. Hannah Allam/MCT

RABAT, Morocco — Nadia Yassine knows how to create a fuss when she feels like it.

When she was hauled into court for openly advocating a republic over Morocco's U.S.-allied monarchy, she showed up with a symbolic strip of tape across her mouth. After the government locked up several of her comrades, she moved into a house next to the prison.

She helped organize demonstrations that drew hundreds of thousands of Moroccans to the streets in solidarity with Palestinians. She's criticized other Islamists as "primitive" for their treatment of women, and she's angered feminists by opposing family law reforms she considers imported from the West.

But when it came to the Moroccan parliamentary elections last Friday, one of the country's loudest Islamist voices was oddly silent.

Justice and Charity, the outlawed group that Yassine's father founded and for which she is a powerful behind-the-scenes force as well as the most public face, was once again boycotting the polls, bucking the regional trend of Islamist parties using ballots to cement their power.

Yassine's movement left the Islamist vote to its main rivals from the conservative Justice and Development Party (PJD). According to preliminary results, the PJD picked up only five seats and placed second behind the secular, right-leaning Independence Party.

While her detractors see a missed opportunity, Yassine is certain the boycott will pay off in the long term, when Moroccan voters "awaken" to the reality described succinctly in a recent headline in a French newspaper: "The king rules, Morocco votes."

"We don't even have to tell (our followers) not to vote," Yassine, 49, said in a two-hour interview at her home outside the Moroccan capital one recent day. "We don't say 'boycott' because that implies recognition of the election. It's a nonevent."

Throughout the Arab world, Islamist parties have begun testing their popularity with voters, usually with no regrets. Hamas in the Palestinian territories, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Muslim factions in Iraq and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan all have enjoyed electoral gains in countries traditionally ruled by entrenched elites.

Yassine said she supports democratically elected governments, but she harbors just as many qualms over hard-line Islamists as she does for secular authoritarians.

"People in Morocco don't follow Wahabbism because they're such devout Muslims, but because they're angry and looking for an identity," Yassine said, referring to the Saudi brand of fundamentalist Islam that's spreading across the region. "It's true that it's gaining influence, but it's like an adolescent phase that the Islamic nation is going through and, in general, people who join our movement already have gone through this phase."

The group her father founded three decades ago is rooted in Sufism, not Saudi-inspired asceticism or Iranian-style revolutionary principles. Justice and Charity stands alone among Islamist groups in handing prominence to women, though that could be tested if Yassine angles to succeed her father for party leadership.

The party also favors a "cultural revolution" over armed resistance and emphasizes literacy programs and other educational reforms. It's officially banned, but tolerated as long as members stick to charity and education work.

"A politician's politics, for us, means taking part in a system that is, by definition, rigged. It's a system that doesn't allow true participation," Yassine said. "So, yes, politics interests us — but not at all costs."

Yassine converses in fluent French, has traveled the world on speaking tours and is extremely media savvy. Her Web site,, is available in English, Spanish, French and Arabic. While some observers laud her as a shining example of the modern-day Muslim woman, detractors have labeled her a diva, hypocrite, militant and charlatan.

One of her most consistent critics is the prominent Moroccan author and blogger Laila Lalami, who lampooned Yassine's thirst for the limelight in a blog post called, "La Yassine is ready for her close-up." Lalami also balked at the court proceedings against Yassine, writing last year that "silencing her only makes her sound more interesting than she really is, i.e. someone who has absolutely no viable program for the future."

It's true that Yassine can be elusive when asked specific questions about her group's agenda, what role it can play from the sidelines and whether her father will bequeath her the position of leader. She simply would not be pinned down, returning again and again to her movement's mantras about uniting the spiritual and political dimensions, or staging a cultural revolution that will encourage development and economic empowerment for needy Moroccans.

"Don't trust the window-dressing, small projects in Marrakesh and tourism here, a nightclub there. These are not really indicators," Yassine said. "Unemployment hasn't changed. I walk by the parliament in Rabat and I still see unhappy people demonstrating outside. Nothing has changed. This is political hype and after 2007, we will wake up, and we will wake up to a terrible reality."

Yassine said her greatest concern is not that Justice and Charity will be left behind in the elections, but that the group will be mistaken for its rival PJD, whose members are on the ballot. Their names are similar, they're both Islamist parties and, she added with a grin, "to the masses, all the bearded guys look alike."

Already, she said, supporters have approached her offices with congratulations, mistaking Justice and Charity for Justice and Development.

"Really, what we fear is losing our credibility. It's not that the PJD will be in power and we'll be in the margins," she said. "What scares us is that the PJD will stumble and we'll pay the price."