Meeting Abu Hafs: Morocco's radical cleric-turned-rights campaigner

Meeting Abu Hafs: Morocco's radical cleric-turned-rights campaigner
8 min read
07 March, 2017
Q&A: 'Terror sheikh' Abu Hafs tells The New Arab he is walking a new path of tolerance after jail release.
Abu Hafs says time in prison spent reading led to his rejection of jihadist stances

Mohamed Abdelouahab Al Rafiqi, known as Abu Hafs, was part of a group of clerics sentenced for inspiring the bombings that struck Casablanca on May 16, 2003, killing 45 people, including 12 attackers.

Nine years later, he was freed by a royal pardon after pro-democracy protests organised by the February 20 movement demanded the liberation of political detainees.

While in jail, he says he devoted his time to study and has taken a new path, opening up to different cultures and ideologies. The ideas he defends today appear far removed from those he preached when he was a jihadi cleric.

Abu Hafs now calls for a review of Islamic heritage in order to fight extremism. He also demands individual freedoms are respected.

He blames the Moroccan state as well as the international community for having encouraged the spread of the Wahhabi doctrine to serve political goals.

He has recently opened a research center devoted to religious issues and terrorism, with the help of Morocco's Istiqlal party, of which he is a recent member, in order to prevent the country's youth from following his earlier path.

He spoke to Ilhem Rachidi for The New Arab.

The New Arab: Moroccan authorities have announced a series of measures targeting "radical Islam". What is your view on the banning of the fabrication and selling of burqas?

Abu Hafs: "The principle that we have to all protect is individual liberty. This is a non-negotiable principle. To choose the clothes we're wearing is an individual right. However, if authorities see that a type of clothing, whatever it may be, is threatening national security, they have the right to forbid it.

"The problem here lies in the method, which is authoritarian. Authorities should rather open a dialogue with society, educate people, in order for the targeted people to be aware that what they're doing is creating threats - that some people might hide [something] under their burqas to commit terrorist acts, for example.

"In my opinion, this measure is not efficient. I don't want to intervene in people's individual freedoms, but I think that wearing a burqa is the expression of an extremist doctrine. Especially since the burqa is not Moroccan. Salafis are going to argue that jeans or other 'modern clothes' are not Moroccan either - but they are not a religious expression. Everybody wears them, they are international, whereas the burqa is a religious expression. If these people are convinced that burqa is a religious obligation, they have to choose a clothing that corresponds to Moroccan traditions like thehaik or the ngab."

Beyond this ban of the burqa, how do you assess Morocco's new religious policy? Authorities have announced changes in education - a review of scholarly books for example...

"I see some positive signs but there still is a lot to do. More efforts have to be made. The review of school books in Islamic education is indispensable. We have to realise this as quickly as possible. We have lost a great deal of time.

"The problems mainly lies in the application of these revisions. Educators have to receive training to apply those changes, because they are the ones who apply these school books. They can transmit the messages they want.

"We also have to make an effort on the legislative level. Freedom of conscience does not exist from a legal point of view. Also, the ulema councils have to make an effort in their rhetoric.

We have to encourage this enlightened Islam, these enlightened ulemas, in order to obtain results

"There seems to be a conflict between two poles: a traditional one that does not want to change anything, and one that is enlightened. And we have to encourage this enlightened Islam, these enlightened ulemas, in order to obtain results."

Read more: The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

The young Moroccans who end up defending extremism as well as those who join the Islamic State group are often basing their arguments on religious texts. How should this be countered?

"This is a major problem that concerns the ulemas and the sheikhs who consider all the provisions and everything that is in the Quran and the Sunna as applicable at all times.

"This is not true. There are a lot of provisions that are tied to their historical and political contexts - and we don't need them today. For example, the Quran speaks of 'milk al yamin' - [sexual] slavery of women - in several verses. But today, we cannot talk of slavery.

"The Quran was a revolution compared with what there was before. We have to continue this and not stop at these provisions. All those verses that speak of jihad that [IS] uses today are tied to a particular context and cannot be applied at all times.

"In order to fight this, we have to make a modern interpretation of the Quran. If we do not do this, I think that the ulemas and the sheikhs who say that 'what is in the Quran has to be applied at all times, that we cannot make new interpretations etc', are going to get stuck.

Abu Hafs was formerly a radical cleric whose preachings
on jihad were said to have inspired
the killing of 45 people in bomb attacks in 2003

"If they believe this, it means that IS represents Islam. The problem is that most of the ulemas and the shiekhs don't believe in a new interpretation. Well, I say, then go to IS!

"I tell them: 'Why are you saying you're against IS? Basically, IS practices what you believe in!'"

What is the responsibility of the state in the endoctrination of those youths who leave for the Islamic State group - and before those days, former jihadis youngsters like you? What is the responsibility of the state in the development of extremism?

"What is dangerous here is that states in general bet on the future of a nation for political interests. They don't think about the future of the country as much as about their [own] political interests.

This is what happened during the first war in Afghanistan. The political interest of the states was to support the Afghan mujahidin, and the encouragement of the youth to go there - through ulema speeches, financial support, everything. All the states encouraged the youth to go there. But they didn’t think about what would happen after the war.

"And what happened next? Terrorism, with all these terrorist groups coming back loaded with extremist Salafi doctrines. And the same scenario is partially repeated today with the Syrian conflict.

"It is the Wahhabi doctrine that has produced all this Islamic terrorism. You cannot find a jihadi group today that doesn't follow this doctrine. Who has let this doctrine enter Morocco? It is the state that has initially encouraged Wahhabis to spread their doctrine. Why? Because the political interest of the state at that time was to counter leftist groups, then Shia groups, and Al Adl Wal Ihsane (AWI).

"In order to counter the leftists, Morocco imported the Wahhabi doctrine, in order to counter Khomeini's [Iranian] revolution in 1979, Morocco has imported the Wahhabi doctrine, in order to counter Abdesslam Yassine and AWI, Morocco has imported the Wahhabi doctrine. Wahhabi books were distributed in the country - and for free.

"In many libraries, at the door of mosques, we could find plenty of books. The problem of the youth who now go to join IS is the result of this policy. The Wahhabi literature encourages jihad, takfir, to kill the unbelievers, hatred of the other.

"Even though, to be fair, there are now efforts to counter this. The restructuring of the religious field, the control of mosques, of sermons, the review of school textbooks, the elimination of the Wahhabi doctrine. But there is still so much to do. And political parties and civil society have to participate in this struggle."

I was not a Salafi because something attracted me. I lived in a Salafi environment. Nothing attracted me. Until the moment I decided to go back on my ideas, I was repeating what I had been taught as a child

What in this doctrine seduced you?

"Nothing. I was not a Salafi because something attracted me. I lived in a Salafi environment. Nothing attracted me. Until the moment I decided to go back on my ideas, I was repeating what I had been taught as a child by my parents, the sheikhs, the ulemas, during the dourous [lessons]. I defended what I'd been taught."

How would you define yourself ideologically today?

"I am Muslim. And that's it. I can say I defend an enlightened Islam, a modern Islam, an Islam reconciled with modernity."

How does someone go from jihadi ideas to the defence of individual liberties? You called for the repeal of Morocco's penal code article 222 - which jails people who break fast in public during Ramadan - and article 489 - which sentences homosexuality by up to three years in jail...

"This is normal, to me. The advantage that I've always had is that I've always loved reading. I am convinced that reading has changed me. It has opened my eyes. But it was a slow evolution. I was not Salafi one day and an advocate of individual freedoms the next. It took me years of reading day and night. Nine years."

What are your relations now like with your former jihadi friends?

"I have no relations with them. Everyone took their own path. Everyone has their own personal ideas. They don't want to change. Me, I'm free.

"Of course, what I'm defending now, my declarations, my positions, have bothered many. They don't accept that someone who used to be with them changes in this way. And the reaction in this sphere went as far as death threats. Let's not even mention insults, and accusations of takfir. But I don't care. That doesn't bother me."

Mohamed Abdelouahab Al Rafiqi, known as Abu Hafs, was speaking to Ilhem Rachidi, a freelance Moroccan journalist.

Follow Ilhem on Twitter: @Ilhemrachidi