Moroccan fan support for ISIL: Protest or jihadists?

Moroccan fan support for ISIL: Protest or jihadists?

James M. Dorsey
Moroccan fan support for ISIL: Protest or jihadists

Jihadist ISIL symbols have become visible in football stadiums in the Middle East and North Africa.

At face value, a recent one minute video clip on YouTube leaves little doubt about support for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the jihadist group that controls a swath of Syria and Iraq, among supporters of storied Moroccan football club Raja Club Athletic.

The clip released by the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) shows fans of the Casablanca club, which prides itself on its nationalist credentials dating back to opposition to colonial French rule and its reputation as the team of ordinary Moroccans, chanting “Daesh, Daesh” (the Arabic acronym for the ISIL) and “God is Great, let’s go on jihad.”

The clip appeared to reaffirm the ISIL’s widespread emotional appeal to youths across the Middle East and North Africa. Last week nine people were arrested in Morocco and in a Spanish enclave in the country on suspicion of links to the Islamic State, and an estimated 1,500 Moroccan nationals are believed to have joined the group.

ISIL, despite its brutality and severe enforcement of a puritan form of Islam, symbolizes successful resistance for many in the Middle East and North Africa disillusioned by the failure of popular revolts in various countries, the collapse and/or intransigence of autocratic regimes that fail to live up to their people’s aspirations, and the lack of prospects for economic advancement and political change.

High unemployment rate

“We have a high rate of unemployment. Young people want politicians to think about them … Some of them can’t understand … They are too impatient,” Moncef Mazrouki, the president of Tunisia, the Arab country with the largest number of Arab foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, said in an interview with Al-Jazeera.

While Raja Athletic’s management failed to respond to the video on its official website and Facebook page that has more than 1.7 million followers, supporters of the club sought to minimize the clip’s significance. Writing on their Facebook page with its 118,830 likes, supporters quipped: “We are terrorists … Our goal is to bomb other clubs. We do not want land or oil, we want titles,” below a mock picture of ISIL fighters with the inscription, “Raja’s Volunteer Championship.” The supporters asserted elsewhere on their Facebook page that “we will not start to argue and beg people to believe that this was a sarcastic action and a joke.” Some supporters dismissed the video as a public relations stint, insisting that they were demanding reform not radical change. To emphasize the point, the supporters posted two days after the appearance of the video an image of Osama Bin Laden with the words: “Rest in Pieces Motherf*****r.”

ISIL’s appeal as a symbol for Moroccan youth is rooted in the gap in perceptions of King Mohammad VI.  The monarch, unlike most of the region’s rulers, neutralized anti-government protests in 2011 by endorsing a new constitution that brought limited change but kept the country’s basic political structure in place. As a result, foreign media have described Mohammed VI as the King of Cool. Moroccans, however, have seen little change in their economic, social and political prospects, while journalists and activists face increased repression.

Mouad Belghouat, a prominent dissident rapper better known as al-Haqed, was arrested in May on charges of having scalped game tickets as he was entering a stadium to watch a football match. The arrest occurred a day after he had mocked the King on Facebook because he passed a performing group of musicians on his way to Friday prayers. “In Islam, this would be highly disrespectful given the spiritual solemnity of Jumuah prayer, and an even bigger mistake to be made by the ‘Commander of the Faithful’ who claims part of the legitimacy of his rule from his religious status,” wrote Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem at the time.

“Hope for a more democratic Morocco is fading, as the makhzen (the ruling group around the king) went back to relying on its old ways, reassured by the ‘success’ of its systematic crackdown that is responsible for disorganizing groups of protestors through repression and propaganda. Slowly dismantling the February 20th protest movement over the past years, the regime seems to have learned nothing and has chosen to walk backwards to its dysfunctional comfort zone,” Mr. Belmkaddem added.

Speaking to Freemuse after having served a four month prison sentence, al-Haqed voiced the widespread distrust of the government, including law enforcement and the judiciary, as he discussed the pending appeal against his conviction. “I don’t expect very much from the Moroccan judiciary. The Moroccan judge is not independent. The king is the highest authority in the Moroccan judicial process. There are no laws that guarantee that the judge will truly look into a case,” he said.

Al-Haqed’s music, like the chanting of pro-ISIL slogans, reflects growing popular discontent and an increased willingness to challenge the government.

Speaking to The New York Times earlier this year, activist Maouanne Morabit warned that “The kingdom discredited the left, trade unions, civil society and now the Islamists. It will soon face a direct confrontation with the people.”