Student activism falls after terror attacks

March 26, 2004

The numbers of young women wearing headscarves, young men sporting beards and people selling religious tracts on Morocco's university campuses are higher than ten years ago.

But there are signs that the popularity of politicised Islam, or Islamism - the biggest movement among Moroccan students - was waning before the terror attacks in Madrid.

Some believe that the fall in support began with the bombs in Casablanca in May 2003, which, like the Madrid bombs, have been linked to the banned extremist group Salatia Jihadia.

Mokhtar El-Harras, lecturer in sociology at Mohamed V University in Rabat, said: "Some young people are asking: 'If Islamism leads us to such extreme violence, what link does it really have with Islam?'"

Islamism established itself in the 1990s, but since the government tried to discourage student Islamism after 1997, activists have diverted their attentions to setting up student associations.

Affiliates of the non-violent Justice and Spirituality, the country's largest Islamist movement, account for the majority of student representatives in Moroccan universities.

Mohamed Darif, lecturer in politics at Hassan II University in Mohammedia, said: "Not all students are Islamists, most are not particularly active, but until now the Islamists are the ones who can mobilise the students."

The rise of Islamism on campus has driven a wedge between students and often left-of-centre academics. "Academics criticise the Islamist students and refuse to cooperate with them," Professor Darif said.

He said police repression on campus radicalised students. One of Professor Darif's students was among the 14 suicide bombers linked to an extremist Salafist group that killed 32 people in Casablanca in 2003.

"I believe he was just a student Islamist, but witnessing repression made him more radical," Professor Darif said.

Professor El-Harras said there were more activists among science students than in the arts. "They tend to have less intellectual baggage and so less of a critical approach to analysis and debate," he said.

He added that western foreign policy was shaping Muslim public opinion. "If you adopt an aggressive attitude towards other cultures, there will inevitably be an aggressive reaction."

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