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Feud With King Tests Freedoms In Morocco

Nadia Yassine, bottom center, appeared at court in June with a taped mouth; 150 lawyers volunteered to defend her right to freedom of speech.
Nadia Yassine, bottom center, appeared at court in June with a taped mouth; 150 lawyers volunteered to defend her right to freedom of speech. (Associated Press)

She has cast herself as a feminist and a champion of democracy whose Justice and Charity movement has sworn to remain nonviolent. But Justice and Charity also favors the establishment of a strict Islamic state and has strongly opposed many of the democratic changes that have taken place under Mohammed, such as a new family code that gives more rights to women.

Justice and Charity was founded by Yassine's father, Abdessalam Yassine, a cleric who adheres to Islam's Sufi branch and who has spoken admiringly of the Iranian revolution and has been called Morocco's version of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. The movement is banned from participation in national politics, but its existence is tolerated by the government and it is considered perhaps the most potent popular force in the country.

Many democracy activists in Morocco say they fear the Yassines have no intention of participating in a multiparty democracy. Among Morocco's secular elite, worries are widespread that if Justice and Charity came to power it would immediately ban alcohol, force women to cover themselves with veils and crack down on some of the other freedoms that make the country one of the most moderate in the Arab world.

Some who have fought hard for Morocco's emerging democracy said they have had to grit their teeth as Yassine's trial has unfolded.

"This is really infuriating for people who have fought for women's rights and democracy," said Latifah Jbabdi, president of the Union for Feminist Action, a Rabat-based group that has tangled with Justice and Charity. "She knows the new king is moving toward democracy, but that's not where the fundamentalists want to go. The bottom line is that they want an Islamic state. They want ayatollah power in Morocco. We cannot go there."

Another person with mixed feelings is Abdelaziz Koukas, the editor of al-Ousbouia al-Jadida, who interviewed Yassine last year and printed the comments that got both of them in trouble with the law. He is a co-defendant in Yassine's case.

At an interview at a bar in Casablanca, he said he did not regret giving Yassine space to express her views in print. "They are fundamentalists, but democracy is supposed to bring all opinions to light," he said. "It's more dangerous to suppress opinions."

Koukas looked into his glass of beer as he mulled the prospects of an Islamic movement coming to power. "If Sheik Yassine was the king, we couldn't come here," he said. "We couldn't look at girls. If the fundamentalists get into power, we as journalists will lose our freedoms."

Even leaders of Morocco's officially sanctioned Islamic party are dubious about Justice and Charity.

Abdelkader Amara, a parliamentary leader of the Justice and Development Party, said Yassine and her movement have avoided working within Morocco's increasingly democratic system.

"People want to know what their agenda is," Amara said. "To be honest, in the religious field, I'm from the same house. But up to now, I don't really understand what they want to do."

The Yassines have been challenging Moroccan kings for more than 30 years.

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