God’s Plan? Covid-19 lockdowns and the reaction of Moroccan religious leaders
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The Kingdom of Morocco was amongst the earliest and staunchest enforcers of strict measures against the spread of Covid-19 early on in the pandemic. For the Moroccan monarchy, Islam is a central source of legitimacy. Over recent years, the Moroccan king has taken steps to solidify his control over the clerical establishment: including the co-optation of troublesome Islamists. The vast majority of religious leaders in Morocco therefore act as reinforcers of the state’s power. Of course, official religious institutions are not merely subordinate to the king, but they derive their legitimacy from his religious authority as commander of the faithful. By order of Moroccan King Muhammed VI, the country’s Supreme Ulema Council issued a religious decree (fatwa) mandating the closure of mosques which became effective on 16th March.
However, in the first days of the enforced measures, some prominent religious figures participated and provided some rationale for protests in defiance of the restrictions. While the protests were spontaneous, they were heavily influenced by religious connotations. For instance, on 15th March, Hassan al-Kettani, a prominent Salafi preacher, challenged the kingdom’s plan to close mosques. He stated on his respective Facebook page that the Prophet Mohammed “never authorised the closure of mosques or suspension of group prayer.”. Footage of protests against mosque closures emerged during the first days of the government-enforced lockdown, with protesters chanting the Shahada.
Another prominent Moroccan Salafist, Omar Haddoushi, argued along the same lines, noting that the pandemic was a “soldier of God” which conquered “great nations,” such as China, who “do not believe in God.”. Notably, on 20th March, Kettani published a video in which he shifted his rhetoric, announcing that “God has afflicted us with the disaster of seeing our mosques closed, these mosques that we tended to ignore, many of us used to walk by the mosque and wouldn’t even think about going in and pray” – in effect decrying the closure without challenging it. The tension, however, had not vanished as Kettani retweeted a fatwa by Sadiq al-Gharyani claiming it to be forbidden (haram) to close mosques on 22nd April.
People have been suffering more and more as strict measures continues to be put in place, and religious holidays such as Ramadan have been conducted with seldom any evidence of the loosening of measures. The question is if and how these religious leaders might get involved again, and if and how Moroccans might take their discontent with the current situation to the streets once more. In addition, there are underlying grievances against the state and speculations regarding bribery to obtain special permits which have led to rare and uncoordinated protests. Overall, it is evident that the pandemic continues to cripple the Moroccan economy and cause increasing dissatisfaction for large parts of the Moroccan population which will no doubt continue in upcoming months.