Hammad Kabbaj Image Credit: AFP

Marrakesh: The surprise candidate in Morocco’s legislative elections next month is an ultra-conservative preacher who says political Islam is the best tool for tackling violent extremism.

Cleric Hammad Kabbaj, 39, is the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party’s (PJD) main candidate in the modern and trendy Gueliz district of Marrakesh.

The preacher has proved a controversial choice for the PJD, which is in a tight race with its liberal rival, the opposition Authenticity and Modernity Party (PAM), in the October 7 poll.

But Kabbaj said that instead of fearing Islam — in particular the fundamentalist Salafist doctrine he espouses — politics should embrace it.

“If the political scene was more open to religious [people] and to Salafism, that could help absorb and weaken extremism,” Kabbaj said during an interview.

Sitting in his office surrounded by young followers, Kabbaj wore a long beard, Ray-Ban glasses and a traditional gown.

Born to an influential Marrakesh family, Kabbaj has been quadriplegic since an accident when he was 16 and largely taught himself the Quran.

He made a name for himself in Moroccan Salafist circles and attracted a strong local following in Marrakesh.

He is seen as close to leading Moroccan Salafist Mohammad Magraoui, who hit the headlines in 2008 for issuing a religious ruling authorising marriage for nine-year-old girls.

Last year Kabbaj was accused of anti-Semitism after posting a hadith — a saying of Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) — that talked of killing Jews.

He insists his comments “were taken out of context” and that he was only referring to “Zionists... responsible for terrorist practices against the Palestinians.”

In fact Kabbaj said his brand of Islam rejects all forms of violence.

“We have a principled position against all extremism, violence and hatred, whether committed by Muslims or non-Muslims,” he said.

Salafism emerged in the late 19th century as a puritanical reform movement in Sunni Islam and has millions of followers worldwide.

It has been accused of promoting extremism through its rigid interpretations of the Quran but Kabbaj said Moroccan Salafism, which follows the Maliki school of Islamic thought, is more moderate and tolerant.

Kabbaj has written extensively on how religious thought can be used to oppose extremists like Daesh, which has found a key recruiting ground in Morocco.

A study by the US-based Soufan Group said last December that at least 1,200 Moroccans had travelled to fight alongside Daesh in Iraq and Syria in the previous 18 months.

Rabat says more than 150 “terrorist cells” have been busted since 2002, including dozens over the past three years with ties to terrorists in Iraq and Syria.

“Legitimate, moderate Salafist discourse can persuade young people to retreat” from such tendencies, Kabbaj said.

Many secular politicians refuse to accept this, he said, and some “deliberately confuse” moderate Islam and extremism “for political gain”.

Kabbaj’s candidacy in Marrakesh’s Gueliz district has stirred fears among some residents of the neighbourhood, which is home to many Westerners who frequent the area’s bars and clubs.

Kabbaj said he understood those concerns, but that parties across Morocco’s political spectrum are committed to preserving individual freedoms.

“The fear is unfounded,” he said. “I do not agree with the practices of consuming alcohol or adultery, but I cannot change that by force. I only have the right to give advice.

“Of course, there are divergences in society, for example on homosexuality or the veil... but it is possible to manage them through democracy.”