ISIS propaganda photo showing Abdelhamid Abaaoud (Photo: Dabiq/ZUMA Press/Newscom)
After the violence in Paris, much has been written about Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the young Belgian who has been considered the mastermind of the attacks and was killed in a police raid in Saint-Denis on 18 November. His biography has been reconstructed, from his birth in the district of Molenbeek, Brussels, to his accession to the Islamic State, and his personality as a petty criminal, divided between jihad and beautiful women.
There is one aspect of his life that has remained hidden but deserves to be told: the story of his origins. As well as “al-Beljiki” (the Belgian), Abaaoud was also known by the nickname “al-Soussi”, that is, someone from Sous, a region in the far south-west of Morocco. To retrace the history of this land and its migrants is to observe the metamorphosis of Islam over the last century.
Despite its peripheral location, Sous was a cradle of dynasties and the starting point of great political-religious deeds generated by the encounter between tribal cohesion and religious fervour, which inspired Ibn Khaldun’s famous theory of the dialectic between rural culture and urban civilization.
Kasbah Amerhidil in the Souss-Massa-Draa Region of Morocco. via Wikimedia
When French colonial pressure extended to Morocco in the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries, the Southern tribes revolted. Even then, the call to jihad resounded loud and clear, as had happened so often in the past at times of outside aggression and in particular during Portuguese attacks. Even then, millenarian fantasies were reawakened. And even then, tribal dissidence and the “struggle in the path of God” came together in a single movement, according to a dynamic similar to the one transforming now the history and geography of Iraq and Syria. Yet, jihad at the time was different from jihadism today. It was a defensive war with codes and limits, and not the privileged path to accessing a more authentic Islam.
‘A learned Salafism’
The French managed to “pacify” Sous and impose their rule. It was the beginning of a profound change, both politically and culturally. This trend can be noted in the work of Muhammad Mukhtar al-Soussi (the same nickname as the Belgian jihadist), an important scholar born into a family of experts in religious studies in 1900. In his monumental encyclopaedic collection on the history of his region, among other things, he describes society’s transitions from one permeated by religion and its values to the pervasiveness of the new colonial order, with its machines, phones, new clothing styles and new farming techniques.
Al-Soussi opposed this lifestyle, favouring the “Salafist” recovery of Islamic Tradition (with a capital T) and the subsequent abandonment of the traditions (with a lowercase t) that have been added to Islam over time, corrupting it: ancestral cults, superstitions and the veneration of saints, although they held considerable importance in the lives of the population. But al-Soussi did not see this Tradition in an imaginary golden age, nor in an imitation of the obsessive behaviour of the first Muslims, but rather in the historical practice of the men and institutions of his “learned” land (as defined in one of his books).
In addition to the religious rootedness described by al-Soussi, another phenomenon characterises society in South-west Morocco, which is rich in wisdom and devotion, but poor in resources, i.e. the substantial emigration to the cities of the Atlantic coast and to the North of Morocco: this emigration has strong family dimension and is usually temporary. Those who left did so with the help of a brother or a relative and know that one day they will return, taking turns with other family members. Moreover, those who stayed away for a long time sought a bride from their native tribe, even though women rarely accompanied their husbands. Fidelity to the country of origin ensured a strong bond with their culture and also with their religious life.
With the construction of new roads, the progressive development of a modern economy and contacts with Europe, emigration from Sous assumed larger proportions and extended beyond the borders of Morocco, reaching France, Belgium and Holland in particular. In the case of Belgium, the first immigrants arrived in the 1920s. Then, in 1964, a Belgian-Moroccan agreement marked the beginning of a steady and regulated flow. From what we know, Abdelhamid’s father moved there in the 1970s.
For many years, the Moroccan presence did not pose any particular problems in terms of coexistence. Then things changed: Saudi Arabia promoted the construction of a mosque and an Islamic centre in Brussels that the initial indifference of the local authorities allowed to become a breeding ground for Salafist preaching. If Mokhtar al-Soussi’s Salafism was a “learned” one this is “ignorant,” to borrow the formula Olivier Roy has used to describe the religiosity of the global world: an oversimplified but clear view of the world with many rules and little culture. A religiosity that is perfect for those who, like Abdelhamid, the Paris attacker, are lost, uprooted, and have perhaps suffered the alienating effect of a hyper-secularised society.
We do not know exactly where Abelhamid was seduced by this type of Islam. It was probably in prison, rather than the mosque, although in the end this does not matter much. It is certainly not the same Islam known by his father and his grandparents.In a book from 2011, the Tunisian scholar Hamadi Redissi wrote that “Islam is in confusion because it has lost its rigid identity and not because it has preserved it.” This is what the story of Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the Belgian jihadist, tells us.
Michele Brignone is the scientific secretary of the Oasis International Foundation and managing editor of its journal. He is also a lecturer in Arabic Language at the Catholic University of Milan. His research focuses on modern Islamic political thought and modern Islamic intellectual history. This article was first published at Oasis and is republished here with permission.
Read the original article.