In the summer of 2010, I drove Abdulilah Benkirane and another friend to the Islamic Cultural Centre in East London. Benkirane, leader of Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD), had just finished his speech at a conference I helped organise, but was not very happy with the way the event proceeded. When we met at the coffee break, he was still fuming after a heated exchange with a participant. I informed him that I was on my way to another function in Whitechapel and offered to take him along. It would be an opportunity to meet some leaders of the British Muslim community, I suggested. He welcomed the break. That was my first meeting with Benkirane, a jovial and extremely modest man, with a salt and pepper beard and a disarming smile. A couple of years earlier, I had hosted his leaner and taller predecessor as PJD leader, Saadeddine Othmani, at a conference organised at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster. The topic of the December 2008 conference was ‘Islamism, democracy and Arab intellectuals: the missing dimension in democracy promotion.’ But more of that later.
The trip to Whitechapel took much longer than we had anticipated, even though it was a Sunday. Our dear friends in the English Defence League had chosen that of all days to mount an anti-Muslim demonstration close to East London Mosque. A large police contingent was deployed to prevent clashes with angry Muslim youths, and traffic around the centre almost came to a standstill. It was not the best way to introduce our guest to our usually hospitable city, but it gave us an opportunity to talk at length and for me get to know him better.
I was slightly taken aback by his ardent monarchism. He really believed that the monarchy was a vital institution for unity and stability in Morocco. This was a rare stance for the leader of an Islamist party. But then PJD was not just any Islamist party. It had acquired its name in 1998, a full four years before its more famous Turkish namesake emerged. But the party has deeper roots going back to the 1950s, when its founding leader Abdelkarim al-Khatib, a veteran of the independence struggle, became a leading figure in a pro-palace party, the Popular Movement, opposed to the dominant Istiqlal Party. (This explains the monarchism; Al-Khatib was King Muhammad V’s personal physician). However, al-Khatib, who was the Speaker of Parliament at the time, dissented after King Hassan II declared a state of emergency in 1965. In 1967, he split from the Popular Movement to form the Democratic and Constitutional Popular Movement (MPDC), which campaigned on a platform of ‘Islamic constitutionalism’; hence the pro-democracy and Islamist leanings of the party.