The crisis of governance and constitutionalism facing modern Arab governments and politicians has been compounded by an underlying ideological crisis. The ad hoc political order of nation-states that formed in the Arab Middle East after the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and the process of Western de-colonization has been crumbling amidst popular revolutions and elite discontent. The secular and revolutionary dreams of pan-Arabism that once inspired 20th Century nationalist politics have faded away. Arab countries and the world at-large have simultaneously grown suspicious of pan-Arabism’s main Islamic rival, the Wahhabi tradition of Saudi Arabia, given its ideological links with religious strife and contemporary Salafi-jihadism. Iran’s “export of revolution” has driven sectarian wars and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of human beings, most of them Arabs. In response, the desire for a restored caliphate inside the Sunni Islamist movement has grown—even as longstanding disputes among Islamists over the methods and timeframe for achieving this “Islamic State” have intensified and become more violent. Meantime, popular electoral politics across the Arab Middle East have been deeply conflicted and torn between sharply divergent secularist, religious conservative, and Islamist trends. To alleviate tensions and reconcile competing trends, many have concluded a new, conservative and religiously-grounded concept of “Islamic governance” is necessary for stability and for fostering a durable political identity that might nourish it.
The Kingdom of Morocco—an important American ally—has consciously sought to provide a traditional Islamic solution to this modern crisis and an ideological alternative to the Islamist project. The kingdom has had numerous advantages in doing so, including not only a level of political stability unmatched in the wider region but also a rich and remarkable history as a leading center of Islam.
Since the founding of al-Qaraouiyine University in Fes in 859, Morocco has held an important role in shaping religious discourse and education throughout the Islamic world. Al-Qaraouiyine is widely considered the world's first university; it has been home to such Muslim luminaries as Ibn Rushd, Leo Africanus, and Ibn Khaldun, in addition to Jewish and Christian figures such as Maimonides and Pope Sylvester II. Exemplary of the country's history, Fes is also the location of the shrine of Moulay Idris, a popular pilgrimage site, and the zawiyat al-Tijania, which was the base from which the Tijaniyya, one of the most widespread Sufi orders, originated before spreading throughout Africa and beyond. Morocco is further dotted with notable zawiyat, from Ouazzane in the north to Tamegroute in the Draa Valley, religious communities that historically served as boarding schools for religious education, waypoints for traveling pilgrims, and centers of prayer and devotion. Whether one is in a Moroccan city or the countryside, it is hard to look to the horizon and not see at least one shrine dedicated to a Sufi saint.
Across the centuries, Morocco has served as a great connecting hub for religious as well as commercial exchange between North and West Africa, Iberia, as well as the wider Arabic-speaking world. The famous city of Marrakech, for instance, served as the major trading destination and rest stop north of the Sahara, where merchants brought their wares and pilgrims their books and ideas. Thus, in addition to influencing other parts of Islam, Morocco has also absorbed religious thinking and practices from other parts of Islam. Historically these different religious currents have been accepted under the broad and pluralist umbrella of Moroccan Islam.
King Mohammed VI, who has reigned since 1999, has sought to rejuvenate this rich history in a concerted effort to re-establish Morocco as an exemplar of Islamic governance, piety and thought in the modern era. This effort grew in political urgency after the al-Qaeda bombings in Casablanca in 2003 and subsequent attacks in the kingdom in 2007. The monarchy responded to these attacks by enacting far-reaching security, political, economic, and, importantly, also religious and educational reforms as part of a comprehensive policy aimed at preventing Islamist extremism. This effort to secure the realm is infused by what the monarchy acclaims as a distinct “Moroccan Islam,” an expression of faith that has been widely described by Moroccans and others as moderate, open, and tolerant. The monarchy has attempted to revitalize and promote Moroccan Islam to strengthen social cohesion and rollback radicalism at home while also furthering its interests abroad. While al-Qaraouiyine University is no longer the authoritative source of religious scholarship in the Maghreb, the kingdom still seeks to position itself as a leading center of Islamic intellectual life and religious learning at home and around the world.
The promotion of a cosmopolitan “Moroccan Islam" as an antidote to the modern ideological crisis is a laudable initiative. Moreover, the kingdom’s new educational programs and comprehensive focus on preventing religiously-inspired extremism do provide an important model of responsible Islamic governance. However, this model is still a work in progress, and the kingdom’s broad effort to combat Islamist extremism does face some important limitations and looming issues. At home, Morocco still struggles with diverse forms of religious and political dissent; the monarchy’s ideals of “Moroccan Islam” are contested, and it is unclear what level of buy-in or religious influence the monarchy really has among the wider Moroccan public. The country also faces some fundamental governance challenges, including widespread bureaucratic mismanagement and the accommodation of foreign migrants, which adversely affect its efforts to foster social stability. Moreover, aside from strong criticism of religious extremism, the only other noticeable tenets of the kingdom’s current religious vision are a commitment to a greater degree of religious ecumenism and general acceptance of Sufi practices. These positions are not universally supported by Moroccans, a large portion of whom continue to adhere to Salafist teachings that are characterized by intolerance and often radicalism. Despite official rhetoric about a unique and moderate Moroccan Islam, it has not yet gained much traction and influence among Moroccan Salafis and other groups, while Salafists charge that the government’s efforts to promote and impose religion is politically self-serving and oppressive.
Islamic Legitimacy and Moroccan History
Since the earliest days of Morocco as a unified political entity, the piety and theology of the country’s rulers have been central to their authority and legitimacy. Each successive ruling regime has combined its political project with new theological claims, and this custom-made theology has shaped the foundations of political authority. Islam arrived in Morocco in the late 7th century, gaining a stronger foothold under the rule of Idris ibn Abdillah (745-791), a great-grandson of Hassan ibn Ali (624-670) who was himself a great-grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. Sultan Idris, founder of the Idrisid Dynasty, Morocco's first ruling dynasty, was made a religious leader by the Amazigh peoples in the area of Volubilis. This took place after Idris was accepted as a refugee from the revolution his family waged against the Abbasid Caliphate in 762. Idris and his son, Idris II (791-828), were able to unite Amazigh tribes throughout Morocco and were held in high esteem as effective rulers and pious Muslims. The initial Idrisid Dynasty would last from 789 until 974 and veneration of its founders continues to this day, with Moroccans making pilgrimages to and seeking blessings from memorial shrines in Fes and Moulay Idris Zerhoun.
Abdallah ibn Yasin (d. 1059), co-founder of the Almoravid Dynasty (1040-1147), rose to prominence as a student of Waggag ibn Zallu, a strict and innovative Moroccan scholar of Maliki law in the 11th century. Ibn Yasin, who had a reputation for zealotry, preached and spread what he deemed proper Islamic teaching amongst Amazigh tribes, and assisted in providing leadership to the Almoravid political alliance that controlled Morocco and expanded its boundaries from 1040 until 1147. During this time, Maliki jurisprudence became central to Moroccan religious life and gained prominence throughout North Africa, West Africa, and Iberia. Then—as it is now—the Maliki school's popularity was due, at least in part, to the deference it gave to established political authorities and its general reluctance to infuse or contaminate religious life with politics. Importantly, a community’s sociopolitical practices and norms, so long as they do not contradict religious obligations, are more broadly accepted in traditional Maliki thought than in other schools of Islamic jurisprudence. This does help to account for Morocco’s local or inborn tradition of pluralism and tolerance. It is this particular quality that helps make Maliki jurisprudence attractive to many emerging political and religious leaders in Morocco, in part because many of them seek to preserve their unique Moroccan and Amazigh cultural and religious traditions against the encroachment of Salafist and other anti-pluralist influences that originate in the Arab East.
After the Almoravids, the succeeding Almohad Dynasty (1121-1269) was initiated by Abu Abd Allah Muhammad Ibn Tumart (c.1080-1130), a religious reformer whose Zahiri theology was staunchly opposed to the Maliki jurisprudence. The Almohad theological vision sought to simplify and purify religious practice, emphasizing literal interpretation of the Quran and rejecting theological or juridical extrapolation. The Zahiri theology, while no longer common in North Africa, is most similar to the Hanbali school and its contemporary derivations expressed by Salafism. While many events in Ibn Tumart's life are unconfirmed, it is reported that he studied under the famous Imam al-Ghazali (c. 1058-1111). Al-Ghazali, upon hearing that the Almoravids had burned his books, charged Ibn Tumart with correcting the theological errors and religious laxity of the Almoravids. However, upon returning to Morocco and engaging the Almoravid royal court in debate, Ibn Tumart was, in turn, accused of blasphemy for his rigid zeal—leading to mutual charges of heresy. In response, Ibn Tumart declared himself the Mahdi, asserting that his position of theological-political leadership was directly prescribed by God. By this, Ibn Tumart gained sufficient support to usurp the Almoravids and launch the so-called Almohad “revolution.”
Almohad rule lasted a century, until the Marinids (1244-1465) managed to seize domestic power while the Almohad rulers were focused on fighting against the Christian Reconquista in Iberia. Although the Marinids and their related successors in the Wattasid Dynasty (1472-1554) did not seem to make strong religious claims to legitimize their political rule, their ascendancy was marked by persistent resistance from Maliki-influenced Sufi groups, such as followers of Muhammad al-Jazuli (1404-1465) who were dissatisfied with Almohad fundamentalism and its stifling of alternative visions of Islam.
By 1554, the Saadian Dynasty, influenced by Sufism and reacting against the Almohads, took control of Morocco. They renewed the Idrisid lineage of descent from Hassan ibn Ali and the Prophet Mohammed, providing them with a claim to religious legitimacy that the Almohad dynasty did not have. In 1641, a prestigious scholarly family that established and ran the zaouia in Dila—a highly influential Sufi brotherhood steeped in Moroccan religious traditions—declared a new sultanate. Reigning for a short period, the Dilai movement was quickly defeated by the nascent Alaouite Dynasty which asserted a claim to Prophetic lineage separate from and in competition with the Idrisid lineage. The Alaouite family line had been established in Morocco towards the end of the 13th century, when farmers in the Tafilalt region sought a foreign imam with Prophetic lineage to bring his divine blessing (baraka) to their crops. The Alaouite Dynasty continues to reign today with King Mohammed VI under the authority of that lineage, divine blessing, and status of Commander of the Faithful. The Alaouite religious legitimacy is fundamental to the dynasty’s political authority and has allowed the regime to stay in power despite enormous challenges to its rule during the colonial era, after independence, and through the 2011 Arab Spring.
During the French Protectorate, when the monarchy’s effective political power had reached its nadir, religious authority and influence became the only power that King Mohammed V was allowed to exercise. In 1953, the French governor of Morocco, perhaps expecting the royal title constrained to a roi fainéant, forced Mohammed V into exile and to abdicate to Mohammed Ben Aarafa. Outraged, Morocco’s guiding ulama religious council insisted on the illegitimacy of the successor and succeeded in restoring Mohammed V to the throne in 1955. In the struggle for independence from France, the monarchy and the Istiqlal (independence) Party heavily relied on Islam to mobilize and organize the population and, after independence in 1956, the monarchy used its religious authority to consolidate political control throughout the realm. In its bid to shape a unified post-colonial Moroccan identity, the monarchy deliberately promoted a political form of Islam that combined Arab nationalism and Salafism. This formula ultimately gained traction in Morocco and beyond.
When Hassan II took over from his father Mohammed V in 1961, Morocco entered a period of turmoil often described as the “Years of Lead.” From the 1960s through the 1980s, Morocco saw conflict with Algeria and the Polisario Front in Western Sahara, violent internal upheaval, and multiple attempts to assassinate the king. In an attempt to weaken the influence of communist and anti-Royalist movements, Hassan II encouraged the growth of Salafism with the common expectation that Salafis were to remain loyal to the monarchy and abstain from oppositional politics. Due to the kingdom’s close ties with Saudi Arabia, Salafi religious leaders were well-funded and trained and able to further strengthen their role in Moroccan society. Similar to the acceptance of Salafism, independence was met with a growing focus on Arabization. This embraced some elements of pan-Arab ideology while encouraging the position of Arabic as Morocco’s patrimonial language contra French. Arabic, following the conventions of Modern Standard and Classical Arabic, was to be used in government and education rather than indigenous languages such as Tamazight (Berber) or the Morocco and Saharan dialects of Arabic. At the same time, the Sufi-leaning al-Adl wal-Ihsane (Justice and Benevolence) movement was banned from political life altogether. This was due to the letter its founder Sheikh Abdesslam Yassine (1928-2012) wrote, “Islam or the Deluge (1974),” in which he challenged the monarchy’s religious legitimacy and argued it had betrayed Islam in exchange for money and Western support.
Despite the challenge of Yassine, the Crown's efforts to reaffirm its religious authority largely succeeded. Indeed, religious authority may well have saved the power and life of Hassan II when, during a violent attempted military coup, he famously confronted a rebel commander and recited the opening of the Quran—causing the rebel to kneel and kiss the king's hand.1 Given the significance of religious legitimacy for each successive ruler in the past, it is difficult to imagine a future in which the King of Morocco’s status as Emir al-Mu'meen —the Commander of the Faithful—is not at least equal in importance to any sovereign political title.
Since Mohammed VI’s ascension to the throne in 1999, the communist threat to the kingdom has disappeared, but the monarchy has faced many other challenges to its rule. It has attempted to deal with these challenges by relying heavily on not just on its political power but its religious authority and suasion. While a strict, intrusive security apparatus helped to keep Hassan II in power, the oppressive Years of Lead contributed to public resentment and distrust which Mohammed VI has sought to alleviate. He has implemented a general policy of reconciliation that has allowed for incremental liberalization in the social sphere and important efforts to improve the Moroccan human rights record.
The beginning of Mohammed VI’s rule was marked by protests from the Amazigh (Berber) and Hassaniya (Saharan) populations who were opposed to the crown’s earlier policies of Arabization and the relative status of Salafism and political Islamism. The activists demanded that education be available in indigenous languages, and believed the government generally neglected rural Moroccans. This movement generated some political splintering between those who identify primarily as Arab and others who regard themselves as Amazigh. But the movement did succeed in gaining recognition of Tamazight, a standardized Amazigh language, as an official national language—although in practice, this has not been widely implemented. The kingdom has also emphasized community-led development in rural and urban areas. Even so, some of the kingdom’s social reforms and policies on religion—particularly changes to the Mudawana family code, and the monarchy’s general opposition to Salafism—have infuriated religious conservatives. Mohammed VI has since been challenged by numerous protest movements, including a general agitation for democracy as well as religious activism inspired by Salafism and Islamism. Against these challenges, the kingdom has undertaken to revive and promote a cosmopolitan Moroccan Islam—an Islam that is ecumenical and tolerant of cultural and religious difference—as a means of maintaining the governing regime, unifying the people within its realm, and driving forward positive social change.
Islamic Extremism in Morocco
Upon assuming rule, King Mohammed VI began to institute limited religious reforms with the aim of curbing Salafi influence. This shift in Moroccan religious policy deepened in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and was assisted by United States’ efforts to support its allies in countering violent extremism. Then, on May 16, 2003 coordinated bombings in Casablanca killed 45 (including the terrorists).2 This cemented the changes in the monarchy's response to extremism and resulted in tense debates over the future role of Islam in Moroccan politics. However, the kingdom has long tried to maintain a difficult balance between reducing the influence of Salafism while keeping Salafis invested in the regime. Any buildup of resentment or alienation among Salafis or other marginalized religious groups risks stoking rejection of the monarchy and, by extension, radicalization.
King Mohammed VI subsequently launched an effort to develop a comprehensive strategy for countering violent extremism (CVE). This included strengthening the police—special counter-terrorism units now patrol most major urban areas—as well as the creation of a national investigative agency that aggressively prosecutes terrorists and those suspected of religious extremism. This has led to countless arrests and to the breakup of suspected terror cells throughout the country. The monarchical government has also implemented new social and community development initiatives, and dramatically reformed the country’s educational system with the construction of new universities that offer secular and vocational training along with Islam. Perhaps most striking, the king dramatically reorganized the administration of religious affairs and increased the government's religious oversight. In effect, this effort made religious practice and doctrine subservient to political authority, giving a bureaucratic stamp of approval to Moroccan Islam and sharply curtailing any religious expression without such approval.
The government took control of all mosques in the country, placing imams on the government payroll and requiring that they follow ministry rules and regulations in order to keep their positions.3 Today, religious leaders must be vetted and trained by the government while their sermons must either be approved by the government or scripted by it. Mosques are not permitted to be open or used as gathering spaces outside of prayer times. Preaching in the streets or outside formal venues, failing to abide by regulations, or otherwise exceeding the government-defined limits on religious expression can and often do result in arrest. Political parties are prohibited from having a religiously-focused platform, although implicitly faith-based politics continues.4
This combination of policies has been effective in stemming domestic threats of terrorism, which have been rare since 2003. However, despite Morocco’s success so far in curbing internal violence, the government’s CVE efforts are struggling to cope with a number of new challenges. For instance, nearly 2,000 Moroccans fought in the Syrian Civil War and in Iraq on behalf of the Islamic State (ISIS) caliphate movement, and at least 200 of these militants are known to have returned to Morocco.5 Meantime, Moroccan nationals residing in Europe have also been involved in a number of terrorist attacks in France, Belgium, Spain, and elsewhere.6 Many of these attackers are either from or have strong connections to the northern area of Morocco surrounding the Rif mountains, which has also been a source of domestic strife and religious extremism.7 Violent extremism in both Europe and Morocco are linked, and joint efforts to more effectively limit the ideological appeal of Salafi-jihadism is vital for improved security in both the kingdom and in Europe.
The Kingdom of Morocco’s future stability is further challenged by rolling ideological conflict, including with religious ideologies which, while not tied to violent extremism, reject the authority of the monarchy in both political and spiritual realms. While the kingdom has emphasized tolerance of traditional Sufi practice and piety, it continues to politically restrict Al-Adl wal-Ihsan (Justice and Benevolence), a Sufi-inspired movement that is now Morocco’s largest Islamic social organization. It has hundreds of thousands of adherents throughout the country, both in the cities and the countryside, and among the poor and university students.8 Historically, Al-Adl wal-Ihsan has disavowed any political participation, on the grounds that the monarchy in general and the king’s status as Commander of the Faithful are theologically illegitimate. Needless to say, the organization has itself been illegal since its creation and its members are often arrested. Its founder, Abdessalam Yassine, spent nine years under house arrest9 and police have at times rounded up hundreds of affiliates.10 During the February 20 street protests—a nation-wide popular movement from 2011 to 2012 in support of democracy—Yassine led a group of activist Sufis in large-scale anti-monarchy protests. Following Yassine’s death in 2012, Al-Adl wal-Ihsan reorganized and its leadership has since signaled a new interest in engaging with the political process.11 However, it is not likely the movement’s legal status will change so long as its members refuse to acknowledge the religious authority of the king.
In contrast to “political Sufism,” Salafist movements are more visible and engaged in Moroccan political life. After independence from France, the monarchy’s need to counter revolutionary Pan-Arabism and communism and its close relations with Saudi Arabia led directly to the spread and acceptance of Wahhabi-influenced Salafi beliefs throughout society. Today, many of these Salafist currents are represented by the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), Morocco’s largest opposition and Islamist political party. Founded in 1967 by Abdelilah Benkirane, PJD emerged out of the revivalist Movement for Unity and Reform (MUR) and other civic organizations inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood. Members of the PJD hold strong and, at times, extreme Salafi beliefs.
Salafism and PJD politicians have an ambiguous relationship with the Crown. Though not royalists, PJD Salafis have often provided important but qualified support for the king when it strengthens their overall political position and influence, such as during the Years of Lead or, more recently, after the 2011 constitutional reforms. PJD support for the constitutional reforms, which devolved some powers to the legislature (and thereby to PJD lawmakers), was crucial in bringing an end to the February 20 protests and keeping the regime stable in the upheaval unloosed by the Arab Spring. Now that it has an important say in how Morocco is governed, the PJD’s biggest policy and legislative concerns are education and judiciary issues, and it has been very successful advancing its conservative Islamic agenda in both domains. The party is strongly committed to expanding democratic representation in Morocco, as it largely benefits from popular elections and its power is constrained by the monarchy more so than the ballot box.
The PJD has been strategic in its efforts to protect itself from the governmental and popular backlash that the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists have faced in other countries. Still, the PJD has been widely criticized by Moroccan royalists and secular democrats alike as dangerous. Because of the perception that Salafism is linked to domestic and foreign terrorism, Moroccans have called for the PJD’s dissolution and prohibition on multiple occasions, including after the 2003 Casablanca terror attacks and the 2013 ouster of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. In comparison to the PJD, MUR has been less restrained in its activism and continues to be scrutinized by authorities for its alleged role in violent extremism.12 Overall, the PJD has been accepted into mainstream politics alongside its acceptance of the monarchy’s political authority and stances and, so long as the government caters to baseline Salafi interests, the party will continue to recognize the monarchy’s authority. This contrasts with al-Adl wal-Ihsan, which has rejected any compromise with the regime or recognition of its legitimacy. However, Salafi political movements and politicians have not been widely or consistently accepted in the political realm because secular parties fear that Islamists will use their power to curtail civil rights or support terrorism.
Individual Salafi politicians have fared similarly with periods of close ties to the monarchy as well as periods of disavowal or political exile. For example, Dr. Abdelkbir M'Daghri Alaoui served as minister of religious affairs, with a tenure noted for his conservative beliefs from 1985 until 2002, when he was pushed out of office for his reputation as a Salafi. While in power, Alaoui himself also blamed former Interior Ministry chief Driss Basri, later to be exiled, of promoting radical Salafism in the kingdom.13 Depending on the political context, these men, like so many others, have been variously embraced and rebuked by the regime—and by one another.
With its comprehensive strategy for curtailing extremism, the Moroccan government has been quite effective in preventing violent extremism in the kingdom. Its policies have had the further effect of reducing political tensions and buttressing the monarchy against many of its opponents. However, the kingdom also faces a tricky balancing act: the regime must, to some degree, integrate and co-opt Salafism and other dissenting groups—despite ideological disagreements between Salafism and the monarchy’s ideals of “Moroccan Islam”—in order to prevent alienation and resentment among Salafis that could lead to radicalization. A reasonable balance has been struck with the normalization of the PJD and its members. But outreach efforts must also be targeted at more radical Salafis of the MUR who, as “quietists,” refuse to engage in political activity or consider the PJD as overly compromising. Likewise, the monarchy has so far done little to engage with political Sufis, whether or not they are affiliated with Al-Adl wal-Ihsan. Both political Sufism and Salafism pose significant ideological challenges to the monarchy’s efforts to maintain itself and establish a cosmopolitan Moroccan Islam.
What is Moroccan Islam Today?
The more one speaks to Moroccans about their faith, the more one hears about the unique and exceptional character of Moroccan Islam. Indeed, the notion of a distinct form of Moroccan Islam is widely embraced and discussed throughout the country, though not always in a coherent way. King Mohammed VI frequently supports it, and the constitution and state policies of the monarchy are directed towards its promotion. Yet, it is not clear that a Moroccan form of Islam actually exists—certainly nothing akin to the “national religion” of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. The concept itself, as discussed above, is contested by an array of religious actors, including the monarchy.
Today, Morocco is comprised almost entirely of Sunni Muslims who overwhelmingly follow Maliki jurisprudence. However, although differences between different Sunni madhabs (schools of thought) are meaningful, adherence to the Maliki legal methodology neither makes Morocco unique nor says much about the character of its religious belief. It primarily dictates the types of justifications used to support unique religious ways of thinking and practice. While an open and tolerant religious teaching is actively promoted by the monarchy throughout its realm, this is hardly a national creed. Indeed, many of the religious ideas promoted by the kingdom as uniquely Moroccan include beliefs opposed by or not accepted by the majority of Morocco's Sunni faithful. Many Sufis and Salafis, for instance, do not agree with or reject the monarchy’s claims to supreme religious authority. They also disagree with the kingdom’s social reforms, including in family law and national religious education, and with the monarchy’s various efforts to promote religious ecumenicism.
Moroccans praise the flexible and dynamic nature of Maliki jurisprudence as one of Moroccan Islam’s defining characteristics. The school’s use by various historical regimes in Morocco and elsewhere in Africa for centuries points to its adaptability to different cultural, political and governing arrangements. This dynamism can be a virtue and of great utility to modernizing and moderating religion. At the same time, it also makes it difficult to develop a coherent ideology around which a contemporary Moroccan Islam might be constructed. The long history of competing Moroccan rulers who co-opted and sparred over different Maliki-derived ideologies clearly demonstrates this. As one of the defining features of Moroccan Islam, the dependence on Maliki jurisprudence for religious identity also allows for the charge that the faith is constantly adapting to the needs of politics, rather than being a stable and independent belief system. Nor is Moroccan Islam distinguished by its ash’ari theology. Asharism is the dominant orthodox theology among Sunni Muslims in Morocco and elsewhere, and it emphasizes measured deference to revelation over philosophical rationalism. However, this theology, which is hardly unique to Morocco, is criticized and rejected by many Moroccan Salafis, who are scriptural literalists, and who view Asharism as speculating too far beyond the text of the Quran.
Another issue raised by the kingdom’s promotion of Moroccan Islam concerns the idea of moderate Sufism and what that means. Presumably, this encompasses moderation in both the political and theological respects. Politically, just as some Sufis like al-Adl wal-Ihsan do not accept the monarchy or its religious claims to political power, there is also not a substantial effort by the monarchy to integrate these and other Sufis into the national political process. Theologically, Sufi devotion to saints and charismatic leaders has been controversial in Islam, particularly in the modern period. While Sufi devotion is valued and generally considered pious in the abstract by many Muslims, specific Sufi practices are often viewed from a more orthodox Sunni perspective as decadent innovation, or bi'dah, if not as heretical. The veneration of Sufi saints and their shrines has been particularly controversial. As surveys conducted by the Moroccan Institute of Policy Analysis indicate, Salafi Moroccans have little to no interest in engaging with any Sufi practices or religious orders. As such, the kingdom’s promotion of “moderate Sufism” as the approved expression of Islam will probably further alienate Salafis from national religious and political life.14 Meantime, for members of established Sufi orders or movements, including al-Adl wal-Ihsan, Sufism as promoted by the government will likely appear as watered down, compromised, or otherwise unappealing in contrast to their own practices. Without a strong and compelling appeal to either group, “moderate Sufism” as promoted by the Moroccan government will likely not receive buy-in from Salafi or from independent Sufi practitioners.
Overall, the government's efforts to control religious affairs so far appears to have the effect of encouraging some Moroccans to look elsewhere—to religious authorities beyond the kingdom—for guidance. For example, the vast majority of Salafis in the kingdom avoid or ignore government-sponsored imams, religious television programming, and education programs run by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs. By attempting, further, to monopolize the public sphere of religious life, the monarchy has pushed religious believers who do not agree with them to the margins. Salafism has spread in the Arabic-speaking world by claiming it is the antidote to modern heterodoxy and religious oppression, and this may be one reason for its continued appeal in Morocco. Arguably, the government’s efforts to control Islam only compels Salafis to seek materials from the internet and beyond Morocco that correspond with their worldview. Simultaneously, those under Salafism’s sway are inclined to dismiss other religious arguments, including government CVE initiatives, as heretical innovation. This situation makes it easier, not harder, for Salafis to become less attached to Moroccan public life and, potentially, to form political factions and to radicalize.
To be sure, the monarchy’s vision of Moroccan Islam and its aspirational policies and rhetoric have proved useful to fostering stability and catalyzing needed reform. Indeed, a well-developed concept of Islam can inspire and create positive sociopolitical change, even if large parts of society do not fully accept it. But can it also become the basis for a modern and lasting social compact? Because of its currently ill-defined and contested nature, Moroccan Islam is not an ideology that can easily be extolled or embraced, certainly not by all believers. It does not, at the moment, have clear a teleology—i.e., no clear reason for its existence, or an argument about its ultimate political and moral goals. Instead, “Moroccan Islam” has been open to the charge from Islamists and others that it exists mainly to preserve the power of the monarchy itself. In the near term, the government’s rather limited idea of Moroccan Islam may gain traction with international media and diplomats, but its spurious and vacuous character needs to compete with other compelling forms of Islam and this runs the risk of making it less credible.The government portrays Islam in Morocco as akin to Catholicism in secular France, but, unlike France, the monarchy relies on its leadership of Islam for its political legitimacy. If the regime is not effective in making real the promises of its Islamic vision—including the realization of such “public interests” (maslaha) as the security and well-being of all in the realm—then before long Moroccans may increasingly come to doubt the monarchy’s religious legitimacy and its right to rule. Meantime, radical ideological movements both homegrown and from abroad are likely to exploit this situation for their own gain.
Moroccan Islam is often said to be uniquely peaceful and tolerant of other faiths. But this is a statement of theology and belief; Moroccan Islam is not the only religion to claim this, although its government promoters have taken significant steps to make these theological claims a reality. Among other things, the monarchy has widely publicized its efforts at ecumenical outreach, its growing acceptance of Christianity practiced by foreigners within the kingdom, and its ongoing review of the representation of other religions in the country’s textbooks. In 2016, the monarchy was instrumental in convening several Muslim states and a couple hundred scholars to issue the Marrakech Declaration, which recognized the rights of religious minorities in Muslim societies.15 Despite this, Judaism has effectively disappeared from Morocco following mass migration to Israel during the 1950s and ‘60s—a movement facilitated by both the governments of Israel and Morocco, particularly through Operation Yachin, in which Morocco was paid for each Jew who made aliyah to Israel. Christianity, meantime, is generally viewed by the public as a colonial vestige, with churches largely remaining for diplomats and French or Spanish retirees. In my experience, the presence of soldiers and police officers at churches throughout the country is intended less to protect the congregations inside than to keep Moroccans outside.16 Faiths other than Islam are generally restricted in Morocco, as both conversion and proselytization remain illegal, and native Moroccan Christians live hidden and, frankly, often in fear.17 Furthermore, government restrictions on both Sufi and Salafi movements raises doubt about just how open and tolerant Moroccan Islam really is or intends to be towards competing, more rigid streams of thought.
One highlight of the Moroccan monarchy’s efforts to promote religious ecumenicism and tolerance has been the creation of the Al-Mowafaqa Institute. The institute is Morocco's first Christian seminary, serving both Protestant and Catholic churches. The institute may be intended to recognize and engage with the country’s growing West African population, which is predominantly Christian. However, West Africans largely come into Morocco either to receive practical education or to illegally cross into Europe, so it is not clear what they might seek to gain from the institute. Meanwhile, Al-Mowafaqa Institute focuses on inter-religious dialogue and academic religious studies, and this contrasts with the Islamic education available at public universities which focuses primarily on vocational training and preparing students for roles in the Muslim clergy or Ministry of Islamic Affairs. As such, the Al-Mowafaqa Institute presents a new opportunity to enrich the comparative study of religion and promote religious ecumenicism, but its secular and detached academic perspective may not appeal much to those aspiring to become Islamic religious leaders. As such, the institute’s potential to promote interfaith understanding and tolerance in society at-large appears to be quite limited. Significantly, the institute’s focus is on providing Christians with a cross-cultural understanding of Moroccan Islam, but it does little to promote religious acceptance of Christianity among Moroccan Muslim scholars.
Al-Mowafaqa Institute was one of the widely-publicized highlights of Pope Francis's 2019 Apostolic Visit to Morocco. Pope Francis and King Mohammed VI both spoke of their desire to improve relations between Christianity and Islam, and they declared their understanding of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. While this signals a growing tolerance of Christianity in Morocco, the Moroccan government understands freedom of religion to be free practice of a devotee's faith, not the freedom to choose religion. Proselytization remains illegal in Morocco and Protestant Christian missionaries have been arrested and deported for efforts to convert Moroccan Muslims. The Catholic Church has respectfully adhered to the law and Pope Francis explicitly discussed the role of Catholics in Morocco to be that of living pious lives for their neighbors' benefit—but not for the purpose of converting them to Christianity.
While the Pope’s overall visit was a diplomatic success for both the Holy See and Morocco, it was not without controversy. The King and the Pope signed an appeal that recognized the “unique and sacred character of Jerusalem/Al-Quds Acharif” and its “spiritual significance and its special vocation as a city of peace.” The appeal also called for "full freedom of access [to Jerusalem] to the followers of the three monotheistic religions and [the guarantee of] their right to worship."18 This appeal, however, was criticized by numerous Moroccan religious figures, most notably Dr. Ahmad al-Raissouni, president of the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired International Union of Muslim Scholars and former head of the MUR.19 Additionally, an attempt at ecumenical prayer during an audience for the King and the Pope at the Mohammed VI Institute stirred widespread controversy and criticism in Morocco for its blending of the adhan (Islamic call to prayer) with the Catholic Ave Maria and Jewish sung prayer.20
Although tolerance of Christianity (and other faiths) is growing in Morocco, it remains acceptable only as a foreigner’s faith—Moroccans themselves are not allowed to convert. Because the monarchy’s rule is rooted in its religious authority and legitimacy, it is apt to move incrementally in its promotion of toleration, while religious freedom is likely to remain proscribed. By and large, the monarchy's noteworthy efforts to promote inter-faith understanding and toleration have been supported by religious elites and other sectors of society. But criticism of the king’s efforts by important conservative and Islamist political figures has also been severe. Achieving broad-based social acceptance and buy-in for religious toleration and a cosmopolitan Moroccan Islam will be difficult for the kingdom to accomplish. Meantime, as the Christian population grows with increasing numbers of West Africans, enhanced religious cooperation and inevitable conversions to Christianity are likely to raise new religious issues and possibly tensions that will not be easily resolved—and could spur a conservative backlash. Whether the current ecumenical disposition can be maintained or will shift toward the position of al-Raissouni and other conservatives remains to be seen.
Moroccan Religion and Education
Religious education has become the most salient issue in Moroccan politics today. It is a prism through which the country views the issues it faces and their potential solutions; it is both the key to current success and to future growth. Moroccan education has long been a political battle ground with partisans seeking to dictate Moroccan culture and religion through classrooms: secularization and bureaucratization under the French protectorate, followed by the reactionary Arabization during independence, the more recent adoption of Amazigh and Moroccan cultural curricula, and the current debates over what constitutes Moroccan Islam. This history of politically-motivated pedagogy has made the kingdom’s debate about educational policy, and about religious education in particular, highly controversial. Changes or reforms that may seem minor have triggered controversy on kingdom-wide scale.21
Religion is fundamental to early education in Morocco. Especially in poorer cities and rural areas, most Moroccans begin their education at local mosques, in an analogue to pre-Kindergarten classes, where they are taught language and literacy skills through study of the Quran. As students grow older, they may continue to follow the traditional madrasa-style education of progressively studying and memorizing the Quran, or they may begin studies in the primary school system. Throughout all the years of their education, in both public and private schools, students are required to take Islamic studies classes that teach fundamental practices, beliefs, and theology. Despite kingdom-wide curricula and standards, religious education is extremely varied throughout the country and between schools. The gap between rural and urban schools is particularly striking; rural schools have far less resources, and far lower levels of classroom rigor, administrative oversight, and even teacher attendance.
Although religious teachers are drawn from public universities’ Islamic studies programs where they receive a fairly uniform education, they are effectively free to teach classes however they wish, and according to their standards of belief. In rural communities in particular, teachers have greater opportunity to promote ideologies beyond the state-authorized conception of Islam. According to Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, the head of Morocco’s Mohammedian League of Scholars, this presents an opportunity that Salafists have taken advantage of to promote their own ideological views.22 Moreover, while the option for zawiya-based religious education still exists as an alternative to primary and secondary schools, it is run under the purview of the zawiya’s Sufi order rather than government ministries. As such, the zawiya curriculum is even more variable than within public schools. Given the lack of educational oversight and variation in curricula, Moroccan students from different economic strata or from different regions of the country will develop very different ideas about Islam. As an example, wealthy students boarding at a zawiya will receive a deeply Sufi understanding of faith that hardly resembles the Salafism one may encounter in Casablanca’s poorest schools. These realities of religious education suggest the gulf between Moroccan religious beliefs will remain significant.
The monarchy has made a serious effort to promote kingdom-wide educational standards which reflect the ideals of Moroccan Islam, including greater interfaith understanding in primary education. In late 2018, the king also decreed that the Holocaust and the evils of anti-Semitism should be studied in all Moroccan high schools. However, despite these efforts to modernize religious studies, the quality and accuracy of education is heavily dependent on the pedagogy and materials of each individual school or teacher. Educational offerings in a Tangier suburb will likely bear little resemblance to that of Agadir, let alone a Sufi zawiya boarding school in the Atlas Mountains. As the government has promoted standardized textbooks and other learning materials, there has been controversy over how moderate or modern Islamic education really strives to be. Recently, for example, a textbook approved by the Higher Council of Muslim Scholars described philosophy and philosophical rationalism as blasphemy and perversion, an opinion that was accompanied by a scholarly assessment of reason as inferior to religious revelation from the 13th Century conservative Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyyah.23
Even more than primary education, higher education in Morocco is uneven and cause for considerable political controversy. In support of education reform or other social movements, Moroccan students are often called upon to strike, or they find their classes occupied and disrupted by student activist groups. The two strongest poles for this dynamic are the more radical supporters of both the Marxist Annahj Dimokrati (Democratic Way) and the Party of Justice and Development (PJD), a student branch of the larger Islamist party. The conflicts among student groups and between students and administrators occasionally lead to violence. In particular, the University of Sidi Mohammed ben Abdellah in Fes has seen multiple deaths and severe injuries on occasions when the police have sought to stop protests that included fighting, burning of tires, and roads blocked with felled trees. In another instance, Marxists and Islamists fought with swords, knives, and other weapons over an event on political Islamism, leading to one student's death. Even in universities, the administration of education has been insufficient to prevent extremist ideological conflict and violence. While there are some good universities, competent faculties in struggling universities, and remarkable teachers in dysfunctional faculties, few students would applaud the system. Although public university is free and most programs have non-competitive acceptance, resources and physical space are extremely limited.24
The founding of the Mohammed VI Institute in 2014 represents a bold strategic move to improve the quality of religious education and to unite several of the kingdom's interests by developing a more uniform Moroccan faith that stands apart from and in opposition to radicalism and violent extremism. Secondarily, the institute aims to strengthen Morocco’s international standing and diplomacy. The institute educates about 3,000 students each year, with half of the student body drawn from Morocco and half from other nations, including France and many countries in Africa.
One of the institute’s most significant initiatives is the education of morchidine and morchidate: male and female Muslim leaders who are trained to provide spiritual guidance and service to others—particularly to marginalized communities and in non-formal settings. Intended as an auxiliary to government imams, these “street” religious leaders are not permitted to perform certain duties such as leading Friday sermons, but they are empowered to provide religious education and counseling—and to promote Moroccan Islamic values and norms—in homes and communities throughout the Moroccan realm and beyond.
The inclusion of women in the training program is significant; among other things, it provides an unprecedented opportunity to improve religious literacy among Moroccan women. This is a relatively new effort that the institute is expanding, with the training of about 100 female morchidate each year. In addition to teaching the theology and humanities needed for effective pastoral care, the institute also provides vocational training in fields such as agriculture, tailoring, and electronics, to provide alumni with ways to supplement their income and strengthen their community integration.25
It will take a few years to adequately assess the learning outcomes and full impact of the Mohammed VI Institute. In principle, the institute’s efforts to systematically train large numbers of community-based religious leaders have real potential to augment the government’s efforts to prevent violent extremism and the spread of ideologies which it deems as malign. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, for example, has struggled to maintain its credibility among Salafis and Salafi-sympathetic Moroccans who view most state-sponsored Islamic initiatives with skepticism, and instead look to the internet and informal sources for religious guidance.26 Government efforts to rebut Salafism on social media and in the mosque are inherently reactive and defensive—and this often gives an advantage to web-based Salafi scholars. Deeper and proactive community engagement is necessary to curtail religious-based antipathy toward the monarchy and to help integrate marginalized religious actors. The fact that the institute’s outreach (along with other government programs) explicitly aims to help address the everyday economic and social problems affecting the Moroccan people suggest it could play a valuable role in helping the monarchy to establish a stronger political compact with its subjects. In time, it is possible Moroccan Islam could mature into a civil religion that helps to foster social cohesion and stability.
Given its high-level of regime support, the Mohammed VI Institute and connected initiatives do provide plenty of cause for optimism as Morocco undertakes to cope with the modern ideological crisis and provide a model of “Islamic governance” as an antidote to it. One of the greatest challenges the institute faces, however, is shared with the entire system of education: grand plans and well-funded flagship programs simply have not lived up to expectations. As the Secretary of Education Khalid Samadi stated in 2018, education in Morocco does not suffer from lack of funding but from poor management.27 Given these problems of mismanagement and past failures of implementation, some skepticism about the kingdom’s efforts to transform religious education in accord with its ideals of Moroccan Islam is warranted.
Educator of the Faithful
Morocco is a modern nation-state, but, significantly, the kingdom also embodies a religious idea whose proper realm, historically and in the view of the ruling Alaouite Dynasty today, extends well past its national borders to the Greater Maghreb and beyond. Indeed, there is a longstanding tension in the country’s political life between the political reality of Morocco as a nation-state and the kingdom’s religious understanding of itself as a world-leading center of Islam. As the kingdom has set about to revive and promote Moroccan Islam as an antidote to religious extremism, its religious vision and sense of mission has fundamentally shaped its external relations and diplomacy.28
There is a deep belief in Morocco that French colonization severed the kingdom from its historic and rightful territory and regional dominance. Since independence, rebuilding Moroccan prestige and influence in the Greater Maghreb has been a central concern for the monarchy, and it has made substantial efforts to expand its theological-political influence beyond its territorial borders. Other countries have, for one reason or another, been suspicious of Moroccan ambitions, but this has started to change as the kingdom has promoted its Islamic ideals of toleration, pluralism and the prevention of extremism through religious education and outreach. Across the centuries, different Moroccan kings have sponsored schools and other institutions to teach Moroccan Islam to foreign students. Today, foreign students in Moroccan universities and religious schools are usually drawn from countries in the Greater Maghreb, which is still a primary focus of the kingdom’s foreign policy efforts.29
The Mohammed VI Institute, for its part, has made a substantial effort to recruit and educate foreigners from the Greater Maghreb as well as Senegal, Mali, and many other Sub-Saharan countries, in addition to France, Spain, and China. For accepted foreign students, the institute provides stipends, air travel, and housing along with a program of study that aims to be adaptable to students’ native languages, national heritage, and cultural contexts so that they can become effective religious leaders in their home countries. Unfortunately, foreign students have found that they are not always provided with the resources or course offerings that the institute promotes. This is particularly deleterious when foreign students are placed into unsuitable Arabic-language classes rather than courses conducted in the students’ native languages or Moroccan history courses instead of studying the development of Islam in their home countries.
To be sure, while the Mohammed VI Institute is still a work in progress, it has already benefited the kingdom’s diplomacy and foreign relations in important ways. Moroccan-initiated cultural and religious exchanges throughout the Greater Maghreb have begun to strengthen regional bonds. The kingdom is also attractive for students from West African countries, for whom a scholarship to Morocco is increasingly regarded as prestigious. More practically, insofar as educational outreach continues, it should be expected that Moroccan influence and also strategic ties will deepen and Morocco’s relative strength in the region will grow. The President of Mali and King Mohammed VI in particular appear to have developed a very close relationship.30 Moreover, closer ties with the relatively strong and stable Moroccan government could also be beneficial to the countries of the Sahel. Of course, the kingdom has sent domestically-trained imams to preach in Mali for decades, with seemingly little effect on social stability there, so the future spread of Moroccan education and its graduates abroad is not going to be a panacea, as some may hope, against religious radicalism. However, the Moroccan government’s comprehensive model of preventing religious extremism through education and incremental governance reforms does have the potential to contribute to and inspire homegrown solutions to the extremism that plagues the Sahel and parts of West Africa.
Morocco’s training of imams and preachers from Europe, particularly France, also presents a crucial opportunity for improving the kingdom’s overall relations with Europe. The perception of Moroccan education as ecumenical and socially moderate while authentically Islamic (as opposed to, perhaps, an Islamic studies program at the Institut Européen de Sciences Humaines de Paris) makes the Mohammed VI Institute and Morocco an appealing destination for European Muslims seeking religious education. As European countries permit and encourage the spread of tolerant and modern Moroccan Islam within their borders, and as European-Moroccans are able to reconnect with their heritage through religion, the kingdom’s good reputation and influence is likely to be enhanced, and Morocco could play a useful role in helping European countries tackle Islamist radicalism.
All of this vitally depends, however, on the future substance of Moroccan Islam and the kind of force in the world that it will aspire to become. Morocco’s contemporary emphasis on promoting religious ecumenicism, toleration and pluralism do distinguish it and its model of Islamic education from many other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Since the 1970s or earlier, Saudi Arabia’s creation of organizations like the Muslim World League and systematic training of foreign imams has enabled it to build religious influence which it has used to pursue its foreign policy goals and to increase its regional standing against its various competitors. However, Saudi-backed schools and institutions are suspect in the minds of many Muslim countries and in Europe, as Saudi religious outreach has also been responsible for the spread of Salafi-Wahhabist ideas and Islamist revivalism. Saudi Arabia now acknowledges some of its past ideological outreach has not been helpful either to the world or to it, and Riyadh appears to be taking some steps to remedy this. Meantime, other countries have been seeking to supplant Saudi dominance in Sunni Islam through ideological outreach of their own. This is best exemplified by a new effort from the governments of Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia to create a joint English-language television channels meant to spread Islamic teaching—and likely also their joint political agendas.31 During the presidency of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for instance, Ankara has used its sizeable religious influence among Turks living abroad for its own political gain, which is causing great dismay and security concerns among Europeans.
Morocco, by contrast, has great potential to offer a new and alternative model of Islamic education, one that stresses values such as tolerance, pluralism, and service to others that are universally-valid, whether in Africa or Europe or the Middle East. These values are also sorely needed today. But, again, proper implementation matters, as does the future substance of Moroccan Islam and what it chooses to stand for. In the future, if the kingdom seeks to use religious education to advance a narrow theological-political agenda, such as buttressing regime power at the expense of the Moroccan people, then it is not likely to succeed. However, insofar as Moroccan Islam continues to emerge as a positive religious and moral force in the world—and increasingly comes to be identified with such Islamic public goods as social tolerance, service and duty to one’s neighbors, and improving governance and economic opportunity in the most vulnerable communities—then the kingdom may establish itself as a leading “educator of the faithful” and a vital contributor to the global fight against Islamist extremism.
In responding to the modern ideological crisis, the Kingdom of Morocco has been attempting to revive and promote what it regards as the best ideals of Moroccan Islam in conjunction with socio-economic and governance reforms that serve the people. In this, the kingdom seems to exemplify a new and compelling model of “Islamic governance” that strives to address the diverse challenges it faces and to provide a religiously grounded antidote to Islamist radicalism that can help bind society together. Given the intensifying sectarian conflicts and upheaval in the Middle East, the Sahel and elsewhere, Morocco’s noteworthy and inspiring efforts should be acknowledged and commended.
Morocco and its rulers have long maintained a close link between religious and political authority. The history, contemporary needs, and political conception of Moroccan society all point to a doctrine of faith, a Moroccan Islam, that is essential to the monarchy. In developing and promoting a concept of 21st Century Moroccan Islam, the kingdom is attempting to ensure its future by seeking to stabilize and strengthen the realm as a whole. At the same time, Moroccan Islam is deeply contested, and by promoting a particular conception of Islam, the monarchy does and will face the risk of exacerbating religious tensions and potentially extremism, particularly if it alienates large segments of the faithful—Sufi, Salafi, or anyone that adheres to a tendency in between. Establishing Moroccan Islam and its best principles of toleration as a compelling and attractive alternative to Salafism and violent factionalism will require not just re-establishing the kingdom as a leader of Islamic scholasticism and intellectual renewal. It will depend also, and paradoxically, on the monarchy’s political legitimacy and thus on continued improvements in governance inside the kingdom, including by securing basic human rights through the fair and equal application of law—regardless of a person’s religious beliefs. Religious doctrines of tolerance matter little when they cannot be freely practiced and lived.
Moroccan scholars and officials have welcomed a deeper partnership with Western countries, including the United States. The U.S. government and civil society have strong incentive to renew their long alliance with the kingdom and support and encourage its many developmental, economic growth, political reform, and educational initiatives. Over the last nearly two decades, the U.S. has allied with and attempted to support numerous projects and initiatives to counter violent extremism, with varying degrees of success. So far, however, Morocco’s emerging model of Islamic governance is uniquely promising, not least because it is religiously-grounded and demonstrates a commitment to genuine Islamic scholarship, teaching, and renewal. Instead of being antagonistic toward religion, Morocco is showing how a modern and moderate Islam can and must help to catalyze ideological, political and moral solutions to the contemporary crisis. If implementation fulfills the vision of programs like the Mohammed VI Institute, Morocco may recreate or even surpass the great historical successes represented by al-Qaraouiyine.